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GEARING UP FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
By Vandit Kalia
April 2004 (last revision: Jan 2006)

Wildlife photography is one of the most demanding branches of photography - in terms of techniques, knowledge, ability to react quickly and equipment requirements. This is also one area where the results that you get are roughly proportional to the amount of money that you sink into your equipment. But with some judicious equipment selection, you don't have to spend new car money to get great wildlife photographs. In this article, I'll look at equipment choices for someone looking to get into wildlife photography.

Let's start by figuring out what goes into a good set of kit for wildlife photography. Remember that we will be discussing requirements from a real-world standpoint of someone starting out in this field. If you can swing it, nothing beats the $15,000 needed to get a EOS 1D Mk II, 500/4 or 600/4 + tripod/ballhead/accessories (or the comparable Nikon rig).

Side note: Most of the examples here refer to Canon, simply because I am the most familiar with their lenses. No other inferences or implications shouled be taken from this.

Bodies

I've heard people say that you can do wildlife photography with a point and shoot camera. Well, yes, you can. You can also shoot landscapes with a disposable camera. Yet you don't really see pros giving up their normal kit for disposables, do you? The same also holds true for wildlife photography: more advanced cameras let you take better photos in more situations.

To do wildlife photography properly, an SLR is almost mandatory. Forget those 12x superzoom digicams. They are useless for tracking action or shooting in lowlight. You want a camera with the following features:

  • A high frame rate: this lets you take multiple exposures quickly, which is great for capturing action sequences (cubs playing, antelope stags fighting, and so on). The top pros prefer bodies with frame rates of 8-10 frames per second, but for most usage, 3-4fps is a good place to start.
  • Good predictive auto-focus system: this auto focus mode tracks moving subjects and adjusts the focus to keep the subject sharp. This marvel of modern technology greatly increases your percentage of "keepers " when shooting subjects like flying birds, running cheetahs, etc.
  • Ability to adjust exposure (exposure compensation and exposure lock) on the fly: often, there is one decisive moment when taking wildlife photographs - and if you flub up the exposure, you've lost the shot. So relying on bracketing is not always an option. You absolutely must be able to over-ride the automatic exposure settings in a hurry, and a body which lets you do so intiuitively (without taking your eyes off the viewfinder) is absolutely vital.

The above areas are where modern cameras, with their big honking motordrives and super-fast auto focus, really come into their own. People will chime in saying that people did take great wildlife photos with manual focus and winding - yeah, they did, but they also took a lot more out-of-focus images. Modern technology allows us to improve our success percentage and I see no point in not using what is available.

At the same time, I'll also point out that all this technology is useless unless you know what it does and how to make best use of it... so make sure you know when to use which feature, and also how to operate that feature on your camera. As the pithy saying goes, RTFM. Changing camera settings should be instinctive, and it goes without saing that you should also know what the appropriate settings for a given situation.

Lastly, if you are going on a trip of a lifetime, you may want to consider carrying a second body with you. Spending large sums of money on a photography trip, only to have everything fall apart due to the body dying, can be a real bummer, to put it mildly. Heck, even if you've just driven down to the nearest national park, a broken camera can really ruin your day. Ideally, you'd want a backup with the same interface as your primary camera, so that you don't have to re-learn a second interface. However, even a more basic body is better than nothing.

Lenses

Now, on to lenses. Before we start, accept that no matter what focal length you have, you'll always wish for a little more. That being said, you'll need a minimum of 300mm focal length if you are going to do wildlife photography. If you want to shoot birds as well, up the ante to 500mm at the very least.

The cheapest way to get to 300mm is the basic 70-300 or 75-300 zoom (or, at a pinch, the 28-300 superzoom) - every camera manufacturer and all the third-party manufacturers have one or more variants of this lens in their line-up. These typically have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 and are fine for shooting subjects in bright daylight. However, during early morning and late night, when the light is best for photography, you may find the relatively slow aperture limiting, and will have to use faster film in order to get a shutter speed that is adequate for freezing motion and handholding. In Indian forests, this means using ISO 800 or even 1600.

Also, while these zooms offer decent quality for the price, they usually need to be stopped down for best quality, and are at their weakest when at full extension and maximum aperture. Unfortunately, full extension and maximum aperture is where you'll be using them most of the time. With care and practice, it is possible to get good shots with these lens, especially for the casual wildlife shooter. However, their slow speed and performance when wide open limits their usefulness - serious wildlife photography enthsiasts will typically want more. Better glass not only means better quality, but also increases the photographer's ability to get interesting photos, especially under less-than-ideal conditions (eg, poor light or subject too far away).

Do note that the new Canon 70-300 IS (Image Stabilized - more on that later) zoom is a significant step up in quality compared to the older 75-300 zooms - some tests have its image quality almost on par with Canon's 70-200/4L, which would make it a very sharp lens indeed. The Sigma 70-300 APO DG is also a very highly-regarded lens and also a fair bit cheaper, although it lacks image stabilization, which is very nice to have on a long but relatively slow lens.

More expensive, but offering better quality and greater reach, are two zooms from Sigma (the 170-500 and the 50-500) and one from Tamron (200-500). All three of these lenses offer very good quality, and are also the cheapest way to get to 500mm with traditional lenses. To someone who is used to shooting with 300mm, it is hard to explain the increase in creative options when you have 500mm worth of focal length to play with - suffice to say, try it and you'll be hooked.

The Sigma 170-500 gets mixed reviews, but IMO, a lot of that has to do with brand snobbery more than anything else. I know of atleast 1 birder with lots of published images taken with this lens. And as per Pop Photo's measured numbers (yeah, I know - make of it what you will!), this lens is actually marginally better than its higher-rated big brother, the Sigma 50-500. Autofocus is a bit slow and relatively noisy ("relative" being the key word), but for the price, there is no reason to kvetch.

The Sigma 50-500 behemoth (affectionately known as the Bigma, because of its size and heft) is about twice the price of the 170-500, but offers HSM (faster, quieter auto focus), full-time manual (to tweak the auto focus, if needed) and belongs to Sigma's EX series (rock solid build quality; aimed at pros). If you need one all-purpose lens at a reasonable (sub-$1000) price, this is it. The Tamron is a recent release, and is supposed to be on par, if not a smidgeon sharper, than the Sigma 50-500 (which is very well regarded indeed), making it a very, very good lens as well.

The downside to all these three lenses: their maximum aperture at 500mm is 6.3, which means higher-speed film or ISO settings (400 at the least - which is less of a concern with digital bodies). Also, in lower light, your AF performance is going to suffer. Still, for <$1000, you aren't going to get everything, and these three of these lenses are recommended to anyone looking for an entry-level kit for serious wildlife photography - they offer a good mix of focal length and quality, and do so at a reasonable price.

Now we move to the $1,000+ range: Canon and Nikon both have a 80/100-400mm stabilized lens, as does Sigma. Any of these fits the bill as the perfect "single* lens for wildlife photography and in the grand scheme of things, these lenses don't cost all that much -around $1400 or so. Given that they'll last you a decade or two, the price difference between these and the entry-level lenses is not that much and if you are keen on wildlife photogaraphy, you owe it to yourself to consider these options.

Within the Canon system, you also have the choice of getting an image stabilized version of the 300/4 - I have this lens and cannot rave about it enough. Most brands also offer 300/4 lenses (although not stabilized) as well as 400/5.6 lens in the same price range. These are all top-notch optics and offer excellent alternatives for someone looking to build a wildlife photography system (i.e., a collection of lenses, as opposed to a single "one lens for all occasions" set-up). They may not offer the same flexibility as a zoom, but if paired with one or two other lenses, they make for a higher-quality lens set-up. If you find that you tend to use your zoom racked out most of the time, you might as well get a prime and enjoy the benefits of faster, sharper glass and quicker AF.

Any of these 300-400mm prime lenses, when paired with a body with fast AF, make great handholdable rigs for shooting larger mammals as well as birds in flight. Famed bird photographer Art Morris raves about this combination in his book and on his website - having tried the combo myself, I have to agree, it is pretty sweet. The 400/5.6 is supposed to have slightly faster AF, the 300/4 comes with IS. Pick your preference.

Pricier yet, Sigma comes in with a $2300 120-300/2.8 lens which offers great speed and, at over 30% off the price of Canon's 300/2.8, great value and top-notch optics as well. Judging by the adoption of this lens by the pros and the excellent reviews it has received online, it seems to be a real winner. My only problem with this lens is lack of image stabilization - which is essential for the conditions under which I shoot. The day Sigma makes this lens with image stabilization is the day I sell my 100-400 and get this instead.

Beyond this, the prices start reaching the stratosphere - the 300/2.8, 400/2.8, 500/4 and 600/4 lenses range all the way to $8,000. These work very well with tele-converters and are as good as modern telephotos get. The 300/2.8 and the 500/4 are typically the lens of choice for wildlife shooters. Dedicated birders will want to opt for the 600/4, but a lot of people find this lens (along with the 400/2.8) to be too big and heavy for general wildlife shooting. As I said at the start of this article, if you can afford these lenses, you may as well get them - sooner or later, the call will be too strong.

Stabilized Lenses

Image stabilization, vibration reduction or optical stabilization - these are various brand names for a technology that compensates for lens shake while handheld, allowing you to get 2 or 3 stops of additional handholding capabilities. The traditional rule for handholding telephotos was: handhold only at shutter speeds that are equal to, or faster than, the inverse of the focal length. So a 500mm lens was handholdable at 1/500 or faster. With IS/VR/OS, the lens can be handheld at speeds of 1/125 or even 1/60 - and this isn't just marketing speak but observed reality!

This remarkable achievement comes with relatively limited downside - just slightly heavier weight, bigger price tag and somwhat greater battery usage. Many wildlife photographers, myself included, have embraced this technology as being a great boon when shooting wildlife - and have the results to show for it. I was on a walking trip in Zimbabwe with a guide, when, at dusk, 2 lionesses materialized about 15m away from us. No tripod, no monopod, no support - by bracing myself and using IS, I was able to get reasonably clean shots at shutter speeds of 1/10... with a 400mm lens! Try that with a non-IS lens.

Still, while IS is nice to have, it isn't as if the lack of IS equates to failure in wildlife photography. The best, sharpest shots always come from shots taken from a tripod or off a beanbag - where IS is not that useful. I cannot reiterate enough times: IS does NOT substitute for a tripod, nor does it always replace a faster lens: if you have to freeze motion or need a shallower depth of field, you need a bigger aperture - nothing else will do.

For photographing birds in motion, IS actually tends to slow things down (although newer versions of IS work much better with the camera's AF system). Also, since you'll be shooting at a high shutter speed anyway (in order to freeze the motion), you may not need the benefits of IS.

In a nutshell - if you can afford it, IS version of lenses are always nice to have. But if you don't have an IS lens, don't despair. Use a tripod or beanbag or even a monopod, and you're good to go. The one exception to this is with super teles, where even a tripod may not eliminate movement due to wind. In such cases, IS is virtually mandatory for maximum sharpness.

Zooms vs Primes - For Wildlife

Primes almost always give better quality - or similar quality at a lower price. No denying that. For wildlife, however, zooms have one important advantage: they offer more choices in framing than primes, especially in a setting where you cannot just zoom with your feet (not if you want to live to talk about it, anyway). And they're cheaper than a collecton of primes.

If you are willing to put in the extra effort (read: extra cash), then you can carry two or three bodies, each set up with one particular lens and don't have to compromise. That is what the top pros do. If you want to economize, then a zoom works quite well.

Teleconverters

Teleconverters are devices that attach between your lens and your body, and increase the effective focal length by a factor of 1.4 or 2. This comes with 2 downsides. One is loss of speed. A 1.4x TC reduces light by 1 stop, and a 2x TC reduces light by 2 stops. Thus a 300/2.8 lens becomes a 420/4 with a 1.4X TC, and a 600/5.6 with a 2X TC. The second downside is a reduction in quality - the amount of which depends on the lens and the quality of the TC. TCs are generally designed to be used with primes, and results with zooms tend to be less than perfect.

For example, pairing a Canon long tele with the matching Canon TCs results in very minimal degradation with a 1.4X TC and more (but still very acceptable) degradation with a 2X TC. With higher-end zooms, you can still get acceptable results but the degradation is more noticeable, especially with the 2x. With consumer zooms, the degradation is too much, atleast for my tastes. Your mileage may vary, so try before you buy.

My general rule of thumb is - use a TC only with prime lenses or with fixed maximum aperture zooms (like 70-200/2.8)

Mirror Lenses

If you read the ads in the back of photo magazines, odds are that you've seen 500 and 600mm lenses being offered for sale for prices ranging from $120. These are mirror lenses and use a different design concept compared to traditional lenses. Their main benefits are that they are light and cheap. On the flip side, they have a fixed aperture (usually f8) and images taken with these lenses have unique donut-shaped out-of-focus highlights. The cheaper no-brand lenses are, in my opinion, junk. The more expensive ones (such as the ones made by Sigma and other reputed lens manufacturers) offer surprisingly decent quality if you know how to get around their shortcomings.

Personally, I find mirror lenses to be too demanding, in terms of choice of background annd limitations on aperture. Wildlife photography is challenging enough as is, without your gear adding to your headaches. So I prefer to use more traditional lenses, and work with a shorter focal length, if I have to. Hell, I'd rather shoot RAW with a 70-300, and crop/upres the image. Again, your mileage may vary but try before you buy.

Other Equipment

When working with telephotos, NOTHING will improve your image quality as much as a tripod or a beanbag. Put another way, nothing will do as much to ruin the results of your expensive glass as handholding. This holds true even for shots that are at relatively high shutter speeds.

Please read this again: the tripod is the cheapest, best way to maximize the quality of your camera gear. I have super-sharp 11x14 prints of shots taken with the Canon 75-300 lens - a decent, but by no means great, performer. Why? A strudy tripod holding the lens, and good long-lens technique.

Make sure you use a tripod that is solid. Telephotos and cheap tripods do not mix. The most basic tripod that is adequate is the Bogen 3001/Manfrotto 190, although I would hesitate to use that with anything more than a 75-300. Better yet is the Bogen 3021/Manfrotto 055. And then, of course, are the Gitzos, the heavier Bogen/Manfrottos and such. For more on this theme, see my article on "Tripods - A necessary evil"

Match the tripod with a good, solid ballhead - pan and tilt heads are pretty much useless for wildlife photography. If you are using a relatively light lens (75-300), any decent ballhead ought to hold it just fine. If you are using a super tele, like the 500/4, the de facto standard ballhead is the Arca Swiss ballhead ($400). Kirk, Markins and Really Right Stuff also make ballheads that compare favorably to the Arca Swiss (see The Great Ballhead Faceoff). Whatever model you choose, make sure that the ballhead is sturdy and does not budge once locked down with your lens atop it. Ideally, it should have adjustable friction knobs so that your gear doesn't flop around when the main knob is loose.

With super-teles, a Gimbal-style head is needed for action shots - this can be a dedicated unit or one that attaches to your current ball-head and allows you to suspend your big lens by its center of gravity, making panning a breeze. Wimberley makes a couple, Kirk Photo makes one as well. Downside - again, price: ranging from $250-$500.

If conditions do not allow the use of a tripod, get a beanbag. You can get these commercially, or get a canvas bag, roughly half the size of a pillow, and fill it about 2/3rd with rice or beans (sand is no good - if there is a leak, you'll get sand all over your kit). Get a couple of these, put them on your vehicle's roof or window sill, rest your camera on them and shoot. With careful attention, you can replicate - even beat - the results you get from IS.

A good flash unit - along with a flash extender, such as the Lepp Project-A-Flash or the Better Beamer - is a very useful and much under-utilized tool. Used properly, it can help you balance contrasts and add a catchlight to your subject's eyes.

Filters are not too useful in wildlife photography - a UV to protect your lens front element is about all that I'd recommend. CPLs are nice for landscaoes, but I find that they cost me too much precious light, so I rarely - if ever - use them while shooting wildlife.

Suggested Lens Sets

For someone interested in photographing animals occasionally or in a zoo: a standard, variable-aperture 70-300 or 100-300mm lens is a good place to start while you develop your technique. If your interests develop, you can always upgrade without losing too much in the process. The Canon 70-300 IS and the Sigma 70-300 APO DG are 2 buget 300mm zooms that I recommend for Canon users.

For someone interested in serious wildlife photography, but on a budget: the Sigma 170-500, Sigma 50-500 and Tamron 200-500 lenses offer very good performance at a very reasonable price.

For someone looking for a single, high-quality lens for wildlife photography: Canon 100-400 IS, Nikon 80-400 VR, Nikon 200-400/4 VR are excellent buys. Canon also has a 35-350 (now discontinued) and a 28-300 IS lens that would be great for traveling photographers, who want to take a single lens that can do everything - but for pure wildlife photography, the 100-400 is better. Nikon also has a delicious 200-400/4 VR lens - although pricey (much more than these lenses), that gets my vote as the perfect single lens for wildlife.

For someone looking to build a wildlife photography system (ie, a collection of lenses): a 300/4, 400/5.6 or 300/2.8 primes or Sigma's 120-300/2.8 are all good starting points. Whichever of these lenses you get, you have the comfort of knowing that from a quality point of view, you have the best. Then add a 70-200/2.8 or 700-200/4, and a couple of teleconverters and you have a system that covers a very useful range of focal lengths and offers the best performance possible.

My own kit currently consists of 2 bodies - the 1D Mk2, and the 20D. For wildlife shooting, I typically use the following lenses: a 500/4 IS, a 300/4 IS, a 100-400/4.5-5.6 IS and a 70-200/4, as well as 1.4X and 2x tele-converters. Most of the time, I usually have either the 500/4 or the 300/4 (depending on the location) attached to one body, and the 100-400 attached to the other. Depending on the subject, I may attach a TC to the 500/4 as well.

A Final Thought

This article has been entirely gear-oriented (by intent), but I want to be clear on one thing - the best wildlife photographer is one who understands his subject, is able to recognize what the animal is doing, and is patient enough to spend hours waiting for the right shot.

As always, technique trumps gear. In my next article, I'll discuss some of the techniques needed to take good wildlife photographs.

Happy shooting!

 
     

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