One of the requirements of wildlife photography is using the same stealth that a bow hunter requires, in that getting as close to the subject, without spooking it is paramount. The wildlife photographer is learning and developing the same skills to be a hunter of a different kind, and as such, if hunting for food later, will have become a much better hunter. Arrive early at the scene, to set up tripod, camera and whatever release method you will use. Understand that the best wildlife images will be obtained in half hour right before and after sunrise, and the half hour either side of sunset, just as they are the best time to hunt. In areas where there is no hunting pressure, or outside hunting seasons, this will be extended to a couple of hours after sun rise and before sunset. This having been said, obviously necessitates the use of very fast lenses (F4 or better) and tripods/bipods, and other equipment outlined below.
Things to do to ensure good images
- Determine – will the lighting in scene that you have chosen to shoot change rapidly, will your subject be in the shadow of trees or in the open?
- Is there an opportunity to use supplementary lighting? Flashes?
- Set shutter speed to freeze the maximum speed of motion expected of the wildlife, this will be determined on the type of wildlife, (humming birds obviously require more than a deer feeding), typically at least 1/250 (to catch the twitch of an ear, or the fur blowing in the wind) and up to 1/8000 to freeze those darn humming birds wings!
- Set aperture for maximum sharpness between f5.6 and f11.
- Set ISO to the lowest for your camera, unless high shutter speeds are required to stop motion and lighting and DOF do not allow the f-stop to be changed lower.
- Check and set white balance, or leave it on “Cloudy” and adjust in the RAW processor (much easier method).
- Use a remote shutter release!
- It may be best to pre-focus on a spot and wait for the subject to come into the focus area.
- To eliminate extraneous noises, it may be best to use the mirror lock-up feature to stop the noise of a digital SLR’s mirror slapping up and down.
- Wildlife photography can best be achieved if one can employ the use of a hide or blind, or wears the appropriate camouflage, which must match the surroundings and may also include the Rambo style face makeup and, or a gillie suit.
Getting a good platform
A good solid Tripod is a must for Wildlife photography, the heavier the better as it is less likely to move due to wind, or an excited photographer. Not all of the weight of a tripod needs to be actually in the tripod itself, as one can with the better tripods hang their camera bag with extra lenses, etc., from a hook beneath the center column, thus increasing the stability of the setup. Cheap light weight tripods are probably worse than anything as they give one a false sense of stability without actually performing correctly. Wireless remote or other remote are also a good asset. Wireless remotes are by far the best as it allows the photographer to set the camera and tripod up focused on a single point, for example; a humming bird feeder, and operate the shutter from a distance so as not to disturb the birds.
If the camera that has the mirror lock-up feature it will come in handy as it will stop the flapping around of the DSLR mirror while moving up and down creating noise. One must be aware that certain features of the system will no longer function on some cameras, like auto focusing and metering. This is why pre-focusing is important. One more thing to do if your tripod does not already have it around the legs is to get some pipe insulating foam of the correct size such that the legs do not make any noise as you are transporting, setting up or taking down your tripod. Several companies also sell foam padded jackets for cameras which add a layer of protection to your investment and reduce noise.
Glass is King
Quality glass is paramount, especially for long lenses, and zoom ranges on lenses over about 4x suffer from aberrations, the greater the range, the more the aberrations, it is simply a matter of physics. For Digital SLR’s 70-200mm f2.8 are good, VR/IS is not necessary as one should with some lenses, turn it off anyway when using a tripod, so the less expensive fixed focal length lenses in the range of 300-500mm f4 without VR/IS are perfectly adequate here. 300mm f4 lens are for good for wildlife photography, but longer lenses still will improve the odds in your favor, particularly when photographing potentially dangerous animals. As mentioned VR/IS lenses only help if one is in a situation where a tripod is unavailable, in which case, a better solution still is a monopod. Remember, there is actually one advantage to using a camera with a 1.5 or 1.6 crop factor, (consumer grade camera) and a lens that was designed for a full frame pro camera, that being, due to the crop, it is using only the center of the lens, and therefor the area of the lens with the least distortion or aberrations.
Having a good head on your shoulders
Ball heads on tripods are good, but a Wimberley or Kirk gimbal head on the tripod are the best for wildlife, as they are designed to be very smooth operating (both tilting and rotating rapidly and smoothly) and are designed to carry very large and heavy lenses, while most ball heads are not. Ball heads have the unfortunate tendency to slowly creep, meaning changing their setting or angle unless locked down hard. Less expensive types of heads designed for video with the three handles can be used with everything except the pan locked down, but are not as smooth and easy to operate as the gimbal heads, and tend to catch on bushes and clothing while traveling or operating.
For more info on equipment: Wimberley gimbal heads here, Kirk Ball heads here , Kirk gimbal heads here, Induro ball heads here, and Induro tripods here, Manfrotto monopods and tripods here, Adorama a place to get everything here, B&H Photo, another good place for all photographic requirements here, Samy’s Camera another good place for photographic gear here, and yet one more Calumet Photographic here.