The Basics to Wildlife Photography

Selecting the right kit

The first step of getting into photography is actually choosing your kit; from the many options available it can be rather difficult to decide. Budget is the biggest factor in kit selection and can often be the reason you have to go for something other than what you were hoping to get to start with. Note* this blog is concentrating on DSLR photography as it’s how I photograph and it’s how I started out. 

My first kit consisted of the lower/beginner levels of Canon camera gear; my kit consisted of a Canon 1200D, an EF-S 75-300mm lens, an EF-S 55-250mm lens and an EF-S 18-55mm lens. My camera had an APS-C sensor, or what’s commonly known as a crop sensor; there are two types of sensor, the crop-sensor and the full-frame sensor. Beginner cameras will always be crop-sensor cameras as these are cheaper than full-frames. Canon crop-sensors mean that you are technically getting 1.6x worth of extra “zoom”, the same effect can be made with a full-frame in post-production editing where you would simply crop the image to the same size. A full-frame camera’s sensor is made to be equivalent to the classic 35mm film you would have used in an old camera; the full-frame sensor is reckoned to be about twice the size of the sensors used in crop-sensor cameras. 

My boyfriend started with Nikon as he was used to it from using his dad’s camera. His first Nikon was the D3300, and with that he used 18-55mm lens and a 55-300mm lens, both of which were Nikon lenses. He then swapped both of these for the Sigma 18-300mm lens however the quality of this lens was less than satisfactory. His current kit is now made up of a Nikon D7200 with which he uses a Nikon 18-140mm lens and a Sigma 150-500mm lens, of which he uses both frequently for wildlife and aviation photography. 

Don’t forget as you go along, your skills in photography will grow and so you may outgrow your first photography kit, and hopefully your budget will grow so that you can level up. I’ve changed my kit a couple of times, moving from the 1200D to the 760D, a slightly higher spec camera. The 760D was probably a silly purchase as it wasn’t much above the 1200D, so I would also recommend a 760D for beginners. I now shoot on the 7D mark ii, the highest spec crop-sensor camera in the Canon line-up, I think they now have a mark iii, but I’m very happy with my mark ii and don’t feel the need to change it. I also owned a 5D mark iv at one time, one of the highest spec full-frame cameras and it produced beautiful images, unfortunately I had to sell it due to needing the money, but I hope I can upgrade to a full-frame again in the future. I only use one lens now which is the Canon L series 100-400mm mark ii lens; with this lens I also use a 1.4x extender when I need a bit more reach for my subjects, an important thing to consider when photographing wildlife and animals. 

I have used a variety of different lenses, the biggest I ever used was my 150-600mm Sigma lens, an absolute beast and was my choice of lens for my Tanzania trip, which is how I was able to photograph things so far away. I struggled to hold that lens however and my 100-400mm lens is more appropriately sized for me and I used it in Botswana and my Kruger holiday last year. 

I think if you can, play around with different kit and see what works for you based on your subjects and also your skill level. There are sites where you can rent kit out which might be a good idea so you can try things before splurging out and buying them, or you could look at buying second-hand kit, a good way to find what you want and save a bit of money. When I’m looking for kit to buy, I quite often surf mpb.com to see what they have, and I also use them when I need to sell my kit. 

What kit to use in what situation

Close-up photo using my 100-400mm lens and my 7D mark ii.

So, I already mentioned that with wildlife photography, it’s important to consider how much “reach” you are going to need to get those awesome photos, but you also need to understand when you should be using those big lenses, and when you should use a wider-angle lens. 

Cheetahs photographed in the Serengeti using a 150-600mm Sigma lens on my 7D mark ii.

A big lens with a long focal length should be used in situations where your subject is quite a fair distance away from you; a lot of these big lenses will have a limit as to how close you can be to be able to focus on the subject. My 100-400mm lens can focus subject that are 1 metre or more away, however, 1 metre is rather close for such a big lens, and so if you’re that close, you should really consider using a shorter lens. I forgot to mention it before, but one of my favourite lenses I’ve ever owned was the Canon L series 70-200mm lens. This lens produced some beautiful pet portraits and was great in those up close situations, it’s also the lens I used to photograph the Datoga woman in her very dark hut. I will say that you must also watch the environment when your subject is very far away; in Tanzania, due to the heat there was a lot of heat haze over the ground which made photographing very far away subjects rather tricky as the heat haze affected the lenses’ ability to focus. 

Zooming out and using a shorter focus length to show the elephant in his environment.

Short lenses, such as the Canon 24-105mm or 24-70mm are great for landscape photos, but also for photos where you want to include some of the environment into your wildlife photos. Sometimes rather than just having a close-up portrait of an animal, you want to include its environment to tell a little bit of a story with your photo.

My best advice is to just play around with your different lens options, learn the modes and settings you need to use (coming up in the next sections), and see what images you come up with. Photography being a creative area and a subjective art at that means that you are able to bend and break the rules within reason to add a more creative scope to your images. 

The camera modes you should be using

If you have a DSLR, you should never ever, ever just whack it in auto-mode and take photographs. You have spent hundreds, possibly thousands on this kit and so you shouldn’t be using a mode that any old Joe can use on their phone or point-and-shoot camera, oh no! There are three modes that you should be using and those are full Manual mode, Shutter priority, or, aperture priority. The mode can be changed using that dial on the top of your camera, these modes on Canon will be shown as M = Manual, Tv = Shutter priority, and Av= Aperture priority. On Nikon, these modes are shown as M = Manual, A = Aperture priority, and S = Shutter priority.  

Using manual mode to balance the settings to show how dark the stormy sky was in Tanzania

Selecting which mode to use depends on the situation you’re shooting in, to be able to determine which of these modes is best, you need to understand the settings you’re controlling by using these different modes. Manual mode means you have full control of all the settings and you can adjust each of them yourself to perfect a specific shot; shutter priority means you have control of the shutter speed and the camera will adjust the aperture and ISO settings to match and expose your image properly. The last one is aperture priority, just the opposite of shutter priority really, you have control of your aperture and your camera does the controlling of shutter speed and ISO. So I’ve mentioned 3 different settings here, the shutter speed, aperture and ISO, but maybe you don’t understand quite what these are yet? Keep reading to find out. 

The settings to think about

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO, in my opinion, the only settings you really need to know about to create some amazing images. These are the only settings I adjust, maybe other than white balance, but you learn different things as you go along and to start with, the three settings I’ve mentioned are the only things you need to concentrate on. 

To have a slight understanding as to how to use these settings, you need to understand what each of the different settings do. First of all, when you’re going to change any setting, whether it be ISO, shutter speed of aperture (also known as f/stop), you must consider that the changes you make has an effect on the amount of light reaching your sensor. Selecting the correct settings takes time to learn, however, the combination of the three settings should allow for the photo to be correctly “exposed”. Exposure in itself is pretty much just referring to the amount of light that you have allowed to travel through the lens, bounce off the mirror and onto the sensor. 

Datoga woman, photographed with a 5D mark iv, a 70-200mm lens and using an ISO of 6400.

ISO is a good place to start, by changing this setting, you are changing the camera’s sensitivity to light; this means that when it starts to get dark, if you “push” the ISO, which is how photographers describe it, you are able to brighten those photos so that they’re not under exposed. ISO however is what also causes photos to appear grainy if it is too high. Most beginner cameras will start to show some grain at 400 ISO, but it was still acceptable to about 800 ISO, anything above that just didn’t look good to me. Full-frame cameras have a much bigger scope for pushing the ISO, for example, my photo of the Datoga woman was taken on a Canon 5D mark iv, one of the best full-frames out there and I used an ISO of 6400 to achieve that shot. 

Photographed at a cat cafe in Cardiff, using a very low f/stop, maybe f/4 or lower to create a very shallow depth of field and some nice bokeh in the background.

The next setting is aperture, or f/stop. This setting will show up on the back of your camera as f/4.5 for example. The aperture setting is what determines the depth of field in your photo, so how much of the photo is in focus. A low number such as f/4.5, means a big aperture which will produce a shallow depth of field. The aperture affects the lens more than the camera; there are blades inside the lens that open and close depending on the aperture you’ve set which makes an internal hole bigger or small, the bigger the hole is, the shallower your depth of field will be. For something like an environmental shot, you want to use a higher f/stop, something like f/10 or higher to get more of the environment in focus around the animal. You must also remember that this setting has an effect on the amount of light reaching the sensor. With a small f/stop, you will be allowing a large amount of light onto the sensor, so you will need to adjust the other settings accordingly.

The last setting to concentrate on is the shutter speed, this is what controls how fast the shutter flicks to capture an image. The cameras that sound like a rapid-fire gun are using a high shutter-speed; the ability for your camera to keep up however will depend on its processing abilities and also set frame-rate. My 7D mark ii has a frame-rate of 10 frames a second I think, and so setting a high shutter speed means I get very nice rapid fire shots, which are especially useful for animals flying or running past. My camera also uses compact flash cards rather than standard SD cards, meaning it’s able to process a run of images faster than a lower level camera than can only take SD cards. To use shutter speed effectively, you should always aim to set it 1/the length of your lens. So, say you’re shooting at 100mm, your shutter speed should be set to 1/100, this will reduce the effects of camera shake, especially when hand-holding a lens. If you’re shooting particularly fast wildlife, really push that shutter speed up, you may need it set to at least 1/1000. Shutter speed also affects how much light reaches the sensor and can be used in really cool ways to create different effects in an image. You can set it slower and pan through an image to create some motion, just remember to try and focus on the animal. If you get yourself a tripod and a shutter remote, you can leave the shutter open for a long time and capture the stars, but night photography is an entirely different topic that I don’t really know much about. 

Where to practice your photography

At the moment, it’s difficult to go abroad to take those epic wildlife shots of lions and cheetahs in their natural habitat, but how do you practice so that you know what you’re doing when the time comes when you can travel again? 

Black rhino of Chester zoo, a great enclosure as there are no fences or glass to photograph through because they’re kept in by using ditches and stone walls.

Zoos! Zoos are great places to go to practice photography; yes, there are challenges such as fences, glass, many people in your way, but they are great places to practice and I have regularly gone photographing at zoos over the last 5 years which has really helped my photography to improve. 

My gorgeous girly enjoying the garden.

Pets are also great subjects to practice on. I can’t tell you how many thousands of photos I have of my dogs and cats, but the reason they’re so useful is because they move and behave like animals. Animals can be unpredictable in most circumstances, you don’t know where they’re going to be looking, what they’re planning to do, or maybe you’ve studied a bit of animal behaviour and you can kind of guess, but pets are amazing to practice on. It will teach you how to focus quickly, you can change your settings to try out different things, you can try different lenses and you can practice as much as you want because they’re right there in your home. 

I was once told that it takes 10,000 terrible images to make a good one, and whoever told me that was absolutely right. I went on a photography trip to Africa 5 years ago and didn’t understand what I was doing wrong the whole time I was there. When I came back home, I went to zoos, photographed my dogs and cats and suddenly the penny dropped, and I started to really understand how to take a good photo. 

I was going to add a section on the basics of editing, but I really don’t know much about it. The only things I adjust are the white balance, warmth (blue and yellow slidey bar) and the contrast really. I use Adobe lightroom to edit my photos, this will show a graph right at the top of the editing tools and the only thing I know is that the graph should be spread out fairly evenly from left to right, the height of the graph doesn’t matter so much. I will also say that you can’t fix a cr*p image so it should come out of camera pretty much as it should be. If it’s not in focus, nah, get rid of it, if the image is incredibly blurry, bin it. The only thing you should really be adjusting to make it look good is the exposure. My last piece of advice is cropping your images; the best crop that seems to fit on Instagram particularly well is a 4×5 crop. 

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