It’s been a while since our last blog post, so I thought I would get the ball rolling again with a “5 tips” post. Much like a lot of people, I have been photographing wildlife for longer than I’ve been taking photos of anything else. When I first got into it, I would get home and edit my photos, and try to make the most of a photo that really should have been deleted! Here are my 5 tips to make sure you get the most out of your trip! Whilst I am aware that there are a number of camera manufacturers, my tips will be based on Canon equipment as that is all I’ve ever used.
1. Check the weather forecast.
Unless you are after a shot of a Rabbit in the rain for some reason, the chances are poor weather will mean poor shots. On most cameras, ISO is going to play a huge part in image quality. The majority of shots will need to be taken at a fast shutter speed with a wide aperture (birds in flight etc), so there is nowhere to go for light other than ISO. When planning to get photos of something in particular the first thing I do is check the weather forecast, I strongly believe if the weather is nice, with plenty of light, you are halfway there to getting a good shot. Whilst light is admittedly the most important part of photography in any case, I do think it is much more make and break when it comes to wildlife photography due to the need for a fast shutter speed. Arguably you could use a monopod/tripod, but I prefer to shoot handheld, mainly due to my lack of heavy lens.
This shot was taken on the Isle Of Skye, the weather there is generally ok, but on this particular day we knew it was going to be sunny. We ventured out for a walk along one of the Lochs, and I had the Canon 100-400mm F4 attached to a Canon 5d mkii. As there was plenty of light I was able to keep a low Iso of 250, widest possible aperture of 4, and still a fast shutter speed of 1/1600.
2. Go out at the right time of day.
Again, closely related to the first tip in terms of lighting, the time of day you go out to get your shots is very important. I prefer getting up early and getting out whilst it’s still dark if there’s a long journey involved. This is my ideal time for shooting wildlife for two reasons, the first reason is because people scare off wildlife. If you get to a nature reserve and the obligatory push chair family have already had a good walk around with their 17 dogs, the wildlife will have buggered off. The second reason is lighting, I like the light in the morning, as it has a very warm feel to it, if you keep the light behind you as much as you can, your subject will be lit for you! That’s pretty much all there is to it for this tip, get there first and get your shots, and try not to shoot when the light is too harsh.
This shot was taken before anyone else had turned up to the reserve, the sun was in the perfect spot to light the bird enough to get the detail in it’s eye. Later in the day the light would have been behind the bird causing it’s eye to blend in to the black on it’s head. I took this using a Canon 7d and a Canon 300mm f4 prime lens.
3. Make sure you have the right kit.
I fully appreciate that camera equipment is expensive, and there is definitely a valid reason for using equipment that suits your skill level. However, the minimum requirement for wildlife photography in terms of equipment, is make sure you have a lens with enough reach. Most compact cameras these days have plenty of reach, in terms of SLR’s though, you’re going to need a long lens. With a crop sensor, the minimum I think most people would get away with is around 250mm. When I first got into photography I used the very reasonably priced Canon 55-250mm lens (updated) and an old Canon 450d. This reach was enough at the time, image quality was ok for the money invested, and I used this lens for a number of years with good results. I went on to use the Canon 7d and the fantastic Canon 300mm F4L lens. I still use this combo today quite often, mainly as the 7d is still a fantastic camera, and the crop sensor gives an equivalent reach to 480mm on a full frame camera. The 7d mkii has now been released, and the reviews are extremely promising. It’s also worth noting there is the option to use an extender such as this 1.4x Canon extender for extra reach. When it comes to full frame cameras the bottom line is, you need more reach. When I went to Skye I hired out the Canon 100-400mm F4-5.6 lens to use on my 5d mkii for a change, which (accompanied with nice weather) wielded good results, although I was constantly at 400mm for wildlife. I found this lens good for landscapes in Skye, as 100mm isn’t much of a zoom for such a large area. I did find I got better results with the 7d + 300mm combo rather than the 5d mkii 100-400mm combo for wildlife however. Unless you’ve got a silly amount of money to warrant buying a lens with enough reach for a full frame sensor, crop sensor cameras are the better option for wildlife photography.
This image of a Red Kite was taken using a Canon 450d and the old 55-250mm f3.5-5.6 lens. Roughly around £600 worth of kit at the time. I’m still pretty happy with this image today.
4. Have Patience.
The first time I visited Skye, I had heard there was an opportunity to see wild Otters. Thinking (as most would) that meant get the binoculars out, the first day we just kept checking the loch from one of the windows in the lodge. The next day the Otter was spotted on the beach, which changed everything. Knowing getting a photo of a wild Otter was pretty good going, (and of course remembering not to interrupt the animal at all) I found a spot on the beach where I couldn’t be seen so as to not scare the Otter if it did swim up to the beach. The first day, and the next three days, I waited for upwards of 5 hours a day, in March, in Scotland… It was pretty cold. It wasn’t until the last day that I got a glimpse of the otter, without it even noticing me!
I took this, and about 15 similar shots using the Canon 7d & 300mm prime combo. To this day this is still my favourite wildlife image, as all the waiting I did was definitely worth it! The next year I revisited Skye, and was more than happy to wait for the Otter again, unfortunately the weather was against me (hence tip 1), so using the 5d mkii and 100-400mm combo, I got these (not so good) shots.
5. Get a hide.
My final tip, is invest in a hide. Providing you are happy to wait for a shot, a hide will help. If the subject cannot see you it won’t be scared off by you! these are readily available, I would definitely recommend getting one with a seat built in. I’ve used one a number of times, admittedly you can’t carry them too far, but if you know a local spot that is prone to wildlife, they’re a good shout. I used one to capture this image of a Wren entering it’s nest, and was sure to not affect the bird in any way.
Whilst I think these tips are fundamental to making the most of an opportunity, I also think you need to get out as much as possible and learn countless other lessons for yourself. When I first started taking wildlife shots I never took my finger off the shutter button, whereas nowadays if something isn’t right I may not even turn on my camera, instead I’d probably revisit the area at a better time. Regardless of all of the headaches I’ve had from not getting the right shot, wildlife photography is still by far my favourite hobby.