Two things are very important when you are photographing wildlife, patience and the right gear. Sorry wannabe wildlife photographers, if you are deprived in any one of these, it is going to be an uphill climb for you making a living out of shooting wildlife photography. These following tips will help you to assimilate the basics of wildlife photography, collect the wildlife photography dream team of camera gear (money permitting) and even direct you to some great online courses that will further polish your skills.
It is important to have the right gear. Right gear includes not only the right camera or the right lens but also the right tripod and the right accessories. Wildlife photography is demanding both for you and your gear so it makes sense to invest in gear that can withstand any tests that Mother Nature can throw at you. Here are a few tips in getting the right gear.
The Camera Body
If you hear anyone say that your Point & Shoot or megazoom is good enough for wildlife photography he must be kidding, because a smallish 1/2.3” sensor is never going to capture enough light nor is it going to be quick enough for capturing those fidgety feathered creatures perched high up in the foliage. You need the meanest of machines for these venture. Plus, you need something that is both weather sealed and can take a few knocks now and then. So plasticky bodies will not do, no matter what the manufacturers say its capabilities are. If it is susceptible to dust, fog, cannot handle a bit of splash now and then, leave it and move on to something else. The body that you choose must have really quick shutter speed. Go for anything that has 1/8000th of a second shutter speed and pair that with a fast telephoto prime lens. More on lenses in the next paragraph.
Choosing the right lens is as important as choosing the right camera body, if not more. Even if you have a beast of a camera body, if the piece of glass that you are shooting through is a crappy slow one, you will be stuck in the mud with no hopes of ever getting out it. Save yourself a lot of heartburn and get yourself the best lens that you can buy.
So, what’s the best lens? Exotic lenses such as the Canon 400m EF f/2.8 II USM or the 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with 1.4x built-in extender are some of the most sought after. But you can only hope to own one if you have rich parents or just stuck gold in Vegas. For most, these are mere dream lenses, something to be had after years of successful wildlife photography. You could also hope your employer sponsors you. This is why these lenses are more professional choices.
For most reasonable budget photographers, a lens such as the Canon 300mm f/4L IS USM is a good choice. Add an EF 1.4x extender and you can convert your lens to a good 450mm one at a loss of about 1 stop of brightness. Make every shutter release count and you can still get usable photos from several yards away.
While buying lenses ensure that it has image stabilization. Mind it, versions without image stabilization will cost less but you will lose the ability to shoot hand-held at such extreme focal lengths. Speaking of image stabilization, to compensate the lack of image stabilization, never shoot at a shutter speed that is below the inverse of the focal length. Meaning, if you are using a 80-400 mm tele-zoom lens at 400mm, don’t use a shutter speed less than 1/400th of a second.
Such heavy camera gear will more often than not bear down on your arms and shoulders and you will need a tripod for support and stabilization purposes. A tripod also helps for panning movement when you are tracking an animal or a bird from a distance. Choosing tripods can be an intimidating affair as there are hundreds of different varieties. Quickly, the ideal material of construction should be carbon-fiber which is light yet sturdy. You need a ball head, a quick release plate and ensure that the legs have spikes so that you can firmly plant them on soft ground for maximum purchase. A quick release plate will allow you to quickly take the camera off the tripod when you need to shoot hand-held.
Some Tips on Bird Photography
The first important thing that you need to know about bird photography is their habitat and mannerism. It is always a better value for time invested if you take some time to study them and know the best times of the year when you are likely to find them in flock and the place where they can be found. Mating season give you a better chance of observing and photographing them too because they tend to come to the same places during this season.
Watching the Flock
Sometimes, if you follow any general flock of birds you are likely to be presented with an opportunity to photograph other birds also moving with the same flock. This is known as mixed-species flocking and can be compared with the grazing habits of wildebeests, zebras and giraffes on the African plains. Birds such as the chickadees and titmice, for example, move together. So if you are looking to capture one, move with a flock that has many of the other species and you are likely see the one you are looking for, as well as get a few bonus shots.
Baits work and some people prefer to carry fruits, frozen fish and other forms of bait to help them get up close to birds they want to photograph. Just one advice though, know the food habits of the bird that you wish to photograph. The last thing that you want to do is offer a frozen sardine to a fruit eating Eurasian Bullfinch. A bit of prior study will certainly do no harm.
Shooting Water Birds
Shooting water birds is a big problem because of several reasons. First thing is they, well, spend much of their time in the water which means you have to wade through a lot of filthy water to get close. If you walk up to them with a 300mm tele-prime mounted on your 5D Mark III, it will make you show up like a tracer bullet against a pitch black night. Lastly, even if you take that approach you risk putting your camera in harm’s way because of the water. You can’t just walk up and risk scaring the whole flock away so the obvious approach would be to stoop as low as possible and slide and slither your way as close as possible. Might as well practice your moves with several thousand dollars worth of camera gear in hand to perfect it.
Use the Bird Hides
Make use of the bird hides. Almost all parks have them and they are strategically located so that bird lovers can watch their favorite feathered friends without causing any alarm to them. Bird hides are wonderful options for watching the birds in their natural habitat and photographing them discreetly. Ornithologists regularly use these for their research purposes. Sometimes though, the feeding habits of the birds may change and that makes the hides useless for the purpose of photographing anything meaningful. If you are on a schedule find out in advance about the location of the hides, how much room they offer to maneuver (a telephoto lens and a bulky camera plus you can be too much for some hides to fit in). If the answers are not satisfactory look for camouflaging options. They are better than hides in the sense they can get you closer than a hide can ever do.
Tips on Shooting Wildlife
Any type of photography requires that you have a firm grasp over the fundamentals of photography. That being said wildlife photography requires a slightly different approach.
Catch the straight look whenever you can. A royal Bengal tiger photographed looking straight at you can have a hypnotizing effect. It is a magnificent creature that inspires both fear and reverence at the same time from the locals of the Sunderbans.
Always focus on the eyes and this goes for bird photography as well as any portrait photography. Make tighter crop and overlap one of the AF points on the eye that is the nearest to the camera.
Capture a silhouette when the lighting is not quite perfect or when you are not in the right position. If there is a backlighting situation use it by all means. Use matrix metering and underexpose the scene by one-thirds or two-thirds or even a whole stop depending on the result (you can use bracketing in such situations) to make sure that the animal is completely in silhouette and the details in the surroundings are retained.
Use a natural icon that you can use. One of the best examples that can be cited is Steve Winter’s fantastic snap of a mountain lion (also known as cougar) shot in the wackiest of places that you can think of. He shot a picture of a cougar with the Hollywood sign as the backdrop! Though it took him fourteen patient months and he lost three cameras in the process (all stolen by humans), he ultimately did get the million dollar shot.
For more tips on wildlife photography, take your education to the next level with this online course that is a treasure trove of ideas, tips and settings that you can use right away.