‘Never work with children or animals’ is an old showbiz saying, and wild animals are even more tricky to deal with, but that’s half of the fun of wildlife photography, which is as much about actually getting to the point of having the subject in your viewfinder as the resulting picture.
Wildlife is one of the more challenging fields of photography, but highly rewarding when it all comes together with your subject, setting and lighting. This rarely happens by accident, so success is very much linked to thorough preparation. Here are some things to consider before you head for the wilds.
“IN THE EXCITEMENT OF THE MOMENT YOU NEED TO KEEP A CLEAR HEAD, BUT ALSO TO WORK FAST, TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE OPPORTUNITY WHICH CAN SO OFTEN BE FLEETING.”
In the animal world, wild means untamed. Which, in turn, means much higher levels of unpredictability – and this is undoubtedly the main challenge of wildlife photography. These subjects simply aren’t going to take any notice of your script, so you’re going to have to adapt to their behaviour patterns, habits and habitats if you want to just see anything, let alone photograph it.
The good news is that the more you learn about your subjects, the more you can effectively tame some of the unpredictability, and at least be in the right place at the right time, which is at least half the battle. This preparation, then, is an essential part of wildlife photography, as is thoroughly knowing your equipment and being fully conversant with technical elements such as manual focusing and exposure control, and creative considerations such as composition and framing. In the excitement of the moment – when you’re finally staring down the lens at your subject – you need to keep a clear head but also to work fast, to make the most of the opportunity which can so often be fleeting, and almost certainly won’t be repeated.
Wildlife photography covers a broad spectrum of subjects, including birds, insects, reptiles and mammals both large and small, but the linking factor is that they are photographed in their natural habitats… in the wild.
This said, there’s no better place to start practicing your techniques and skills than at a zoo – particularly the ‘open’ type such as Taronga Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo in central NSW – or a wildlife park. This locations enable you to take a short-cut in terms of one of wildlife photography’s biggest challenges… actually finding your subject. Consequently, you can concentrate more on the photography side of things – composition, focusing, exposure , white balance. You can also determine at what part of the day the lighting looks best and how to deal with issues that you’re likely to encounter in the wilds, such as strong back lighting. Experiment with framing, as close-ups can look great but a wider shot which includes, for example, vegetation or more background, can help give context and a sense of the animal’s habitat (just like an environmental portrait). In fact, a wider view can help establish that the photograph wasn’t taken at a zoo!
Wildlife photography is still mostly associated with telephoto lenses, which essentially means anything with a focal length longer than 200mm in the 35mm format or the equivalent on the smaller imaging sensor sizes. You’ll often need a telephoto lens for wildlife photography because in most cases your subject is afraid of you, and so keeping your distance is essential to avoid an animal or bird being scared off. With 35mm film, a long lens was also a very big lens (not to mention being very expensive too), but the smaller-than-35mm sensors now allow for an effective increase in focal length without the usual penalties. Additionally, mirrorless camera designs can also allow for some reductions in the size of longer telephoto lenses, which also has other benefits such as easier hand-held shooting. This is further enhanced by the continued development of ever more effective image stabilisation systems and better noise reduction when using higher sensitivity (ISO) settings, which allows faster shutter speeds to still be used in low light situations. As the magnification power of a lens increases so does the risk of camera shake when shooting at slower shutter speeds, which is why a tripod was once an essential part of any wildlife photographer’s kit. In reality, it still probably is, but now it’s possible to use a lighter weight model or even maybe a
monopod. Incidentally, the extra investment in a carbonfibre tripod is money well spent here, as even a very compact travel-type model will still provide the stability you need when shooting with a longer lens, but is much lighter to carry.
Inevitably, wildlife photography will involve trekking to a chosen location, so it’s necessary to balance how much weight you’ll have to carry versus your capacity to get the shots you want and make the most of whatever opportunities present themselves. However, today it’s possible to travel a lot lighter without compromising your photographic capabilities.
The more involved you become with shooting wildlife subjects, it’s likely you will need to consider buying a more specialised lens – whether it be a longer telephoto or a 1:1 macro – but you may well be able to get started with what you already have, at least initially. On the pages here we’ve selected a few tasty telephotos, both primes and zooms, for you to consider, depending on your requirements and budget.
Mind you, not all wildlife photography demands supertelephoto focal lengths (i.e. beyond 400mm) and, with the idea of setting a scene and including more habitat, you may well be able to use shorter lenses such as a 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom. A teleconverter may well be a short-term solution, giving you a 1.4x or 2.0x increase in the base focal length for a modest outlay, although the penalty is a loss of lens speed (by either one or two stops respectively) and possibly a reduction in the overall optical quality. Some manufacturers offer teleconverters that are matched to specific lenses in their range and hence minimise any loss of optical quality.
Is your existing camera body up to the job? Well, given that many current D-SLRs and mirrorless models are weather-proofed and capable of quite fast continuous shooting speeds, it’s more than likely, but bear in mind that durability is a key requirement so higher-end cameras are going to be better suited to the wear and tear of shooting in difficult locations and weather conditions.
Sharpness is a key aspect of most wildlife photographs, firstly because it can be very difficult to
“AS WITH MOST SUBJECTS IN PHOTOGRAPHY, DEPTH-OF-FIELD IS AN IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION, AND IT’S ALREADY INHERENTLY QUITE SHALLOW WHEN YOU’RE USING A LONGER FOCAL LENGTH LENS.”
achieve with fast-moving or erratic subjects, and secondly because the well-defined reproduction of fine details – such as fur or feathers – is very important.
The latest generation of faster autofocusing systems with greater scene coverage and more, but smaller measuring points are making this easier to achieve. More reliable subject tracking, better low-light sensitivity and capacity to use clusters of focusing points to create zones that better match a specific subject or situation all help too, but there are still times when manual focusing will be the better option. For starters, when longer lenses are used, the slower maximum aperture (say f5.6 or f6.3) means that fewer AF points are operational and crosstype points may only operate as single arrays. This becomes even more of an issue if you’re using a teleconverter to boost the focal length even further, and which also results in a further drop in lens speed. Some AF systems don’t operate at all if the lens aperture drops to f8.0 or smaller, and many still have difficulties with moving subjects that don’t follow a straight line or continually change speed.
Of course, focusing manually is slower than an AF system operating in optimum conditions, so a handy technique to learn is prefocusing. If you know where your subject is likely to be as it moves along, focus at that point and then wait, pressing the shutter release just before it arrives so you don’t miss the shot. Some cameras now allow for capture to begin even before shutter release so you have a still better chance of getting the perfect shot – and obviously it helps if you’re shooting at a faster frame rate. The video-based ‘frame grab’ functions such as Panasonic’s ‘4K Photo’ which capture at either 30 or 60 fps are ideally suited to high-speed wildlife photography. The latest ‘6K Photo’ function captures at 30 fps and gives 18 megapixels frames.
Many telephoto autofocus lenses have focus limiter settings which reduce the distance range to help speed things up, and some allow for a focusing distance to be preset for instant recall via the push of a button. Both features are handy if you have a good idea of where your subject is going to be.
As with most subjects in photography, depth-of-field is an important consideration, and it’s already inherently quite shallow when you’re using a longer focal length lens. If you’re also using a wider aperture (in order to maintain a faster shutter speed) then you’ll have even less depthof-field to play with, which makes precise focusing even more critical. The general rule with wildlife subjects is make sure the eyes are sharp – as this is what most people look at first – and then determine how much depth-of-field you need in order to include any other important details. In many instances, some slight softening behind the subject’s head will still be quite acceptable and, of course, out-of-focus backgrounds ensure there aren’t any distracting details to conflict with the ‘hero’ of the picture. The camera’s depth-of-field preview facility (either optical or electronic) will be extremely helpful in situations where you have limited sharpness to play with, as will understanding how to use the hyperfocal distance. In a nutshell, focusing at the hyperfocal distance allows you to make use of depthof-field that otherwise would be ‘wasted’ because the zone of sharpness is extending into areas of the image where you don’t actually need it, especially behind the subject. If you bring your focusing point further forward (i.e. in front of the subject), you’re effectively moving the depth-of-field forward too, so more of the subject (or even the foreground) will be in focus, as well as the immediate background. Use the depth-of-field preview to determine exactly what is sharp and what isn’t and adjust the focusing point accordingly. You may well have no choice but to use
a smaller aperture, which will result in a slower shutter speed. Image stabilisation may give you more leeway here, but it’s advisable to have a tripod in reserve if you think camera shake could become an issue. With moving subjects you have the choice of freezing the action via a faster shutter speed or using panning, which will allow you to use a slower speed. The camera’s panning speed needs to match that of the subject to ensure it stays sharp, but the blurred backgrounds can be very effective at conveying a sense of movement. Use the smallest aperture that you can get away with to maximise the depth-of-field which will cover for any changes between the camera-to-subject distance while you’re panning.
Modern multi-zone metering systems are mostly reliable even in contrasty lighting situations, but strong backlighting can still create issues. In these situations, try using either selective area or spot metering with the measurement taken off the main subject and then locked into the camera if you need to recompose the shot. A slightly lighter or darker background is more desirable than the subject being incorrectly exposed. Flash can sometimes be used in wildlife photography, but with most animals you’ll only get the one shot before your startled subject bolts.
Depending on how involved you want to get, you might have to consider more specialised equipment such as infrared triggers, and even blinds or hides, so you can be better concealed. The advice here would be to first get a feel for what you want to do and what can be achieved with the camera equipment you already own, and then you’ll have a better idea of what’s needed to enable more progress.
Know Thy Subject
You’ll greatly increase your chances of success if you have a good understanding of your subject matter. This starts with the habitat – which can be very specific with some species – and includes feeding, breeding, daily routines (particularly the times when they’re active) and, for birds, the migratory seasons.
A great many birds only visit Australia at certain times of year and also favour particular locations (such as lakes or reservoirs) so you’ll need to know all this if you want to photograph more unusual or rarer species. If bird photography is something you’d like to pursue, a birdwatching club could be a good place to start, especially in terms of acquiring identification skills. Alternatively, joining Birdlife Australia (www.birdlife.org.au) will give you access to a wealth of information (including a quarterly magazine) and there’s a specific section for keen photographers with regular competitions.
The National Park services in each state publish information specific to their regions, which includes the variety of resident wildlife and the facilities that are available (such as hides for photographers). Some also run education programs and events where you can benefit from the knowledge and experience of expert guides. For example, the NSW National Parks And Wildlife Service Website lists over 500 sites across the state for birdwatching and “wildlife encounters”.
Bear in mind too, that if you plan to shoot in remote locations and perhaps stay on site for a day or more, you will need to have some basic outdoor skills and at least the basic level of fitness needed to function effectively away from all the comforts of home. Again, thorough preparation is essential so you are fully aware of what you’re likely to encounter in terms of the terrain, vegetation and weather conditions (including daytime and night-time temperatures).
In Australia, there are few mammals that present a risk to humans (compared, of course, to the spiders and snakes), but
“UNDOUBTEDLY THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S MOST WILDLIFE IMPORTANT WEAPON PATIENCE IS WHICH MEANS YOU’LL NEED TO BE PREPARED TO PUT IN PLENTY OF TIME IN THE PURSUIT OF YOUR SUBJECTS.”
this isn’t the case in many other countries, notably in Africa and the Americas. Here, the ability to read and understand animal body language is essential, and you’ll also need to know how close is ‘close enough’ and when even the potential of an award-winning shot really isn’t worth the risk. In many of these countries, hiring the services of an experienced guide or tracker will help you maximise your photography returns without compromising your safety.
Patience Is A Virtue
Undoubtedly the wildlife photographer’s most important weapon is patience, which means you’ll need to be prepared to put in plenty of time in the pursuit of your subjects. On many occasions, it’s all about waiting and watching.
With some species it may well be a case of setting up and then staying quiet and concealed until the right time of the day (which can often be late afternoon or early evening for a whole variety of reasons). If you’ve made some noise getting to your desired location for photography (which is often unavoidable), you’ll have to wait a while until any wildlife that’s been scared away feels confident enough to return. Alternatively, you may have to stalk a subject – which is a special skill in itself – and this can often take quite a bit of time until you and your quarry
are in both in the right position for a great picture.
Drinking holes or creeks are often great locations for photographing both animals and birds, but again you’ll need to get in position first and then be prepared to wait. Sometimes it may be necessary to do a recce beforehand to find the best locations, and this is where some specific knowledge and skills (such as being able to identify footprints or skats) will be invaluable, helping to confirm what animals are in the vicinity and can be reliably expected to put in an appearance.
It’s very likely you’ll need to visit a location on quite a few occasions before everything comes together to create the best opportunities to get the pictures you want so you can add persistence to the list of attributes necessary for wildlife photography. With all the time and effort involved – not to mention the research and preparation – wildlife photography demands a big commitment, but it’s a field where the challenges of actually getting to the point of taking a picture guarantee that the rewards of a successful shoot are a whole lot more satisfying.
If you’re looking for inspiration, some of the best wildlife photography in the world is on display from 30 March to 8 October: 100 images from the finalists and winners in the 2017 Wildlife Photographer
Of The Year competition are on show at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. Entry is $20 which includes admission to the museum’s permanent galleries. Hours are 9.30am to 5.00pm daily.
For more information telephone (02) 9298 3777 or visit www.anmm.gov.au