Wildlife Photography: What To Look For When Choosing Equipment

This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.

Choosing the right combination of camera and lenses plays a huge part in improving one's chances of photographic success. This is the case for wildlife photography perhaps more than any other genre.

In this blog, I'll explain the most critical features you need to look for in camera and lens equipment for one field of wildlife photography; that of mammals and birds.


Table of contents

1. The principal wildlife photography challenges

2. Shooting from a distance

3. Coping with low light levels

4. Putting it all together


The principal wildlife photography challenges

When choosing wildlife photography equipment, you need to think of the camera and lens together – both must be able to work in unison to produce the desired results.

Let’s look at the main challenges that face the photographer and which, to a large extent, control our equipment choices:

- It’s usually difficult to get close to your bird or mammal subject due to either their shyness or because we simply cannot climb or fly into their environment. So, we need to be able to shoot from a distance.

- Much wildlife activity occurs either very early in the morning or late in the evening when light levels are low. So, both your camera body and lenses need to be able to perform as well at dawn and dusk as they do in the middle of the day.

- Quick reactions are often needed, as milliseconds make the difference between success and failure. Your camera and lens need to work together to produce fast, accurate exposure measurements, focusing and shutter firing in the blink of an eye.

These three challenges push camera and lens technology to the limit. As a result, they have been instrumental in some dramatic improvements over the past 20 years.

The upshot is that the equipment needs to be quite special – sadly, you're not going to manage this kind of photography with a compact or phone camera. This is very much the preserve of the DSLRs and top-level mirrorless cameras, coupled with some of the best lenses.

Of all the challenges you’ll face, the need to be able to shoot from a distance is the biggest by some margin. Finding ways to make it possible will take up most of this blog.


Shooting from a distance

Good fieldcraft, an understanding of your subject's behaviour, and the use of hides can all be critical in allowing you to cut the photographer-to-animal distance. But in the end, your camera equipment will always be central to finally closing that gap to allow for at least a moderately close shot.

Below are the main features we need to look for in camera equipment, especially the lenses.

1. The role of telephoto lenses

Bridging the distance is mostly the domain of the lenses – specifically telephoto lenses, ones with a long focal length, enabling them to reach out over the distance and bring your animal subject closer.

The minimum focal length I would consider useful is 300mm, but much more is desirable for many scenarios.

Unfortunately, problems start to arise once you go beyond about 400mm, especially if you're aiming to use lenses that will continue to work well in low light conditions and have top-quality optics. Such problems include:

- A burgeoning size and weight.

- A mounting price tag.

- Difficulties focusing on your subject.

To mitigate these issues, you probably want to stick with a physically smaller lens. This usually means either one with a focal length shorter than might be ideal (say, about 300mm) but with top-quality optics, or a lens with a long focal length (say 500-600mm) with less quality.

Cutting down on lens optical quality will save a lot of lens weight, size, and price. However, the likely result is lower image quality.

So, before making a choice when buying lenses, you should ask yourself: How good does good need to be?

If you're supplying some of the world's best photo agencies and publishers, then, of course, 'good' needs to be pretty damn good. But if you're shooting simply for your own pleasure – perhaps you’re displaying your images online or making modestly-sized prints – then final image quality may be less critical.

2. Zoom or prime lens?

One of the questions I'm most frequently asked in relation to wildlife photography is whether it’s best to use a zoom or prime (i.e., fixed focal length) lens.

Zoom lenses offer a great degree of versatility that prime lenses cannot give. However, there’s a general sense that the zoom lenses tend to suffer from rather inferior optics at long focal lengths, leading most professional wildlife photographers to work with prime lenses. Again, the choice comes down to a balance between versatility, price, and convenience versus the best optical quality available.

3. Slipping in a teleconverter

Telephoto reach without the use of massive lenses can be further helped with teleconverters (also sometimes called extenders).

These are a lens that fits between the camera body and the main telephoto lens (whether prime or zoom), which increases the lens's effective focal length. Teleconverters usually come with one of two magnifications: x1.4 and x2. The latter doubles the effective focal length (and thus converts a 300mm lens to a 600mm, for example).

This makes teleconverters hugely useful, but they come at a price – principally, a loss of light and a potential loss of image quality.

An x1.4 teleconverter halves the amount of light passing through, while an x2 reduces it fourfold. This effect can be quite restricting if you're already shooting in low light conditions.

The potential loss of image quality can be minimised by using only the very best available. Don't skimp on price or quality, and don't be tempted to use third-party teleconverters. Doing so can result in loss of image quality and functionality transmission between camera body and lens.

Finally, teleconverters/extenders should not be confused with extension tubes. The latter is a glassless tube fitted between the camera and lens to enable macro – or close-up – photography. This is the opposite end of the scale of wildlife photography!

4. A little help from the camera body

Your choice of camera body can help boost your effective focal length, so this is also worth considering.

Camera bodies essentially come in two forms: full-frame or cropped-sensor. The terminology refers to the size of the sensor within the camera – full-frame means that the sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm film. Such cameras are usually the more expensive models, targeted at professional photographers and very serious amateurs.

Most camera models have a cropped sensor, smaller than a 35mm frame of film – just how much smaller varies among different manufacturers. For example, with Canon cameras, the crop is x1.6, whereas with Nikon, it’s x1.5, and with Olympus Four-Thirds, it’s x2.

Lens focal lengths are always calculated and advertised according to their behaviour with a full-frame camera. But when they’re coupled with a cropped-sensor camera, they can’t make use of the lens's full field of view. As a result, the effective focal length of a lens, when coupled with a cropped-sensor camera, has to be recalculated according to the camera's magnification factor: x1.6 for Canon, x1.5 for Nikon, etc.

This is great news for wildlife photography as it effectively magnifies a lens's focal length, with a 300mm lens becoming 480mm on a Canon camera or 450mm on a Nikon. You can further increase the magnification when a teleconverter is applied, giving you two magnification factors to apply to your lens's original focal length.

This help can be a major factor in swaying the choice of a camera for wildlife photography, perhaps making a good quality cropped sensor camera preferable to an equally good full-frame camera.

However, cropped sensor cameras come with a couple of possible downsides:

1.They usually produce rather smaller files than full-frame cameras.

2. When used in strong light conditions where contrast is high, they’re more likely to produce burned-out highlights in the images.


Coping with low light levels

Perhaps the greatest advance in photography technology in recent years has been in the ability to function well in low light conditions, namely at dawn and dusk.

The improvement comes in two main areas:

1. The ability of a camera to continue to produce high-quality images even when shooting at high ISO.

2. The effectiveness of image stabilisation/vibration reduction to allow for the use of much slower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible.

Less revolutionary, but nevertheless every bit as important in lens design and a lens’ ability to function in low light, is the widest aperture that a lens can attain. This impacts the maximum amount of light that can pass through it at any given moment. Let’s look at this first.

1. Working with lens aperture

The amount of light that can pass through the lens and on to the sensor is critical to how long the exposure time needs to be, and hence your ability to work in low light conditions. Controlling this is the function of the variable lens aperture, measured on the f-scale, with f22 being a very small aperture, and f2.8 a very wide-open aperture.

Not surprisingly, whether you're using a zoom or prime lens, the wider a lens's maximum aperture, the better able it is to function in low light levels, with a wide aperture enabling the camera to use a faster shutter speed.

Such a lens is said to be fast, the fastest available currently being f2.8. Unfortunately, this comes at quite a cost – financially, in weight and in bulkiness.

At the other end of the scale, cheaper lenses usually have a less wide maximum aperture, often f5.6, a fourfold reduction in the amount of light allowed through compared to an f2.8 lens.

The f5.6 lenses are significantly cheaper, lighter, and less bulky, although they’re less able to function in low light conditions. With a few exceptions, they also usually have lower optical quality, though this doesn't have to be so.

A common compromise between the f2.8 and f5.6 lenses are those with a maximum aperture of f4. Such lenses usually provide the image quality needed by professionals, without the massive cost or weight of an f2.8 lens.

2. Working at high ISO

The ISO is a linear scale that measures a camera sensor's sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the greater the sensitivity, and the less light you need to correctly expose the sensor.

You might think, then, that we should always shoot at a high ISO for convenience. But unfortunately, as ISO increases, image quality decreases, with general noise, grain, and loss of colour quality all mounting to drain away the quality. For this reason, we normally shoot at as low an ISO as possible – a setting of 100 is the standard working ISO for general photography.

A setting of 100 works well in good light and with lenses of short focal length. However, if you're hand-holding the camera, then as focal length increases so faster shutter speeds are needed to avoid camera shake (the blurring of your photos due to an unsteady hand, something that becomes magnified with long focal length lenses).

You can, of course, solve this by mounting the camera on a tripod, though this may greatly restrict your movements at times when quick reactions are needed.

Unfortunately, as most wildlife activity happens when light levels are low, there quickly comes a point where you just cannot put the shutter speed up without greatly under-exposing the images. This will happen much sooner and to a greater degree with an f5.6 maximum aperture lens than it will with an f2.8 lens.

The only solution here is to put the camera's ISO up. Until quite recently, this would just result in very grainy, unusable images. Now, however, it’s perfectly possible to obtain great images when using ISOs up to several thousand, levels unheard of several years ago.

For this to work, however, it’s essential that a facility in the camera, usually called 'High ISO noise reduction', is switched on. This can be found buried in the menus of just about any good-quality DSLR or mirrorless camera. Make sure you use only a camera that has this facility and that you have it activated.

3. The miracle of image stabilisation

Also called 'vibration reduction', image stabilisation is usually built into the lenses, but with some manufacturers, it’s incorporated into the camera body.

Mostly useful when the camera is hand-held, this facility consists of a set of motors that can micro-move the lens elements (if built into the lens) or the sensor (if built into the camera body) to counter movements caused by an unsteady hand.

If you’re using a lens without image stabilisation, a neat little calculation makes it possible to work out the minimum shutter speed you can hand-hold at. It’s simply the reciprocal of the lens's focal length.

In other words, if you're using a 30mm lens, the slowest shutter speed you can hand-hold the camera at is 1/30th second, but with a 300mm lens that leaps to 1/300th second. Put in image stabilisation, and you can reduce this minimum shutter speed by about three stops, bringing it down to roughly 1/40th second.

This is clearly a huge improvement, making such a lens far more useable in low light conditions.

4. Doing it all at the speed of light!

When you’re photographing wildlife, you may only have a window of a couple of seconds in which to capture your subject – so speed is essential.

Make sure your camera and lens work seamlessly together to shave off those milliseconds of reaction time. At the very least, you need a telephoto lens that has some pretty snappy focusing. It needs to be fast, decisive and accurate, even in poor light.

Unfortunately, autofocus mechanisms don't always work well in the low light/low contrast light of dawn and dusk. They function by identifying lines of contrast – for example, those that separate an animal body from the background vegetation.

This generally works well enough in good sunlight, even with an economy lens, but the real test comes during those low light/low contrast situations when it’s difficult for many lenses to distinguish the animal from the background.

This can result in the lenses focus mechanism hunting back and forth, unable to lock onto anything. This wastes valuable time and often results in poorly focused images. That’s why it’s worthwhile trying to find a lens that isn’t affected much by this.


Putting it all together

As you can see from this summary, bird and mammal wildlife photography can be quite a challenge – not only from the perspective of the techniques needed, but also of simply being able to put together a set of equipment that works well for you.

However, the rewards can be quite enormous, ranging from the thrill of the 'hunt' to the rush of excitement when you pull off a major success.

The key to getting there is honing both your personal skills and the effectiveness of your equipment 'team'.


Nigel runs regular photography workshops in southwest England. To find out more about these go to https://www.nigelhicks.com/photography-workshops-courses/

To find out more about Nigel's work, take a tour of his website.


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