The natural world offers a plethora of photographic opportunities and once you learn the basics - you'll soon be hooked
Part 1 Gear up and get out
When it comes to photographic subjects, the natural world has a plethora of possibilities and getting started in wildlife photography - you’ll soon be hooked.
As a professional wildlife photographer, I have worked around the world from the Amazon Rainforest to the Okavango Delta, creating images of nature over the last ten years, and I couldn’t imagine enjoying anything more. But when you are just getting started, developing your skills in being able to get closer to wildlife and capture those moments with a camera, it can seem pretty daunting.
So in this 3-part guide, I’m going to be giving you an introduction to the gear, field crafts and camera skills you’ll need to enable you to head out and make some cracking wildlife shots!
I'm from the school of thought that a good photographer can make a great image of wildlife with any camera.
It's the skills, compositional thought, and eye for a moment that will set your images apart. Still, of course, there is a reason I tend to be seen lugging a relatively large rucksack of gear with me. That's because it makes my life a little more comfortable in regards to capturing images more consistently, and opening up possibilities when I'm working on location.
Choosing a camera for wildlife photography can seem a bit of a headache with so much information online, but the main consideration for anyone looking to develop their photography is that of manual control.
A DSLR or mirrorless camera of most modern forms will provide this, giving flexibility to change the aperture, shutter speed and ISO in order to expose in a variety of scenarios and to make creative choices.
Outside of the basics, look for cameras that offer more developed AF (auto focus) systems, often with more tracking points as well as a faster frames per second (FPS) speed, as this enables faster continuous shooting of moving subjects to capture that decisive moment. On the budget end of the market most cameras will be APSc or “cropped” sensor cameras, whilst more professional aimed cameras feature larger “full frame” image sensors that offer better low light performance due to larger pixels as a general.
APSc sensors however do offer a crop factor that can be very handy when starting out, often 1.5x or 1.6x, which gives the effect of higher magnification from a given lens; handy for distant subjects such as wildlife!
If you’re buying a new camera or adding to your previous kit, lenses are the place to spend the money.
As a quick outline, when looking at lenses, the key things to consider are the focal length, aperture and then the AF motor system and sharpness. The combination of these will ultimately determine the price, however with modern lens designs having come on a long way, even the more budget options can be great for getting started.
The mainstay of the wildlife photographer, a telephoto lens is rather an essential if you’re looking to create close-up images of wildlife.
Ideally you’ll want something 200mm or longer. I’d recommend 300mm for larger subjects and even up to 500/600mm if you’re aiming to go after smaller birds.
Be sure to check out the aperture value, the F number as it’s also known. This correlates to the size of the opening inside the lens and allows more or less light into the camera. This is key for creating smoother backgrounds and limiting depth of field, as well as providing a brighter optic that aids autofocus speed and performance.
Consumer telephoto lenses will typically be f5.6 whilst pro-aimed gear can be f4 or f2.8, offering greater creative flexibility, but often come at significant cost.
You’ll also notice options to opt for a prime or zoom lens.
Prime optics are fixed and so in order to change your composition you have to move your feet, whilst zooms offer composition flexibility from a static position. Prime lenses often offer a higher image quality whereas zooms might lose some quality in the corners, but again price also plays a part here in terms of optical design.
- Wide angle
Moving away from the telephoto, another must-have for the wildlife photographer is a wide angle. Many feel you need a telephoto lens in order to capture images of nature, however taking a wider field of view can often lead to far more interesting images and more unique compositions.
Of course it’s far harder to get into the right position with a wide angle for frame-filling images of wild subjects, so they often need to be used along with a remote trigger of some kind so the camera can be left set up and then triggered from a distance when the wildlife is close.
This is a great way to get into wildlife photography on a budget as any DSLR with its standard kit lens can be used like this for great quality images. A lens with a focal length between 16 and 35mm is ideal, however the best options also have a great close focus that enables them to be shot at ultra close distances, some only a few inches from the front of the lens.
If the smaller wonders of the world are more your thing, then investing in a macro lens might be something worth considering.
Macro lenses are specially designed to give life-size representation of subjects in order to help showcase tiny details and minuscule subjects such as insects, plants and flowers. True macro lenses go to 1:1 reproductions, meaning your subjects will be rendered in true life-size scale on your camera’s sensor, whilst some lenses such as telephotos offer a macro function that may only go to 1:2, but can still be great for experimenting before making a larger investment.
These lenses come in a range of focal lengths but it’s a general rule that the longer the focal length, the more distance you’ll have to work with between your camera and the subject, whilst still maintaining the same reproduction ratio.
You can learn more about the fundamentals of macro photography and how to get started, with this guide.
When it comes to getting started in wildlife photography there aren’t really many accessories that are essential, however a couple are worth mentioning.
A pair of binoculars are an essential tool for looking for wildlife, enabling you a way to scout areas without lugging all your camera kit.
Often I find an 8x magnification pair optimum as they enable me to watch wildlife from a distance whilst also giving an impression of what my 300mm telephoto will see.
My Nikon Monarch HG 8x42’s are ideal for scouting areas out for future shoots and watching wildlife right into the twilight hours.
When spending long hours with the camera pointed where you hope the wildlife will appear, obviously hand-holding the camera isn’t practical.
Investing in a decent tripod is paramount in order to not only help holding your camera, but also reducing camera shake for sharper images.
Smaller compact models aren’t always up to the job when it comes to holding longer telephoto lenses, so be sure to check the model will be able to support your heaviest kit.
If using heavy long lenses a gimbal-style head can be great for allowing easy movement of your camera while it is attached to the tripod. Pro models can cost as much as a decent lens, but are a solid investment, and will serve you well for years to come, and not only for wildlife photography.
- Remote release
If you are looking to get the camera close to wildlife but a long lens isn’t in the budget, a wireless remote release can be a handy way to get started. Radio triggers enable you to set your camera up in a desired location and then retreat and fire the camera to capture shots without scaring the wildlife.
- Outdoor clothing
This is a biggie!
When you are working with wildlife you’ll be in the great outdoors for extended periods of time. The action happens whatever the weather, so invest in some decent clothing. There is nothing worse than being cold and wet through for multiple hours, so a good set of waterproofs and some thermal layers are essential for long days in the field.
And bring a flask!
No matter where you are in the world there is almost always wildlife to be found, and to get out and photograph. However finding them and being able to get close can often pose a challenge for wildlife photographers who are just getting started.
Developing the skills that enable you to find wildlife in a range of locations and habitats takes time, so when getting into the craft concentrate on learning as much as you can about your local flora and fauna.
Reading up on wildlife found close to home will give you an idea of different subjects and the areas they can be found in, and ID charts with footprints and trail signs can be particularly helpful.
Often I find myself looking at scientific journals for more information about specific species behaviours and traits, with the idea of building up a picture of the exact habitats and signs I’m looking for in the field.
It’s also not a bad idea to link up with a local wildlife group or head out on a guided walk of your area with a local naturalist. This can be a great introduction to finding places for wildlife and is often filled with good advice which helps you to “get your eye in” a little faster.
If you’d like a less fieldwork-heavy approach, local parks, gardens and recreation areas offer awesome places for wildlife photography, with subjects tending to be far more confiding. Perfect for concentrating on the skills involved in photography, rather than needing to be an expert in fieldcraft to begin with!
Duck ponds are a prime example that offer top class opportunities to get up close with wild subjects right on your doorstep. Get out and see what you can find!
That’s it for part 1 of my ‘Introduction to Wildlife Photography’.
In part 2 we are going to looking at the basic camera settings and how to get started composing some beautiful images before moving on to some advanced techniques! Read on here.
All images by Tom Mason.
Tom is a professional wildlife and nature photographer and Nikon Europe Optics Ambassador from the UK. Having worked globally on numerous assignments from the Amazon to the Falklands, Tom has a deep passion for wild places and creative imagery.View all articles