Wildlife photography — an unhelpful guide
In the previous page I dare say I was no help at all. At least that sets an achievable standard.
When photographing birds it’s good practice to keep the eye in focus
Which lens to buy
Before I bought my SLR I spent a lot of time reading about lenses. The truth is, it wasn’t easy deciding which one or which ones to get. Then I got an idea for the perfect lens after seeing a scientist’s microscope. I figured my ideal choice would look something like this:
Yes, that’s definitely the one I want. I haven’t seen it in the shops yet, but the moment I do I’ll let you know about it here.
Wildlife photographers often earn extra cash doing alternative freelance work.
When I used to play a lot of tennis I got some coaching. One day my coach made me spend the whole session running backards and forwards — from the net to the baseline and back to the net. Over and over again. It wore me out and didn’t improve my tennis very much but I did improve my photography with a prime.
What’s a prime lens? It’s one with a fixed focal length. In other words. If you’ve got a 200 mm lens then 200 mm is your only option and you’ve got to either swap lenses or run backwards/forwards to change how closely you frame your subject. So now you know about primes. It might all sound bad, but photographers tend to like them because the good ones have the best image quality possible.
Sometimes running backwards and forwards is not an option. For example, you might be pinned to the ground by several tons of overturned machinery (that is never fun). That’s when a zoom lens comes in handy. If I’d had a good zoom lens earlier in my photography I wouldn’t have needed so much tennis practice. A zoom lens is like having lots of lenses piled into one.
It’s essential to have a steady hand while you take your photo. I think I sneezed when I took this one
So that’s a good thing about zoom lenses. A bad thing is that their image quality is not as good as the good primes (although there are now some excellent zoom lenses with image quality claiming to give the best primes some real competition.)
GREAT MOMENTS IN NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY: No. 2: Superb Fairy Wren
Apart from the moot point about image quality, another problem with zooms is they cost more. There also tends to be a limit in how much focal length you can get in a zoom lens, meaning that if you want to get some serious, long focal lengths, like more than about 500 mm, then you’ll need to use a prime. Or you can use a thing called an extender which turns your existing lens into something a bit longer (at the expense of a bit of image quality). Because I don’t have any really long lenses or extenders I opt for running forwards.
One of the really handy features of modern digital cameras is the ability to record EXIF data in the image files. EXIF data keeps track of things like which shutter speed you used, which focal length and a lot of other stuff. It saves you from having to take a lot of notes. I especially appreciated this example (above) telling me there was no red-eye reduction. No arguing with that one.
Honing your reflexes
We’ve already established that photographers like things to sit still (preferably for as least as long as it takes to change lenses), and that a lot of nature is moving. So if a critter is moving really, really fast, then you have to follow its action by ‘panning’.
Panning looks easy enough but the truth is it takes some practice. The first time I tried taking shots of a pelican flying overhead I almost fell over. So if you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to some exotic wildlife haven then I’d encourage you to get outside with your camera beforehand and practice taking pictures of pigeons or something. The cool thing is, with digital you’re not wasting film (although you might have to recharge your batteries)
I recommend this because when that magnificent rare critter appears in full view of your lens for a millisecond you’ll be mighty glad you honed your reflexes (and familiarity with your camera) on the pigeons. That’s why I enjoy practising on fast-moving subjects. The Welcome Swallow definitely qualifies as fast-moving. First time I tried on those guys was a complete joke but lately I’ve reached the stage where I’ve been getting some sharp shots as they fly past at approximately warp-nine.
This is another area where modern digital SLRs can help. They often have a special kind of focusing mode especially for moving things. On my camera it’s called ‘servo focus’ and it uses clever algorithms to keep the subject in focus while also trying to guess where the subject is going (closer or further away). For that reason, it’s sometimes called ‘predictive autofocus’. With Welcome Swallows it works more like ‘hope-like-hell’ focus but whatever you call it, it does the job a whole lot faster than I can, and for that reason I’m grateful.