President Teddy Roosevelt -- who was a well-known hunting enthusiast -- still gets a bad rap from animal lovers, even though he passed away many years ago. If only he'd substituted a camera for his rifle, perhaps he would be remembered as a kinder, gentler man.
Wildlife photography can be every bit as exhilarating, challenging and satisfying as hunting, and it requires a similar set of skills: patience, noise discipline and the ability to endure exposure to the elements without too much discomfort. These requirements often set it apart from conventional photography [source: Hudspeth].
Patience and noise discipline, in particular, are key skills for anyone to possess if he's planning on taking photos of wild animals. Some people might even tell you that an animal's awareness of the photographer's presence can be the difference between good and bad wildlife photography. This is because animals behave differently when they sense that people are around them. So while you may think you're capturing their natural behavior on film, if they know you're there, you're likely to get a lot of shots of their backsides, as they'll be running in the opposite direction.
If you're just snapping shots of elephants at the zoo, obviously a basic point-and-click camera is all you need. But a serious wildlife photographer will benefit from special equipment to help avoid detection by the animals being filmed [source: Coe]. If you can remain unnoticed, not only do you keep from disrupting the wildlife, you also capture them in their natural states. Obviously, you'll need a good camera, and a tripod usually comes in handy, too. But there are also other accessories -- such as camouflage and scent blockers -- that can help you remain invisible and get the best pictures possible.
Next, we'll give a quick rundown of exactly what a beginner wildlife photographer will need.
Wildlife Photography Equipment for Beginners
Beginner shooters may be most comfortable starting out with a camera that has an automatic adjustment mode for aperture (or f-stop) and shutter speed. Aperture controls the depth of field in focus in the photo, and shutter speed is how the camera captures different speeds of movement -- it's what the photographer adjusts to either blur or freeze a moving subject. Both are adjusted based on the amount of available light [source: Coe].
Automatic mode helps to take the guesswork and frustration out of situations where beginners may be slow at changing their manual settings, or when the subject is moving very quickly or the light is changing constantly. Manual mode, on the other hand, permits complete creative control over your composition. If you want to slightly overexpose or underexpose certain areas of the picture, or if you want to capture motion or show depth of field in a specific way, manual mode allows for any combination of aperture and shutter speed that you want to work with.
When it comes to camera bodies, you'll want one capable of taking several shots in a multiple frame mode, which makes it easier to capture moments that don't include your subject's blinks, protruding tongues or sneezes. According to professional photographer and photography instructor, Catherine Coe, a basic camera that takes about three frames per second is a good starting point for all types of photography and is perfectly suitable for a year or two of experimenting with wildlife photography. But shooters may want to move on to something more advanced down the road [source: Coe].
However, even the best camera won't do much good if you're not a sound woodsman. Most wild animals will see or smell you before you ever see them, so the ability to remain still and silent for extended time periods vastly improves your chances of getting good shots. Depending on your target, you may have to wake up prior to sunrise and make your way stealthily to a well-hidden position, so your clothing and its contents shouldn't make any noise when you move. Leave the corduroys, maracas and nylon windbreaker at home. At the bare minimum, you should be sure to adjust your in-camera settings to turn off any beeping noises. That said, there's no camera that can take pictures completely silently. Even cameras with special "silent" modes still have moving shutters, which produce an audible clicking sound [source: Canon].
Read on to find out whether there's a best lens to use for wildlife photography.
Best Lens for Wildlife Photography
There are enough combinations of lenses -- of all different sizes, with several ranges of apertures -- to make your head spin. These lenses often cater to particular photographic scenarios. For example, a 400 mm zoom lens allows you to get in close on your subject while maintaining enough distance to avoid scaring them away. But these larger lenses can be expensive, and shooters on a budget can find reasonably priced 300 mm zoom lenses and 3.5 to 5.6 apertures, which are just fine for people starting out [source: Coe].
If you can afford one, though, a lens with aperture that goes down to 2.8 adds significant versatility. The lower aperture range allows photographers to keep many subjects -- specifically those staggered at differing distances from the camera -- in focus at the same time. Image stabilizers reduce blurriness caused by your hands shaking on those frigid winter mornings, so you should look for lenses with that feature, too.
There's no best lens for wildlife photography, per se, as different situations call for different tools. However, just know that more elusive animals such as bighorn sheep and mountain lions may be seen only from very long distances, which requires larger zoom lenses, but if you're just planning on shooting wildlife from 50 yards or so away, a 300 mm or even a 200 mm lens is probably sufficient.
As is so often the case, with cameras, you get what you pay for, and most bargains come at a cost in terms of forfeited quality [source: Coe]. Remember, any time you set out to photograph wild animals, light and motion are going to come into play, which often demands equipment with a wide array of abilities. The more sophisticated the lens or camera body, the more you should expect to spend. You can save money by buying lenses with more restricted aperture ranges if you're not interested in taking shots with low depth-of-field.
Keep reading to learn about accessories that could enhance your wildlife photography experience.
Wildlife Photography Accessories
There are probably as many accessories one can justify owning for wildlife photography as there are different scenarios out in the wild. Some photographers get by using a single camera bag and waist belt, and others have a different satchel or backpack for every situation. Luggage is largely a matter of personal comfort -- however, be aware that waist belts or chest straps can be valuable to those who shoot for hours on end, because they take the weight of heavy equipment off the shooter's shoulders.
A good, sturdy tripod can be a wildlife photographer's closest ally. A simple one will do, but one with a cable release, which allows for shooting at different shutter speeds, is preferable, especially for situations with limited light. Dusk and dawn often present prime wildlife photo opportunities, so this ability can sometimes be the difference between sufficient and excellent work.
One of the most important wildlife photography accessories is patience. The best wildlife photographers are known for spending large amounts of time in remote places, waiting for the perfect shot. If you're capable of moving around silently in the wild, you're already off to a good start.
Camouflage that's effective for the environment where you'll be shooting can depend on the terrain and the season. Do your homework, and see what works the best. The hunting industry already has made a plethora of products available solely for the purpose of going undetected by wild animals, so take a look at what's available among hunting supplies. Scent-masking sprays, shampoos and laundry detergents are favorites among deer hunters, and many of the qualities that make a good hunter translate seamlessly into being a successful wildlife photographer.
For lots more information on photography and wildlife, follow the links on the next page.
Debating whether to use a film or digital camera for action shots? Take our quiz and find out the pros and cons of film and digital for action photos.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Allinder, Jan. "Lucid Images Wildlife Photography." (Accessed December 1, 2009)http://wildlifephoto.net/index.html
- Canon. "Silent Mode with EOS Mark III Cameras." (Accessed December 1, 2009)http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=1906
- Coe, Catherine. "Catherine Coe Photography & Graphic Design." (Accessed November 27, 2009)http://www.catherinecoephotography.com/
- Coe, Catherine. Wildlife Photographer. Personal Interview. November 19, 2009.
- Graf, Mark and Graf, Lisa. "Graf Photography." (Accessed December 1, 2009)http://www.grafphoto.com/
- Hudspeth, Mac. "Southern Focus." (Accessed November 27, 2009)http://www.southernfocus.com
- Jordan, Barbara. "Wildlife and Nature Photography by Barbara Jordan." (Accessed December 1, 2009)http://www.silvercloud.net/barbarajordan/
- Mangelsen, Thomas. "Images of Nature Online." (Accessed November 27, 2009)http://www.mangelsen.com/
- Nature Photographers Network. "Nature Photographers Online Magazine." (Accessed December 1, 2009)http://www.naturephotographers.net/