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