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.
Your mileage may vary.