Wildlife photography is challenging when it comes to getting sharp, noise free images. This challenge is compounded by poor lighting much of the time.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few things the hard way. I’m still learning but I think I have most of it figured out. Here’s my advice on equipment and techniques that may help you improve your results.
I’ve moved to full frame bodies. In general, I consider ability to get a clean shot more important than how many shots I can rip off in a few seconds of bursts. I find the full frame bodies to give me an extra stop of shutter speed, or ISO over any crop body (APS-C) sensor body. The two most known action/wildlife APS-C DSLR bodies on the market now are the Canon EOS 7D mkII and the Nikon D500. Impressive equipment for having a smaller sensor, but that smaller sensor is going to cost you a reduction in low light ability and detail. For those of you who are fond of mirror-less cameras, you’ll find the same to be true, but tracking moving subjects to be more of a challenge using the electronic view finder. I don’t believe mirror-less bodies achieve the same level of performance in the field and I don’t use them for that reason.
Since the Nikon D850 is still on back-order, I’ve resigned my kit to the Nikon D810 and D750, both full frame sensor bodies and both with excellent auto-focusing characteristics. In general, I get good results up to ISO 3200 and can even press it further if I have to, using DXO PhotoLab for noise reduction.
I carry a third body, a Nikon D7200. This is an APS-C/crop sensor body that performs quite well. I actually think it has the best image quality of any APS-C body on the market, including the Nikon D500. I’ve found that ISO 3200 is generally usable but loss of image fidelity is more apparent than the full frame bodies at that setting. I have to resort to more noise reduction in post processing on my raw images from this camera but below ISO 3200, I’m getting generally good results. It will crank off shots at about 6-7 frames per second which I think is more than enough. As a matter of fact, I set all my cameras slow speed continuous shooting to 5 fps and find I get more keepers because I’m not constantly moving the camera with the shutter whamming away full tilt. I can take a little more time getting the scene framed in real time and the buffer lasts longer. What I find to be the most useful aspect of the D7200 is that the 1.5x crop is a better solution than putting a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter on a full frame body. I don’t keep a teleconverter in my kit, they simply reduce image quality too much. The D7200 will give a much better result with a similar field of view as a teleconverter.
Another aspect of the crop body to be aware of is shutter speed. I normally set my full frame bodies to 1/1000th of a second shutter speed. With the crop bodies, you lose a stop of shutter speed, so I normally set the shutter for 1/1600th sec to compensate for the narrower field of view and amplified affects of camera shake and subject movement.
I use Auto-ISO on all bodies and I normally default to an aperture of f/7.1 to keep the lens sharpness and depth of field where I like it. By the way, I still read reviews and comments on the internet that the crop sensor body gives a deeper depth of field than the full frame sensor body. This is techno-babble nonsense. Your depth of field is the same on either body with the same lens set to the same aperture and focal length. DOF is a function of the lens. The sensor doesn’t alter the depth of field, it alters the field of view.
I also use center weighted average metering, as most of my wildlife subjects will be consuming the center of the frame and I want to get good exposure on the animal.
For auto-focus on Nikon, I use 3D tracking. I put the focus box on the head of the critter and if the critter moves, that tracking spot should hold to that part of the animal as you re-frame the scene. You must stay aware of where that tracking point is when you start squeezing off shots though. The only time I have issues is when the focus point drifts off the area I originally focused on and I’m not paying attention to it happening. This can result in the camera focusing on the body of the animal and not the face and to me, getting those eyes in focus is what I’m after. Don’t let your primary focus point of the animal drift out of the auto-focus sensor boundaries. I set the camera up to show the boundary in the view finder and I keep the focus point within that boundary. If I operate the camera correctly, I seldom get an out of focus image on the Nikon bodies.
I’ve found the most useful lenses to be super-telephoto zooms that cover the range between 80mm and 600mm. On my bodies I use the Nikon 200-500mm VR on the D810 and the Nikon 70-200mm VR on the D750. I keep a 24-120mm VR in the kit for those occasional wide angle and landscape shots. For the most part, I don’t change lenses when working. It subjects the lens and camera sensor to dust. I hate having to delete dust specks from the image and hate cleaning sensors even more. When I do change lenses, it’s always within the confines of the vehicle with the windows rolled up and the camera body facing down.
What about the big primes?
I see a lot of folks using these big monsters and for good reason. They have the best image quality. But they are also bulky and cumbersome to use in the field unless you’re sitting in a fixed position and not likely to need to move around much. They are like shooting clay pigeons with a howitzer though when it comes to flexibility. Hand holding a 600mm prime lens is not for the weak of arm and is not an ideal solution for photographing moving or multiple subjects rapidly at different distances. The fixed focal length is also going to limit your framing and composition choices. I see a lot of the same types of shots coming from these lenses because of that.
The big primes typically require an additional investment of a good sturdy and expensive tripod and gimble head. Using a big prime will cost you lots of money, reduce your mobility, reduce your composition choices and you will simply not get the variety of shots that the zooms will get.
Most super-telephoto zooms can be hand-held by the average person and when the light gets low or the bulk gets bothersome, an effective tool is the mono-pod. I use a mono-pod on the 200-500 about 2/3 of the time. I keep it in the back seat and can pull it out quickly and move around nimbly with a camera attached to one. They are light and also make a good walking stick when you have to hike. I like keeping the weight down and the mono-pod gives you that little extra stability over hand-holding without the bulk of a big tripod with a huge prime attached.
As for filters on the lens. I don’t recommend them. All they do is foul up your image quality. If you have a UV filter on your expensive lens, you’ve reduced the image quality to that of a $50 piece of plastic. If you’re worried about protecting the front element of your lens, try using a lens cap and hood. They are much better protection and the money you save is worth more than the delusional belief that UV filter is doing anything for you.
Lastly, I always keep a couple of plastic trash bags and a cotton towel in the kit. The trash bags are a great way to protect your camera in the rain and they don’t require a lot of fumbling around when you need to use one. Don’t buy those custom rain guards unless you’re going to be working in monsoon or blizzard conditions. I bought one years ago and it sits in the cabinet, used only one time.
It struck a cord in me as this is one of the types of behavior shots you always look for. I have a few photographs of this action but I take them at infrequent intervals.
It’s not often one gets to see this and even then it’s not always in conditions where a nice photo can be taken. It shows up unannounced and lasts for only a few seconds. One’s brain must stay in gear as well.
I managed this shot earlier this week and realized that my brain cells worked a bit more in concert regarding watching and waiting for it to possibly occur.
So, I have to thank Dawn for flipping on the lights in a poorly lit spot in my brain.
Moose live a difficult life. There are no emergency rooms, though some lucky critters may find their way to a veterinarian if injured and found close enough to civilization and there appears to be some calculated chance that human assistance can be provided. For most moose though, being injured is a serious business. Anything from a simple broken hoof to being hit by an automobile is usually a death sentence for one of these wild beasts. Add to the equation their coexistence with predators, parasites and contact with domestic ungulates, for a moose to survive for more than 10 years in the wild is probably highly unlikely.
Moose have also been known to attack their own. I’ve read that a cow moose will attack her own offspring if it tries to reunite with her while she has a new calf. The mothers chase their calves off when a new one is born. I’ve witnessed this, but the encounter wasn’t so much an attack as it was a series of threatening gestures.
I come across an injured or dead moose about once a year. I found this one this past Monday afternoon. She was hanging out with another cow in a field of willows along a stream near a lake. From viewing this photo at full magnification, it appears that she is blind in her left eye and has obvious signs of trauma to her body. There appears to be a mostly healed scar on her upper left forehead and you can see that her left ear is drooping so the damage to her head must have been quite severe. I can also see some pattern scaring on the left side of her body. There are several patches of fur that show a distinct pattern and these patterns seem more random than one might expect to see if it was struck by a vehicle. Her legs looked to be in good shape, so that tells me it wasn’t an injury that involved a vehicle. The scars are large and long and don’t all run the in same direction. A couple of spots also look to have a triangular appearance at one end of the scar. Her injuries appear to be mostly healed, but it’s obvious they were severe enough to impact her annual development. Her fur is more like you’d find on a cow in mid-May. By this time of year in Colorado, most moose have developed a chocolate two-tone coat. This moose still has a lot of winter fur on her body. This makes me think that she may have been injured earlier this year and laid up in some wooded area recovering.
I don’t know the source of her injury but my best guess is that she was severely stomped by a larger moose or attacked by a black bear.
I don’t know if a one eyed moose will survive long in the wilderness. She looks fairly young and able to move about, but moose have terrible eye sight to begin with. With one drooping ear, I’m sure her hearing as also been affected.
I hope she finds her way in life and can make it. My experience tells me that she probably won’t. For now, she is on her feet and and moving around among the others.
With hundreds of thousands of photographs scattered across 6 or 7 hard drives, I often pull up image catalogs to mine them for stock photos.
Today, I opened up my “Bear” catalog to find a measly 100 or so photographs of bears I’ve taken over the past 15 years. None of which are all that good, so it looks like I won’t have a bear presence in the stock portfolios for a while.
I see bears a few times every year. Heck, I’ve had them walk through my yard in Red Feathers. The problem for me is that I don’t really go out looking for them. I just snap shots when I see them and have a camera with me.
Relying on targets of opportunity can generate an occasional stunning shot but as a strategy for accumulating a nice portfolio, it’s not going to achieve much in the way of tangible results. Perhaps one day, I’ll make a concerted effort to find the bears. For now, I’ll just pretend.
Today’s photo is a black bear that I spotted while sitting in a line of traffic in Yellowstone National Park. It was mid-day, the tourists were out in force and so were the park rangers. The bear seemed un-phased by the line of camera toting tourists gawking at him and continued his march across the hillside unabated. I tried to stay with him, at least until a park ranger broke up the party.
Kicking back, doing a little yard work this weekend. Going to be heading back up to the moose early next week so nothing really new to show you at the moment. I’m staying cool, drinking lots of liquids and spending more time in front of the computer as a result.
You’re stuck with this shot today. I’m true to my spirit of continuing to regularly post an image. Some are better than others but that applies to about everything.
The drawback is I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about articles in this mode. Those thoughts come more frequently when I’m hobnobbing with other humans.
I’m working in the Bison catalog at the moment. Most of the images are fairly repetitive so I picked out a more interesting photo. I may have posted this before, but if you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know that I don’t leave photographs hanging out on the Internet for any extended period of time. Since I rely on memory to decide if I’ve shown an image in the past, well, my memory says this one was shown a long time ago and well, it’s worth showing again.
As for being at the computer more, it leads my mind astray on occasion. I start reading news and other websites, posting more on Facebook and engaging my thoughts on current events. Not that my opinion is significant, not that most of the news is significant. I normally prefer to get my consumer news at the super-market checkout. Editing photographs is significant, for me. I look at it as getting stuff done while I goof off.
Working on updating the stock portfolios today. I call it “feeding the beast.”
I’ve found that uploading stock images on a regular basis, even in small quantities, seems to correlate with increased sales over time. With over 2,000 images online, the simple truth is that not all of my images have sold. Quite a few just sit there and though most will probably generate a few sales over time, I think the trick is to saturate the buyer with a variety of selections. The theory is that when someone looks for a particular type of image, it’s best to hog the screen with your photos. I’d rather they choose from one of my many shots than have to select one of mine from many other photographers offerings.
Feeding the beast, a term I’ve heard used by other stock photographers, helps to keep my images visible. It works. Sales from same month last year have been up over 300% on some agencies and have increased on all agencies, year over.
Until I get out to do more work, I’m in the office and feeding the beast.
For the most part, wildlife photography is a loner’s journey.
The physical connection between the wildlife photographer and photographic subject is symbiotic in many ways. One must learn to adapt to that relationship too.
Moose are social animals but seem to prefer their own company to that of others. Moose are unique subjects. They will hang out together at times. Good feeding conditions, breeding and some type of kinship with others of their type are gathering factors but they are more likely to be found on the move and alone. For the wildlife photographer, the same holds true. I enjoy the company of others but for the most part, I prefer to work alone.
My wife is quite supportive of my photography efforts but she’s not really into the “nature photography” thing with the same enthusiasm as I. If you’re a photographer, you’ve probably experienced this yourself. The travel companion is more often than not quickly bored with the adventure. Sitting alone in a vehicle without an internet connection or phone signal could be a factor. Perhaps it’s not enjoyable to watch some old guy trudging across the field in the rain. It’s a rare person who is willing to sacrifice their sleep and worldly conveniences to trek out into the wilderness with a photographer who is focused primarily on finding critters in the early morning mist.
Most times it’s just better to share the fruits of our labor. I imagine that a typical construction worker has to deal with the same thing. I’ve never heard of a carpenter taking their wife or girlfriend to work to watch them measuring and cutting lumber. It’s boring.
Moose on the other hand seem to like boring, so the photographer must learn to be bored in the same fashion as the loner animal. Other things factor in to this equation though.
The wildlife photographer’s work doesn’t hinge on the hard to alter habits of other humans when heading out into the field. Most of the adaptation comes from the photographer, not from the travel companion. While we still have to account for the presence of other people from time to time, to a large degree the other humans that are present are typically loners too. Our paths are simply crossing at a certain time and place.
Being of retirement age, I have the time to roam around alone in the back woods and mountain tops. My travel and photography plans are for the most part kept to weekdays and not weekends. For those still working a real job, their commitments in life relegate them to getting out on weekends. Though I will get out on a weekend, it’s not an option I give priority. As a matter of fact, I avoid weekends specifically to avoid the folks getting out on weekends. Too many people disrupt the shooting environment and the experience of being alone with the subject.
More than a few of my friends who are my age and older find their photographic comradery within the confines of camera and nature clubs. I’m not a group outing kind of guy though, I’m like a loner moose. My best photos come from working alone or with one other equally enthusiastic photographer. It’s never a personal thing when hatching a plan doesn’t work. We all have different needs and desires. Finding folks who are on the same wavelength isn’t an easy task.
So, I’m incubating another egg that will hatch into a lone adventure in the near future and there will be more after that. Like that lone moose, you may see me pass by from time to time, on my mission to get to some remote spot that I find delightful. But only if you get up early. I’ll typically be done working by 10:00 am and taking a nap by noon. I’ll share the photos with those who prefer to sleep in at a later time.