Wildlife photography is possibly the most elitist form of photography. It is an adventure by itself, requires a lot of planning and you could be risking your life if you don’t know what you are doing. Unlike studio photography, where you have strobes and diffusers, wildlife photography requires you to work with available light and you have absolutely no control over the subject. Here is a comprehensive guide to photographing wildlife in the natural habitat (shooting animals in the zoo isn’t wildlife photography).
The equipments needed
Expect to spend a lot of money if you want to see professional results. You need to have the best of everything that money can buy and preferably a pair of each – you don’t want to miss the money shot because of a failed equipment.
Camera(s): Canon and Nikon are the two popular brands that most wildlife photographers use. A camera that can burst shots at 8 to 10 fps is preferred. You will also need to look for noise performance as most entry level DSLRs produce noise above ISO 400 even in well lit conditions and this is a strict no. The camera should also have the ability to shoot RAW and give you complete control when it comes to shooting modes.
Lenses: The choice of glass is even more important than the choice of camera. A good glass is the difference between a professional shot and an epic fail. Most wild animals, be it birds or mammals, will flee from the scene the moment they see a human. This distance is called ‘flight distance’ and may vary from species to species. In order to capture wildlife in their natural habitat, you will need to buy the longest glass that you can afford. Some of the high end lenses will set you back by a minimum of $10,000. So a minimum of 250 to 300mm is essential if you are planning to shoot wildlife and f possible, choose a prime lens over zoom lenses. You will also need to buy the fastest lens that you can afford, f/2.8 is recommended but if you are tight on budget, don’t settle for anything less than f/4 or f/5.6.
Teleconvertors: These are small barrels with lens groups that go between the body and the lens. They usually come in three flavors, 1.4X, 1.7X and 2X. When a teleconvertor is used, it increases the focal length of the lens by a factor of 1.4, 1.7 or 2. But there is a disadvantage to it, when you use a 2X teleconvertor on a 400mm f/4 lens, even though the focal length increases to 800mm, you will lose two stops of light and the maximum aperture will be reduced to f/8. But on a 400 f/2.8 lens with a 2x teleconvertor, will give you an 800mm lens with f/5.6, which is good enough for the AF systems to work. This is one of the reasons why you should prefer a fast lens.
Tripods and monopods: Although most lenses have image stabilization or vibration reduction, you will need a sturdy tripod to get the best shots. Prefer a heavy pod and even though it might be hard to carry around, it will give you the best results. When you are buying a pro grade tripod/monopod, you will have to buy the ball head separately. Manfrotto and Gitzo make some of the best pods and ball heads in the market and it is the choice of most professionals.
Getting the shots
With wildlife photography, you need to understand that photo opportunities last only for a few seconds and 99 percent of the time, the opportunity is not going to present itself again. For this reason, you need to have the camera ready to fire. Since most zoom lenses have the ‘sweet spot’ two stops below the maximum aperture, shoot in aperture priority with the f-stops set at f/5.6 or at f/7.1. The depth of field will be enough to keep the subject sharp and you will get a pleasant bokeh at the same time. When composing the image, stick to the ‘rule of thirds’ as it works 99.99 percent of the time and do not crop the images at odd angles.
We hope that these tips will definitely bring the wildlife photographer in you to the fore.