Ten Tips for better Wildlife Photography
By Ryan Watkins
3 Aug 2010
Many people think that wildlife photography is very difficult and expensive, but it doesn't have to be! There are many animals in our own backyards or at local parks which can end up being great photo subjects. Here are ten tips for getting great wildlife images to sell as stock, submit to magazines, add to your portfolio, or just impress your friends and family with.
1. Find the Right Time, Place, and Light
You can't get good wildlife images if there isn't any wildlife in the area you're shooting. Do your research and find out what animals are in your area and when they are most active. As in any photograph the light is one of the most important factors. Golden hour light works great for some subjects, like the image of the duck on the dock, while nice soft light on a cloudy day or in the shade can work better for some subjects. Many of these images, including the raccoon and frog, were both taken in the shade and the turtle was taken on a cloudy day.
2. Use the Right Lens
Longer telephoto lenses work best for wildlife images. Many pros use 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm prime lenses which are thousands of dollars but many great images can be made with shorter more affordable lenses. I use a Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens for almost all of my wildlife images. Since my D200 has a 1.5x crop factor this lens has a 35mm equivalent of 105-450mm. It is important to use longer lenses though. Most lens makers make a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens which costs under $600 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens which costs in-between $800 and $3000 is also a very popular lens. Some lens makers, like Sigma and Tamron, make zoom lenses which go all the way out to 500mm for around $1000 but are much slower than prime lenses with the equivalent focal length. Don't just look at the focal length when choosing a wildlife lens the maximum aperture and other factors like stabilization are just as important. The smaller the number after the f in the name of the lens the wider aperture you can use. A wider aperture, smaller f number, the quicker shutter speed you can use. If there are two numbers like, f/4.5-5.6, then the lens is variable aperture so the maximum aperture changes when you zoom the lens. For example you can use a 70-200 f/2.8 lens in lower light than a 70-300 f/4.5-5.6. Most lens companies make lenses which have some type of stabilization. Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction, Cannon calls it Image Stabilization, Sigma calls it Optical Stabilization, and Tamron calls I Vibration Compensation. Using a lens which has stabilization lets you hand hold your lens while using a longer shutter speed. I have been able to get the rabbit photo sharp hand held at 1/100 of a second at 300mm with Vibration Reduction turned on.
3. Use Aperture Priority
I use aperture priority for most of my images. Instead of shooting wide open to ensure the quickest possible shutter speed many wildlife shooters shoot at one stop above the lens' maximum aperture. This results in a sharper image and more in focus. Most lenses are sharpest in-between f/8 and f/13. I try to shoot at f/8 when possible but have sometimes shoot f/5.6 if a want a very shallow depth of field, like in the image of the turtle. Another important factor is the type of metering you choice. Spot metering exposes for one point within the image while matrix metering tries to find the correct median exposure for the entire scene.
4. Use a high ISO
Most images look best if they are shot at a low ISO. But to obtain the quicker shutter speeds to prevent unwanted blur in wildlife images we need to shoot using a high ISO. I usually shoot in-between 400 and 800 ISO for most of my wildlife images. Full frame DSLRs, like the Nikon D3s, Nikon D700, Nikon D3, Canon 5D mark II, Canon 1Ds Mark III, and Canon ID Mark IV, have an advantage over APS-C DSLRs because they have less noise at higher ISOs. Many full frame DSLRs will let you shoot at ISO 1600 and above with little noise. If you're using an APS-C DSLRs, like me, try not to shoot above ISO 800 unless you have to. I have shot some good images with ISO 1600 on my APS-C Nikon D200 but there was significant noise; these images won't be suitable for large 16x20 prints like images shot at 400 or 500 ISO. If you plan on shooting in very low light faster lenses and full frame DSLRs are a better choice for you but it will result in a much higher price. DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors do have the advantage of the crop factor. This means that a 300mm lens on my Nikon D200, which has an APS-C sized sensor, will be equivalent to 450mm lens on a full frame DSLR, like the Nikon D3s. Four thirds and micro four thirds cameras have a 2x crop factor so a 300mm lens on an Olympus EP1, a micro four thirds sensor camera, would be equivalent to 600mm on a full frame DSLR, like the Canon EOS-5D Mark II.
5. Use Continues Autofocus
Use continues autofocus, and also make sure you're shooting with the cameras quickest frames per second (fps). Shooting in JPG instead of RAW will let you shoot at a quicker frames per second rate. I usually still shoot in RAW for higher quality and for more lee way when editing. Continues autofocus is very important especially if the subject is walking, flying, running, or trotting towards you. Most cameras' autofocus systems will also try to track the subject's movement.
6. Chose Your Focus Carefully
Chose your focus carefully. The center focus point is usually the most accurate and quickest. Always try to set the focus on the subjects eyes. I have several bird images which would have been great but the wings were in focus and not the birds eyes.
7. Use Support
There are many different types of supports for wildlife photographers' long lenses. Many pros use Wimberly heads on top of Carbon Fiber tripods for the best support for heavy long lenses. The simplest, and cheapest, way to get good wildlife shot is to use a sturdy tripod or monopod with a ball head. I usually shoot hand held because I own a tripod with a pan and tilt head. There are several other unique types of support as well like the Joby Gorillapod, beanbags, Bushhawks, and window mounts. The raccoon image was taken on a tripod with pan and tilt head.
8. Too Dark? Try Flash!
If you don't want to use a tripod or want to get good shots in lower light you can try using flash. A neat flash accessory called the Better Beam Flash Extenders attaches to most popular hot shoe flashes and let you fire your flash farther than you could without it. Many wildlife pros like Frans Lanting and Ian Plant use these. For some wildlife which will come right up to you, you can even use your cameras built in flash. I used my camera's built in flash set to -1 flash compensation for the frog photo. Make sure to use a long enough shutter speed to leave some detail in the background but not too long so that the image is blurry.
9. Get Close
There are many animals which are used to people and will let you get close to them. This is a great advantage for us photographers. Instead of using my 70-300 VR lens to try and get images of this frog I actually use a 50mm portrait lens. I used two Kenko close-up filters to get very close to the frog and get a great image. Many animals, especially in parks or gardens, are used to people and will let you get relatively close. This wild baby raccoon was found on the side of a trail in the Fred Meijer Gardens and it let me get very close to it. Try to find animals like these in your own backyard which will let you get right up in front of them.
10. Be Patient
Patience is critical in getting good wildlife images. I've sat behind my house for hours and never even seen an animal. While other days I've see tons of photo opportunities. Be patient! When trying to shoot birds at your birdfeeder be very slow and don't make fast movements. It took about forty-five minutes until the bird got used to me being there and started eating, but in the end I got several great shots.
Look in your own backyard or local park. You might just get some great wildlife images!