If landscape is the supreme challenge, wildlife photography has to be the source of supreme frustration. There may be days on end when you make absolutely zero photos to show for your hard work and patience. Any wildlife photographer worth his salt will tell you, it is always a struggle without the right gear and the right amount of planning. You can still make good landscape images with reasonable (not outstanding) gear, but you absolutely need great lenses if you want to shoot great wildlife photos, period. Apart from gear there are a few more aspects to shooting great wildlife photos. This article is geared towards sharing with you some of those aspects so as to introduce you to wildlife photography.
If some of you have a fairy godmother or if a long lost relative left you a fortune, money shouldn’t be a problem, right? In that case the best lens you can pick up is the Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS USM. For Nikon systems the comparable lens would be the AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR. For the rest of us, unfortunately, both these lenses are way out of reach. So the next best option would be to sneak in with a 200mm lens as close to the animal as possible and hope the animal chooses to ignore us. Just kidding. The other (serious) option would be to buy a reasonably long lens, something around 400mm and pair it with a tele-converter.
The AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED VR is a great piece of lens and you could use it with a 2x tele-converter (the AF-S TC-20E III), further extending its reach to 800mm albeit at a loss of around two stops of light. Although, I personally don’t quite like too many optics between the front element of an expensive glass and the sensor at the back of the camera, sometimes a compromise is inevitable. Tamron makes an excellent 150-600mm telephoto lens. It is affordable and does the job. But it’s not fast. Another cheap solution would be to bring a crop sensor camera with you that would also technically increase the focal length of your lens. For example a camera with 1.6x crop would make the focal length of a 400mm lens into a 640mm!
Having glorified the tele-lens I must put in a word or two about the good old wide lens. Else I will be doing a great injustice. Don’t forget to pack a wide-zoom lens as well. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have a breathtaking expansive scene and all you have is a 400mm prime.
Bring a monopod or a bean bag
With such heavy zoom lenses you would definitely need some kind of stability to make a shot. This is were monopod or a bean bag can come in handy. Why I put more importance to the monopod or a bean bag and not a tripod has to do with the fact that a tripod takes up a lot of space. When shooting in an animal reserve you would probably be on a jeep or a SUV jostling for space with a few other fellow photographers.
A tripod becomes an impediment to shoot with. A monopod, on the other hand, gives you better flexibility. The same way a beanbag gives you better flexibility and mobility allowing you to shoot right through a car window and still manage to make great images.
Pick the right time of the day to shoot
You should ideally be shooting during the early morning and late afternoon light. The rest of the day isn’t particularly great for shooting animals. Light during these times of the day is warmer and softer. It tend to bring out the character of the animals and create an aura around them. Additionally, this light is directional which means you have to be in the right position to be able to get a good shot. Make meticulous preparations beforehand. You have to be in position before the animal is there. Make your composition, take a few test shots and then wait patiently for the animal to arrive. This may sound ridiculous but in the other scenario, if you are following the animal you will always be in a handicap position. Things will always be out of your control. In the worst case scenario you are likely to scare it off. I take that back, the worst case scenario would be getting eaten. And yes that’s a real threat to consider when shooting wild predators.
Scout for good locations
If you are shooting in an unfamiliar territory local knowledge will be imperative. A guide who is also a local will take you much closer to your subject then you can ever be on your own. Having said that a little bit of research of your own will never hurt. At the very least you will be able to communicate with your guide better.
Once you spot the animal, try to get into an angle from where you are at the same level as the animal. This is particularly applicable for big cats, and other animals except for giraffes and elephants. Shooting low from the safety of the vehicle will likely give you great images. The money shot is when the animal is looking straight at you. I have found side lit profiles of big cats great too.
This goes without saying, always shoot in continuous or drive mode. That way you will burn up your memory card faster, but at the same time you will get more shots to choose from. Also, always shoot in RAW.
I prefer to compose with AF points. This allows me to compose and fire away the exposures immediately. With the focus and recompose technique you lose a vital second or two and there is always a possibility of image blur. Sometimes, however, the use of the center AF point becomes obligatory. Such as when you are photographing something which has less texture making a focus lock difficult. Most cameras have the center AF point a cross-type one or a dual cross type one and that increases focusing prowess by some degree.
Never ever be satisfied by seeing the images at the back of the camera. Trust nothing unless you see an image in full size on a well calibrated monitor upon return home. If the light is right and everything else is perfect, milk the hell out of the moment and get as many shots as possible. You won’t realize on the spot that many of those shots might be unusable until you see then on a big screen.
Watch out for mirage
As crazy as it may seem wide open vastness that are interspersed with water bodies and grasslands are ideal conditions for mirage. These happen more during the summer, but don’t count on it to not happen at other times of the year. If you are aware of the general idea you know what it’s going to do to your images. This is another reason why I hate the idea of shooting wildlife with a tele-lens during the middle of the day and prefer the early morning.
Of course you need extra batteries, memory cards and the rest of the tools. Don’t forget to carry a flashlight, some emergency medications and at least two bottles of water. Dehydration is a photographer’s worst nightmare. Take protection for your head as well. I remember having ventured into a leech infested forest (unknowingly) in search of a local bird and upon my return found blood dripping out of my left foot. The leech must have had its fill and dropped off. It was a difficult thing trying to stop a wound without proper medications. Lucky for me my guide who knew the local medicinal plants squashed some leaves and applied the pulp to the wound. The bleeding stopped immediately.