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Wildlife Photography Basics
by Theresa A. Husarik

Keep your Equipment safe and dry
Misc Tips
Packing your Pack
Safety Tips
Where to Go
Equipment: A successful photograph is an end result of a few hundred steps starting with equipment and ending with printing. Although the equipment issue is only a small part, it is a very popular topic for questions. So, I will address it first. For wildlife, I use 35mm equipment. That is mostly because of the range of lenses, ease of use, and portability. I recently went to autofocus and chose the Canon A2e. I had been a Nikon user but I switched because the Canon had the features and price range I needed. Your needs will be different than mine, so your camera choice will depend on what you're looking for. Despite what a lot of people seem to want to hear, there is no perfect system or one best choice for everyone. But there are a few features which most wildlife photographers would agree are important.

Autofocus and Autoexposure Both features are very nice to have available and may allow you to get shots you would otherwise miss. I like autofocus because my eyes aren't as good as they used to be.

Predictive Autofocus This gives you the ability to automatically keep a swiftly moving subject in focus. Again, it only works if the subject is in the center of the frame (or at least the horizontal center with Eye- Control Focus), but you can use creative cropping at printing time to get a more pleasing composition.

Manual Overide of Automatic Functions There are, however, many occasions where I override the auto features. Sometimes the autofocus just doesn't know what to focus on. For instance, I was photographing a desert cottontail rabbit who was huddled in the shelter of a bush. My idea was to portray how good wild animals are at camoflaging themselves. I chose a large f-stop (to blur out the shrubbery), and focused on the rabbit. The autofocus kept wanting to focus on the shrubbery, so I turned it off. One big reason I sometimes turn it off is because the auto modes assume your center of focus is going to be in the center of the photo. (Yes, I know the Eye-Control Focus allows for 5 different focus spots based on where your eye looks, but they are still in a horizontal line across the middle of the frame, and rarely useful to me. That may be different for you, however). And since the meter is tied in with the focusing frame, if your subject isn't in the center, you won't be metering on the correct subject. The easier it is to overide the automatic functions, the better. If it takes 3 hands to push all the buttons and turn all the dials to perform some simple operation it's not very useful.

Depth-of-Field Preview When I first started taking pictures of wildlife, I followed the rule "Use the largest F-Stop possible (to blur the background and make the animal pop-out), and focus on the eyes". This is still a good rule, but I missed a lot of shots because I wasn't paying attention. The more magnification you get, the shallower the Depth-of-Field becomes. F5.6 with a 20 mm lense is not the same as f5.6 with a 800mm lense. Use the Depth-of-Field Preview feature to see what you are getting. The eyes need to be in focus, but sometimes the largest f-stop will cause the nose to be out of focus, and if it is a dominant part of the composition, it may ruin the picture.

Mirror Lockup When using long lenses or macro equipment which can be bulky, the movement caused by the mirror flipping up out of the way can cause enough vibration to show sharpness loss in the picture. It seems to be the worst with shutter speeds around 1/8 second. Some cameras have a means to lock up the mirror before the shutter opens so you eliminate that vibration.

Spot Meter More often than not your subject is not a medium toned one. The ability to zoom in on a small area and get the proper reading for just the subject is a very helpful.

Motor Drive To catch animals in motion, this is a very useful feature. You can get several pictures fractions of a second apart to be sure to capture the peak action.

Flash Flash may be needed to illuminate a subject in shadow. Because of likely subject movement, a slow shutter speed will produce a blurred photo. Select a shutter speed that will render some color in the background, or your picture will look like a "flash" picture. Be careful, also of "red- eye". To eliminate "red-eye" for subjects up close, keep at least 6 inches space between the flash and camera, or use a bounce card. For a subject 15 feet away, move the flash about 3 feet to one side or 18 inches above the camera. If your subject is farther away than the flash can reach, an easy, effective, inexpensive way to get more out of your flash is by projecting the light through a fresnel lens. You can get a sheet of fresnel and construct your own projection unit, or get one sold commercially. I use the "Project-a-Flash" by Tory Lepp Productions.

Second Body Using two bodies saves you valuable time by not having to change lenses. Instead of two lenses a single zoom in the range of 70~300 could may also be very usefull. (I am dreaming of being able, one day, to afford the 35-350 f2.8L). But sometimes, you are focused on an animal in the distance when something happens up close. There is no time to change lenses, or even re-adjust your camera.

Lenses Wildlife photographers can never get long enough lenses! For most wildlife (shots of a single mammal) something in the range of 300 or 400 mm is typical. The lenses I use most often for wildlife are the 400 f5.6L, 35-135, and 2X extender. The 400 alone is usually sufficient for single portraits, since I can get fairly close to animals in preserves and National Parks like Yellowstone. For critters a little farther away, I use the 400 with the 2x extender. This gives me a maximum range of 800mm although I am limited by an f-stop of F11 with that combination. For photographing birds, which are a very small subject to begin with and usually not very approachable, you need a minimum of 400mm to 600mm. For shots of a group of large animals, or an animal in its habitat, a mid-range zoom such as the 35-135 is ideal.

Teleconverters On a really good prime lens, a really good teleconverter can give excellent results. On a "consumer" grade, inexpensive zoom lens an inexpensive (or even an expensive) teleconverter can give results that aren't worth wasting film on. In short there is no free lunch here. All teleconverters degrade the image somewhat, but if you start out with superb quality lense and teleconverter, you can still end up with very good image quality.

Mirror Lenses Mirror lenses are much smaller and lighter than "regular" lenses. The 500/f8 lenses are also relatively inexpensive (less than $500). However, they are typically not really f8, more like f9.5. They are not as sharp as a good 500mm lens (nor are they as big, heavy and expensive). They produce odd effects in out-of-focus areas of the image that you may find distracting. So, unless you are looking for a small light lens for a situation where you can't afford the extra weight of a "regular" lens (such as backpacking), they are not the best choice. A good 400mm f5.6 APO lens will be much more useful and cost about the same (especially if you look for a used one).

Blinds Another often used piece of equipment for wildlife photography is the blind. Blinds come in a variety of designs from extremely simple (use nearby rocks, bushes, snow mounds, etc) to very elaborate (a semi-permanent wooden structure built in a tree). Being invisible to the critters helps, but most important is lack of movement. Blinds can cause unwanted attention - people will see your blind and be attracted to the nesting site to see what's there, so you will want to try to also camouflage yourself from other humans. If you do elect to sit in a blind, have someone accompany you in and then leave. Critters can't count, and will think its empty when they see someone leave. Some easy, inexpensive alternatives to an actual "blind" are: use your car as a blind, use the sun as a blind (in late morning or early evening, position yourself between the animal and the sun), wear camouflage clothing, use camouflage netting attached to hat to cover your face.

Tripod One piece of equipment that is often overlooked but in my opinion is an essential is a tripod. The best one to use is the biggest and heaviest you can afford to carry around. When using long (heavy) lenses, even the slightest vibration or wind will blur your photo. I use a tripod almost 100% of the time, even with lenses or shutter speeds that are hand-holdable. I don't want to sacrifice sharpness. The tripod I use is a black Bogen 3221 (no sun reflecting off the chrome to alert animals that I'm around) with an Arca Swiss B1 heavy duty ball head. The cap on the tripod's center post has an Allen's wrench for quick securing of the screws in the field.

Window Mount For taking pictures from a car, I use a Bogen window mount. The advantages of a window mount are protection from the elements (sometimes), and quick get-aways. Disadvantages include the fact that the car has to be off (otherwise you introduce vibrations to your setup), and the window has to be open. I've used a window mount in situations when the action is close, and the weather is slightly bad like a light drizzle. You want to protect your equipment with some sort of drape or small umbrella.

Cable Release When you touch the camera to release the shutter, you have the potential to introduce camera movement. A shutter release eliminates this problem. The ones that attach to the camera, and you use them while standing right by the camera are relatively inexpensive. You can also get a more advanced (more expensive) version that is activated remotely.

Laser Beam Shutter-trip The pictures you see of a hummingbird in flight, or a squirrel jumping over a log where the peak action is captured, was probably taken with the help of an electronic shutter beam. Pictures like this are next to impossible without something like this, because humans reaction times aren't quick enough. The way it works is, you aim the beam at a certain spot where the camera is focused. When the animal crosses that spot, thus tripping the beam, the camera and flash are fired automatically. This is a very cool advanced toy, but pretty pricey (around $500, from Woods Electronics).

Packing your Pack: If you are going for a hike of any length, you'll need to pack wisely so you are not weighed down too much, and so the items in the pack are not too buried to get to in a hurry if need be. If going on a day hike, I use a day pack, if backpacking, I use a fanny pack pulled around to the front. It is important that the gear be accessible. If you have the perfect lense or gadget in your pack, but getting to it requires too much time and effort, you will probably miss the shot. I personally carry in my pack:
  • lenses
    • 20-35mm lense
    • 35-135mm lense
    • 400mm lense
    • 2x teleconverter
    • 12mm and 25mm extension tubes (for close focusing)
  • filters
    • polarizing filter
    • warming filter
    • soft-focus filter
  • flash accessories
    • flash
    • off-camera shoe mount
    • slave unit (the built-in flash is the trigger)
    • project-a-flash
    • bounce card
  • Camera supports
    • tripod
    • cable release
    • waist-level finder
    • mini-tripod for holding a remote flash (used with the slave)
  • Misc accessories
    • small reflector
    • small foam pad (for when I have to lay down in a particularly uncomfortable or wet area)
Keep your Equipment safe and dry: When you are out in the field, it is very easy to hurt or even kill your camera gear. I carry my camera around my neck, enclosed inside a plastic grocery bag (the kind with handles so you can tie it tight around the camera). This keeps is somewhat protected from the blowing wind, and minor sprinkles. Do the same for the tripod head. If the weather is bad, and you are set up and waiting for action, use an umbrella, poncho, or some other protection. For minor to moderate sprinkles, I have put together a "raincoat" for my camera body and lense out of ripstop nylon sprayed with waterproofing.

  • Many wildlife subjects are middle tones (for instance, most grasses, a great blue heron, a white-tailed deer or a grizzly bear). To get a sense of tonalities, meter something you think is a middle tone, then compare to a grey card reading. This is a good exercise, and you'll soon get good at estimating tonalities.
  • For a black subject, meter a middle tone and close down 1 stop.
  • For a white subject (including snow)
    • if the subject is in shade, open up 1/2 a stop
    • if the subject is in bright sun, open up 1 1/2 stops
  • For those not subjects that are neither black, white nor middle toned
    • compensate by +/-1/2 if in sunlight
    • compensate by +/-1/3 if in shade
  • Polar bears are not white, give them about a 1/2 stop less exposure than snow.
  • Silhouettes
    • If there is more than 2 stops difference between the background and the subject, expose for the background and let the subject darken to a silhouette.
    • Meter the brightest area of the sky and overexpose by 1 if the sun is high and bright, by 1/2 if sun is low and orange.
  • Flash
    • TTL works well with middle toned subjects.
    • For light subjects, give +1/2 to +1 stop.
    • For dark subjects, give -1/2 to -1 stop.
    • TTL flash will tend to try to illuminate the background and thus overexpose a subject that fills only a small portion of the frame. Use the flash on manual.
  • Fill Flash
    • Set fill for +1 on sunny days, -2 on cloudy days
    • For bright subjects, close down by 1/2 to 1 because they reflect more light. For dark open up by 1/2 to 1 because they reflect less light.
    • Renowned outdoor photographer Galen Rowell uses a fill flash setting of -1.7

  • When snow is falling, use exposures of about 1/30 to show motion. Slower speeds will just make the snowflakes look like rain.
  • Animals are easier to find because of the visible tracks.
  • Waterfowl stay near open water.
  • Mammals stay where snow is shallow.
  • Keep your camera and yourself warm and dry.
    • Wool stays warm, cotton turns to ice.
    • Bring a good hat and handwear.
    • Keep those chemical hand warmers in your pocket. This will warm up your hands, and also keep spare batteries warm.
    • Take along plastic trash bags to protect your gear or to sit on.
  • Carry water.
  • Use ski poles for walking/balance.

  • Safety Tips:
  • The animal's safety comes before the photo opportunity. If you have to endanger an animal in order to get the shot, forget it.
  • In the winter, if you cause an animal to move, you are too close and should move back. Energy resources are very scarce, and if the animal has to use up some energy to get away from you, it may be the energy he needs to survive another winter day.
  • Never corner an animal, always give him a way to escape. If cornered, he may charge you to protect himself and you may get injured or killed.
  • Don't surprise him, move slowly, talk calmly, avoid eye contact. Don't appear to be a threat to him.
  • Be aware of ways for you to escape. Be aware of what is around you - are you likely to be cornered?, can you climb a tree to safety?
  • Don't feed or tease the animals. This could be disastrous. If you feed the animals, they will associate humans with food, and lose their fear of humans. They will become bolder and come in closer to get food when they see humans. There could be an encounter, someone could get hurt and the animal will have to be destroyed.
  • Don't come between an animal and his food or young.

  • Misc Tips:
  • Look for a catchlight in the eye.
  • Focus on the eyes.
  • Know your equipment. If you need to use one of the fancy features on your camera, but have to consult the manual to figure it out, you've lost the shot.
  • Fill the frame - not necessarily with a tight head shot, but leave no dead space.
  • Pan with the subject to show movement. This is a creative, but difficult technique. You want to show a motion-blurred background, but a sharp subject. Make sure you are panning the same speed as the subject is moving by you or the subject will be blurred.
  • The best time to shoot animals is early morning or late evening. The light is low and a warm color. And the animals are active at this time.
  • It's important to understand their habits, so I suggest watching them for several days before trying to shoot pictures. Indepth, natural history photography requires a tremendous time commitment. The techniques are similar to a hunter trying to bag game. Scout the area, watch what time of day the animals appear, which end of the meadow thy use, their favorite feeding spot and watering hole, what trails they are most inclined to travel on, and where they sun themselves. Look for holes in the ground then identify the footprints around the holes to determine what kind of critters frequent the area. The better you get at anticipating the action, the more likely you'll get those prize-winning shots.
  • While you're waiting for lighting or other conditions to be right, sit quietly and let the animals get accustomed to your being there.
  • While we all like to get those close-up portraits, sometimes it is beneficial to look at wildlife as an element in a landscape. Think small. Show the animal in its surroundings.
    • If the critter is a bird, make sure the beak is in profile so you can tell it's a bird.
    • If it's zillions of critters, compose the shot without a visible end to the pattern, so the viewer will have to imagine how expansive the scene really is.
  • Watch the background. Eliminate signs of human intervention - signs, roads, fences - make it simple, not distracting
  • Photograph critters from their eye level.
  • Show action when you can.
  • Put some humor into it.
  • Show cuteness (babies are always cute - even baby alligators)
  • Wait for the moment when the critter is looking right at the camera.
  • Calling
    • Use an elk call, the sound is that of a cow calling it's young, it is a soothing sound that makes animals feel all is well.
    • Make sounds of wounded animals to lore in predators. See the 1-hour video of Michael Sewel's calling techniques called "Fair Game" (Call "Visual Pursuit of Marin County" at 1-800-944-0203)
  • Butterflies
    • They are stimulated by bright colors, so wear brown or green so they won't notice you.
    • Wear a hat to prevent eyeglass reflection.
    • Don't wear jewelry.
    • Avoid hanging lense caps that move and make noise.
    • Keep low and don't cast a shadow on the butterfly.
    • Insect repellents also repel butterflies.
    • Butterflies are active at the hottest time of day, and at rest when light conditions are lower. A good time to photograph them is a cool fall morning when the butterfly is basking in the sun trying to warm up.
  • Raptors usually return to the same nest.
  • Raptors are creatures of habit, they choose their perches based on time of day, angle of the sun and other things. If you see one perched, he'll be there the same time tomorrow.
  • Keep notes and see what works.
  • As with most things in life, practice makes perfect, so get out there and shoot.

  • Where to Go:
  • Don't ignore your own back yard. To photograph birds, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons, set up a feeder and watering hole, observe them, and talk to them so they'll get accustomed to your voice.
  • In parks the animals are much more approachable due to lack of hunters.
  • Bird Rehab Centers
  • Zoos
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