The Complete Wildlife Photography Guide
Wildlife photography is a bit more specialized than other areas of photography. This guide will help you to be successful by highlighting the gear that is needed along with the pros and cons of all the choices that are available. Then we will consider the technique and knowledge you will need to use the equipment well.
The camera body is the foundation of your wildlife photography kit. The first choice you will face is the question of sensor size: full frame, APC crop sensor, and micro 4/3. The optimal choice will depend on your budget, the specific type of wildlife shooting you want to do, and how you will be sharing your images.
Full-frame, APC, or Micro-four-thirds?
The full-frame DSLR seems like the slam-dunk choice for camera body. It has a high megapixel count and the larger pixels on the larger sensor will give better high-ISO performance with less noise at any ISO value. The main advantage is in the higher megapixel count, because it will allow for magnification of the subject by judicious cropping. However, if your budget does not include the top of the line high megapixel camera, you might consider a crop sensor of equivalent megapixels.
The APC crop sensor camera will use the center, higher-quality area of the lens to deliver an image that gives a larger image size than a full-frame sensor of the same megapixel count. The crop factor is 1.5x or 1.6x depending on the brand of camera, so a shot taken with a 300 mm lens on one of these cameras will look like one taken with a 450mm or 480mm lens on a full-frame camera. Note, though, that it will also give you the same susceptibility to camera shake as the longer lens. The effect is to give you a longer reach from your set of lenses, compared to a full-frame camera body with a similar megapixel count. The APC camera can offer a serious cost advantage and technical disadvantages can be compensated with photographer skill.
Mirrorless cameras are available in full-frame, APC, and micro-four-thirds (MFT) models. MFT cameras have a lens crop factor of 2x, so a modest 400mm lens will produce the same image size as a 800mm lens on a full-frame body. However, the smaller pixels will likely result in poorer image quality. These cameras also tend to have poorer autofocus performance and the electronic viewfinder is essentially a tiny low-res video feed. These drawbacks make the mirrorless a poor choice for bird-in-flight or other wildlife action photographers at this time. However, for other types of wildlife shooting, their light weight and compact size may give an advantage in the field. The camera that is too big and heavy to carry and handle in the field will never give you a better picture than the lighter camera you will actually use. The results will likely be good if you do not need to make and sell large prints. Also, the capabilities of MFT cameras are improving rapidly and the performance gap closes more every year.
Other Camera Body Features
There are important features for any camera body that is considered for wildlife photography. The first is autofocus. Speed and accuracy of autofocus (AF) is critical for successful capture of wildlife subjects that move quickly and unpredictably. Cross-type AF points are more accurate and at least the central AF point should be a cross-type for wildlife work. The number of AF points is not as important as the overall speed of the AF system. Multi-point AF works well on an uncluttered background such as the sky, but as soon as any other objects are in the scene, more AF points just mean more mistakes the AF system can make when locking on a target. Most camera bodies require a maximum aperture of at least 5.6 for AF to function. Some bodies can function down to 8.0 and such bodies can provide an advantage if using a teleconverter.
The other AF feature to look for is some form of focus tracking. This feature is given different names by each manufacturer, but the general principle is the same. A moving subject moves enough during the split-second from when focus is locked to when the shutter is released to cause the image to be soft. A camera with focus tracking can track a moving subject, continually re-focusing the lens to compensate for the motion. The system calculates where the subject will be based on its motion and focuses there, delivering a sharp image.
Another feature that helps in capturing action is the camera’s burst rate and buffer size. By capturing as many frames per second as possible, you will be more likely to get an image with the body and eyes in just the right posture for a winning image. When shooting frames this quickly, the camera cannot save the images to the card fast enough. Instead, they are put in a buffer until the action slows down and there is time to write them all to the card. However, if the camera has a small buffer size, you will not be able to get many frames in burst mode before you will have to stop to let the images be written to the card. Be sure to compare the specifications for burst rate and buffer for any camera bodies you are considering for wildlife photography.
The first thought when thinking of wildlife photography and lenses is “big long telephoto.” Many wildlife subjects are small, and the big ones are afraid of humans or too dangerous to approach closely. A long lens is an effective way to bring wildlife subjects closer to you without scaring them or putting you at risk.
What Focal Length is Best?
The main questions for a lens are how long of a focal length and zoom or fixed focal length. In the context of wildlife photography the 200 to 400 mm range is a short focal length. Shorter focal lengths allow you to get shots that include context and the animal’s environment, and they give a bit more depth of field, which can be helpful if there are several subjects in the frame and you want eyes sharp on all of them. Their main drawback is that when you want that frame-filling wildlife portrait image, the shorter lenses just won’t make the grade.
Longer focal lengths, in the 500 to 800 mm range, will give you the reach to get larger images of your subjects with more detail. The shorter depth of field will help to isolate the subject against a soft background, but may also at times pose a challenge if you can’t get enough of the subject in focus. Lenses in this range are harder to hand hold, requiring faster shutter speeds to avoid camera shake and requiring more light to allow for those fast shutter speeds. These are specialty lenses and are more expensive as well.
Zoom or Prime?
In the past, the fixed focal length, or prime, lens was the clear winner in the prime versus zoom debate. However, zoom lenses have closed the gap in the past decade or so. They now offer sharpness that is more than acceptable, and give the photographer a lot of flexibility in getting shots at a variety of distances when it is not possible or it takes too long to move. A zoom lens also saves the time and noise of changing lenses frequently, allowing for more opportunities to get more shots.
Prime lenses still offer some advantages, though. They have a larger maximum aperture than a zoom at the same focal length, providing more light for faster shutter speeds and enabling work in darker conditions before resorting to higher ISO. The larger aperture also allows for better separation of the subject from the background with a shallow depth of field. They have fewer lens elements and simpler optical design, which means sharper images and a smaller, lighter lens to tote around in the field.
Since wildlife photography benefits from long focal lengths, photographers often consider using tele-converters, otherwise known as tele-extenders, doublers, or just extenders. These are essentially companion or supplementary lenses that mount in between the camera body and the main lens. Their primary effect is to increase the focal length, but there are side effects that must be taken into account as well. Extenders are rated by how much they change the focal length. A 1.4x extender multiplies the focal length by a factor of 1.4, so a 300 mm lens becomes a 420 mm lens. A 2x extender will double the focal length, so a 300 mm lens becomes a 600 mm lens.
As noted, there are other factors to consider when deciding whether to use an extender. On the plus side, you gain the extra reach of the increased focal length while retaining the close-focusing ability of the shorter lens. This means with a doubler you get a 600 mm lens that can focus as close as a 300 mm lens. This is usually a considerable distance closer. The shorter lens plus doubler will be smaller and lighter than the corresponding longer lens, which can be an advantage while on long treks in the field. The doubler will represent a significant cost savings over buying another lens. If you use a good pro-level lens, the image taken with the extender will show more detail. If you cannot change your position easily or quickly enough, the extender gives you more choices in composition by giving you additional choices of focal length. The extender is the only way to get focal lengths beyond 800 mm.
All of this sounds great, but there are significant downsides to consider. The first is the loss of light. A 1.4x extender reduces the light hitting the sensor by one stop and a 2x extender reduces light by 2 stops. This means that a 300mm f4 lens becomes a 420 mm f5.6 or a 600 mm f8 lens. At these smaller apertures, longer shutter speeds and/or higher ISOs are needed and autofocus may be slower or eliminated because the effective maximum aperture has become too small to support autofocus on that camera body. The best image quality is available only with pro-level lenses with matching extenders. Not all lenses have matching extenders from the lens manufacturer. With lesser-quality lenses (and sub-pro lenses are still quite good without an extender) there will be loss of image quality beyond the problems caused by higher ISO and slower shutter speeds. The extender is essentially magnifying any imperfections of the lens. Finally, adding an extender to a lens on a full-frame camera will reduce the ISO advantage of full-frame.
Considering all of this, if you were planning to get a full-frame camera and use extenders to improve your reach, you might consider instead the highest megapixel APC camera available and use the money you save on longer or better quality lenses. You can also consider cropping that full-frame image to get a similar magnification. This will work with good quality lenses and impeccable capture technique.
Other Lens Features
There are a few features to look for in a wildlife lens beyond the focal length. One of these is the maximum aperture. Most camera bodies will not autofocus with apertures smaller than 5.6, so be sure that the lens offers at least a 5.6 maximum aperture at its longest focal length. Another handy feature is a focus range limiter. This feature prevents the lens from hunting focus throughout its entire focusing range, instead limiting it to the range you specify, usually at the far end. This lets you get focus faster on a subject and prevents the lens from mistakenly focusing on other objects that are much closer than the subject. A related feature is the ability to manually focus the lens while it is set to AF mode. This also reduces excessive hunting for focus without having to reach for the AF-MF switch every time. Finally, if your camera system has image stabilization in the lenses as opposed to in the body, make sure that the lens you are considering has this feature.
The need for good support in wildlife photography is similar to other areas of photography. The support provided by a good tripod and head will help photographers to get sharper images that minimize camera movement. However, the forms that this support may take will be different for wildlife photographers compared to others. Beyond the traditional tripod and ball head, wildlife photographers should also consider using a gimbal head, bean bags, door mounts, and ground supports.
A gimbal head is a specialty tripod head that supports a large lens in perfect balance while allowing the lens to swivel freely. Since the weight of the lens is balanced, the lens stays in position when the photographer lets go of it. A gimbal head, with practice, will provide nearly the same freedom of movement for panning as hand-holding the lens. It is an expensive option, however, and is best used with large, heavy lenses (600 mm or more), when there is extra time to level and balance the rig, and when you will be in one spot for extended periods with lots of panning. Many bird-in-flight photographers use gimbal heads.
For smaller, lighter lenses, a good ballhead or pan-tilt head may be a great option, because it is likely you have it anyway and use it for other types of photography. The controls on the head should allow for a slight loosening of tension to pan smoothly with the subject but still prevent the camera-lens combination from flopping over. Ballheads can be set up very quickly and moved easily and offer an advantage to photographers who are moving around a lot while getting wildlife shots.
A sturdy beanbag turns any relatively flat surface such as a tree stump or rock outcrop into a safe platform for a camera and lens. The bag can also be filled with lighter material such as rice or buckwheat shells. It conforms to the surface and to the camera or lens, providing steady support at angles or positions that may be hard to match with a tripod.
Wildlife photographers often find that they can approach animals without scaring them by remaining in their vehicle. On most African photo safaris the photographer is required to stay in the safari vehicle by local regulations. In these cases, a bracket that fits over the side of the vehicle gives support for the camera and steadier shots. An over-sized beanbag will also serve the same purpose, however the ability to mount the camera to a vehicle bracket adds extra convenience and flexibility by allowing you to let go of the camera and have it stay in position.
For small animals, getting down to their level is important in order to get a compelling, eye-to-eye view. Many wildlife photographers use a modified frisbee or old frying pan and ballhead as a versatile ground support. The upturned edges provide some protection from the elements and it can be moved easily along the ground as you approach the animal and find the optimal camera position.
Flash provides several potential benefits in wildlife photography. A lot of wildlife photography happens in dim dawn or dusk lighting, or in shady forests. When combined with available light, fill flash will provide better shutter speed and ISO choices, making it easier to get sharp images with little noise. The extra light also brings out color much more, and since flashes are balanced for daylight there will be no color cast from the added light. Finally, the flash may enhance details by boosting micro-contrast. This happens because the flash will light some detail that is reflected directly back to the camera while some detail is at an angle to the camera and will be reflected away and won’t show up.
A couple of accessories will help with flash. One is a bracket to move the flash further away from the lens, reducing red-eye and a similar problem with wildlife called “steel-eye.” Steel-eye occurs when light bounces off of a reflective layer inside the animal’s eye, giving the eye a whitish glow. Red-eye is when the light bounces off of the blood vessels in the animal’s retina. Both problems are caused by the on camera or shoe-mounted flash being too close to the lens. Light is able to leave the flash and bounce directly back to the lens. When the flash is mounted higher on the camera or off-axis to the lens, such reflections are less likely.
The other flash accessory that is very helpful in wildlife photography is the fresnel extender. A fresnel lens is a flat plastic sheet lens that focuses the light from the flash into a narrow beam, lighting subjects that are beyond the range of unassisted flash units. For closer subjects, the higher light intensity means that you can use lower flash power and save on battery consumption. Fresnel extenders can be purchased commercially or they can be home-made from readily available parts.
Camera traps are a recent development in the field of wildlife photography. A camera trap is a setup where the camera is left near a spot where wildlife is likely to be and automatically makes an exposure when the animal triggers a sensor. The photographer is not present at the time of exposure. This opens up a new realm of wildlife photography because the camera is now very close to the animal, and if flash is added to the setup a camera trap can be used to get shots of nocturnal wildlife.
Since the camera is close to the subject, wide-angle lenses are the lens of choice in using a camera trap for wildlife photography. This creates a different perspective, often including much more of the animal’s surroundings, due to the wider view of the lens and the greater depth of field inherent to wide-angle lenses. The good news here is that it is easier to get sharp images without needing to have top-of-the-line lenses, saving a little on the budget there.
What you save on lenses you will need to spend on other equipment such as sensors. Sensors work on infrared beams and there are two types. The first is active infrared (AIR). AIR sensors send a beam of infrared between two units and trip the shutter when the beam is broken. This technology provides more control over where the shutter is tripped, allowing for more refined compositions. You pay a price for this control in that the setup is more complicated.
The other sensor technology, passive infrared (PIR) is easier to set up and generally less expensive to protect and secure. PIR sensors detect heat changes in a wide area. The animal is not is not in a specific spot, just a general area. PIR technology is a good way to get started with camera traps.
A successful camera trap also requires flash equipment. The flash equipment will need a good standby function to avoid draining batteries or external battery packs. You will need an assortment of gear such as clamps, straps, and housings to attach and secure the sensors and flashes.
Wildlife photography often means spending extended periods of time outdoors away from cars and buildings. You will need gear to facilitate this travel, such as portable blinds, equipment packs, and clothing to withstand the elements and provide comfort during your wildlife photography sessions. A smartphone or tablet loaded with apps to help track the weather and sun position and a GPS unit are also essential for a successful session.
Knowledge and Technique
The right gear is only part of the equation. You also need knowledge and technique in using the gear and choosing locations to maximize the chances of getting quality images without spending too much time waiting. Your main techniques will be patience, persistence, long hours, and practice. Return to good locations often to improve your knowledge of the finer details of wildlife behavior in those areas in all weather conditions.
Most wildlife photography occurs in the early morning or late afternoon/early evening hours for a couple of good reasons. First, that is generally when animals are most active. Second, these are the hours of “golden light” or “magic light. The low sun angle provides a beautiful warm color temperature, even lighting, softer shadows, underlighting on birds in flight, and the potential for spectacular backgrounds. To take advantage of these conditions, you will need to be out early and late, often when most people would rather sleep or have dinner.
After you have spent hours and effort getting yourself into the right location, a subject appears and suddenly every moment counts. There are no retakes. This is where practice comes in to play. All aspects of focus, exposure and composition must executed by reflex in the moment. The better you know your gear and the details of setting exposure, the more you will successfully convert those sudden opportunities into top quality photographs.
The key to building these sharp reflexes is local practice. You may not want a portfolio full of pigeons, squirrels, or other common urban animals, but you do want the skills and reflexes for when you are on that expensive trip and a pair of glossy ibises comes flying low across a lake or a mountain sheep is around the next bend in the trail. We’ll take a look at some specific skills to practice. For top results, practice until you can change key camera settings while keeping your eye on the action.
Exposure and White Balance
The first reflex to learn is setting exposure. Auto exposure will not always work well. For example, if you are photographing a moving animal, auto exposure will change as the animal moves in front of different backgrounds, but in fact the actual exposure of the animal will stay the same as long as the light is the same. In most cases you will want a manual exposure set that exposes the animal properly and let the background fall where it will. Meter off of the sky, grass, or other consistent surface and adjust for very bright or dark subjects. Learn the adjustments that work for you to give you the look you want in different lighting conditions and learn to change them quickly without having to look at the dials or screen.
What is the minimum shutter speed you will need for each camera/lens/focal length combinations that you may use? How much does image stabilization contribute to the result? What is the maximum ISO that will give acceptable results in different lighting conditions? Learn the answers to these questions during your practice sessions. Once you are in the field and presented with a prime subject, there is not time for chimping on the camera screen to figure these things out.
It is important to know how focus tracking works and quickly engage it when needed. Many cameras now have the option for “back button” autofocus, where autofocus is activated by a button on the back of the camera rather than the shutter button. Learn how this works on your camera. Usually, for stationary subjects one press of the back button will acquire focus and subsequent use of the shutter button will not change it. If the subject is moving, hold the back button down to keep focus tracking engaged while firing the shutter.
In wildlife photography the focus on the eye is critical to the success of the photograph. Lock a single point on the eye when possible, or else use the center point and re-frame. Is it feasible on your camera to move a single focus point quickly? Or do you need to practice using the center point? It is important to have good technique for times when focus tracking may not be effective.
In wildlife photography the action is changing quickly and there is not time for detailed fine-tuning of composition. Often it is best to shoot a little wide and make fine adjustments in post-processing. You can fine-tune the edges later, but there is only one chance to capture the moment. However, there are some aspects of composition that you should make second-nature and set up before releasing the shutter. The primary one is the background. Use practice sessions to develop a keen awareness of the background behind your subjects. Notice the effects of moving just a few steps to either side. Understand the interplay between focal length and subject and background distances in changing the depth of field and getting out of focus backgrounds. You can get soft backgrounds by doing any combination of the following:
- Minimize the distance to the subject (while still maintaining a safe distance)
- Maximize the distance from the subject to the background.
- Use a longer focal length
- Use a wider aperture
You can also work on internalizing some aspects of framing. Most wildlife photography will benefit from space in front of the animal for it to move into. Put the rear end of the subject closer to the edge of the frame than the head. Whenever possible, it is better to have an eye-to-eye view of the subject, which means getting lower for smaller animals. This has the added benefit of changing the angle to the background, generally making the background farther away and rendering it softer. Get to know and immediately recognize head angles and wing positions that are more likely to boost the quality of the photograph. If the subject permits an extended session, vary the composition to include close-up portraits as well as wider environmental shots.
Panning is an essential technique for wildlife photography and it is another skill to be practiced before it is needed in the field. It is a great way to capture a moving subject while giving the impression of motion. The idea of panning is to move the camera with the subject, firing the shutter continually, and moving the camera at just the right speed to keep the subject in the same part of the frame. The result is a photo where the animal’s head is sharp, but the background is blurred from the motion of the camera. Panning requires slower shutter speeds of around 1/30th of a second, so the legs or wings may also be blurred, adding to the illusion of motion. The slower shutter also allows for photographing in lower light conditions. One tip to remember when practicing this technique is to continue the motion of the camera beyond the point when the shutter stops firing to be sure the last frame registers properly.
Know Your Subject and the Environment
This aspect of wildlife photography may take up most of your planning time, but this section will be short because we can’t get into details for all of the possible subjects out there. There are important details that you should know about the particular animals you hope to photograph. Every species has a flight distance. If you get closer to the animal than this distance, it will leave. The flight distance may be less in places such as national parks and other places where animals have learned that humans do not pose a hunting risk. Each species will show behavior indicating that they are stressed before you reach the flight distance. It is vital to your safety and the well-being of the animals that you understand these signs and back off when you see and hear them.
Animals have particular times in their life cycle, such as courtship and mating, when they show interesting behaviors. At other times, such as when birds are feeding young at a nest, they will appear frequently at predictable places. You will maximize your chances of getting great shots if you know what time of year to expect these behaviors and the details of what they will do. For example, birds often do not fly directly to a nest or food source, but land nearby to scout the situation before moving in. You can find one of these spots and set up on it in advance.
You also need to understand the environment the animal is in. Where are the best backgrounds in that area and what direction will the best light come from? Apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris will help in planning for the best light at any location. You will also need good sources for weather-related information, both to keep safe and to plan for dramatic shots just before or after a storm. Birds take off and land into the wind, so plan to be in the right spot to get the flight angles you want. The wind will also carry your scent toward mammals, making them harder to approach. (Most birds have a poor sense of smell, so this is not usually a problem with approaching birds.) Reports of wind direction will help you tweak your plans at the last minute for best results.
If you are just starting in photography, the information presented here may seem like an overwhelming amount of knowledge and details, but don’t let that stop you. Most of this knowledge will help in other areas of photography, and with practice you will find that a lot of it really does become second nature, allowing you to enjoy the time in the outdoors. Happy trails and happy shooting!