Becoming a great wildlife photographer is a lifetime pursuit. You will spend hours upon hours scouting locations, traveling to them, and waiting for the best opportunity to take a single shot. Wildlife photography is an art that requires much more patience that any other kind of photography. You could end up spending an entire day in the hot sun without getting a single shot. However, the results for your persistence can be superb. If this is the reality you are willing to accept, then it’s time to delve a littler deeper into one of my favorite photographic disciplines.
Telephoto lens + fast shutter speed = success
There are two prevailing rules in wildlife photography. You need to have a long lens and enough light to get a very fast shutter speed. By long lens, I am referring to a telephoto lens somewhere between 200mm to 500mm. If you can afford a zoom lens that works in this range, go ahead and spring for one. You’ll be more than happy you did when you start making on-the-fly adjustments and quickly re-frame your rapidly moving subjects.
I am not saying that those of you with point-and-shoot cameras (that have a lens you cannot change) can’t get great wildlife photos. I am simply saying that it will be more difficult for you to do so. As you know, wild animals are acutely aware of their surroundings, much more than your household cat. They know when you’re getting close, and they very quickly get out of your path. A nice long telephoto lens gives you and your subject some breathing room. You won’t have to chase after something that’s always trying to get away.
How to make the most of point-and-shoot systems
The best piece of advice I have for those with point-and-shoot cameras is to do your best to avoid making loud noises and remember that the color of your clothing is important. You don’t have to go out of your way to wear camouflage or anything like that, but your bright neon ski jacket probably won’t be the best choice when you go out for a mid-day photo shoot.
Even photographers with very professional camera setups will need to exercise caution when it comes to making noise and being unseen. You want the animals you are photographing to feel comfortable in their own surroundings. You want to capture them when they don’t think anyone is watching. It’s just like photographing your friends, in a way. You know the shot won’t be nearly as candid when they know you’re taking it.
Use a fast shutter speed
I mentioned earlier that it is very important to use the fastest shutter speed that your camera or the surrounding light will allow. There are a few reasons for this. One of them has to do with the animals themselves, and the other has to do with your camera and telephoto lenses in general.
People are pretty mellow when it comes to moving body parts. We only have a few of them, and they very rarely move all that fast. Some animals are similar. However, other animals are completely different. Think about a hummingbird and how fast it has to beat its wings to hover in the special way it does. Even at 1/500s, those wings are still going to look blurred. If you really want to capture that hummingbird, you’re going to need to increase your shutter speed past 1/1500s and then some!
There is a second reason why you will want to increase your shutter speed. Remember that you will also be using a telephoto lens at some very long distances, and for that you'll need a long focal length like 500mm. When you shoot photos at a 500mm focal length, your images are much more susceptible to camera shake than they are when you take them at 50mm.
All of this has to do with the fact that the frame moves faster across the horizon as you zoom in more and more. At a certain point, your camera isn’t all that different from a telescope. If you nudge a telescope ever so slightly, you’re suddenly looking at entirely different star systems. Were you to try and take a picture in between, you would be covering so much distance in such a short period of time that what you get would undoubtedly be blurred.
So use as fast a shutter speed as your camera will let you go. You'll be rewarded with crisp clear images with no blur.
Should you use a tripod?
The other common way to combat the inevitable shakes that happen with a large zoom is to sit your camera on a tripod. However, I find it is much easier to hold the camera in my hand and make quick adjustments as I see fit. Animals move fast, and you simply don’t have the time to adjust your tripod to get the shot to work correctly. By the time you lock everything into place, your subject will be out of sight. It’s much better to re-frame your photo in a split second, trust your shutter is set fast enough, and capture the image before it’s too late.
I must offer a final note of caution regarding super fast shutter speeds. Whenever you get all the way up to 1/1500s, your shutter speed is so fast that it will seriously limit the amount of light making its way to your camera sensor. It will be fine on a bright sunny day, but I would advise you to check your light meter and take some sample photos first. Don't use these fast shutter speeds in the early morning, evening, or during the fall. There just won't be enough light getting in the camera for the shot to work.
As I say in almost every article, always do the most with what you have. Try to get the fastest shutter speed the sunlight will allow and make an effort to go out during a brighter time of day the next time you shoot. Don’t force a certain kind of photo to happen when the situation just won’t allow for it. Know what shots you can and cannot get, and you’ll be a much happier and relaxed photographer.
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