Despite what you might have heard, you don't need a bag full of expensive gear or a passport to faraway lands to photograph wildlife. Regardless of where you live, how hot it gets in the summertime or how cold it gets in the wintertime, you’re surrounded by wildlife the moment you step out your door. The fact of the matter is, if you live near a park or, for that matter, have trees outside your window, wildlife is all around you.
Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021
Cameras and Lenses for Wildlife Photography
As alluded to above, when it comes to choosing a lens for wildlife photography, you don’t need to buy the fanciest, most expensive gear. The truth is, the kit lens that came with your camera is quite capable of capturing interesting wildlife photographs. The photographs that illustrate this article were taken with relatively simple camera gear—a full-frame mirrorless camera, a close-focusing 25mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens, a 200mm macro lens, and a close-focusing 400mm f/8 mirror lens.
For many subjects, especially birds and wild animals, you’re going to want a close-focusing 200mm to 300mm telephoto lens or equivalents. If you are shooting with an APS-C or MFT-format camera, lenses in the 200mm to 300mm range bring you in about 1.5x (APS-C) or 2x (MFT) closer to your subject. (Full-frame images can be cropped to similar magnifications post-capture.)
Longer focal length telephotos and zoom lenses with broad focal ranges are also handy to have when photographing wildlife because you never quite know when, where, or how far away your next photo opportunity may arise.
Autofocus lenses are preferable but not a necessity. It’s worth noting that all the photographs accompanying this article were captured using manual focus lenses.
Where Do You Begin?
If you need a starting point, try photographing a chipmunk. If chipmunks aren’t native to where you live, squirrels, rabbits, or any equally small skittish mammal can serve as a stand-in. Chipmunks are small, shy, and quick to flee when they sense impending danger, which is why I suggest photographing them. Granted, chipmunks aren’t quite as exciting or exotic as a tiger or leopard, but they’re also less likely to make you their next meal.
Unless they are seasoned opportunists that have acclimated to humans through the language of handouts and picnic leftovers, chipmunks tend to run and hide the moment they see you. If you do spot one, freeze. Chances are the little guy is already on to you and waiting to see your next move. If you remain still and divert your gaze, there’s a good chance the chipmunk will figure you are not an impending threat and slowly back off high alert.
If you are within photographic range, slowly lift your camera to your eye and take a few frames. If your camera has a silent mode, this is a good time to engage it. If the chipmunk seems “chill,” move in a bit closer, wait a few moments, and slowly bring the camera to your eye once again. With time and patience, you can often get surprisingly close, which makes for better photographs.
Lenses with fast maximum apertures (f/4 or wider) are preferable because they guarantee faster shutter speeds and narrower depth of field (DoF) to separate the subject from the foreground and background more efficiently.
Even if you only have the kit lens that came with your camera or a 28mm to 300mm all-in-one zoom, with a little bit of practice and patience you’ll be capturing photographs of local wildlife that just make friends and family stop and say, “Wow!”
Go Slow and Avoid Sudden Moves
When a chipmunk sees you, it will freeze. If it senses danger, it will usually flee, but if it is mining a good food supply, it will often take a wait-and-see approach. When this is the case, the best thing to do is to be equally still. If you have to move, or want to edge in closer, do it in very small increments. It’s also a good idea to avoid eye contact, which in much of the animal world is a passive gesture; hard stares are often interpreted as a challenge. With a bit of practice and patience, you can begin winning their trust.
Isolate Your Subject
You should always try to isolate your subject from distractions in the foreground and background, which is why it's a good idea to shoot at wide apertures when photographing in wooded or similarly cluttered areas. Capturing birds in flight is always trickier, especially with long focal length lenses, but, when the images are sharp, they can be truly powerful to view.
Photographing a Blue Heron
There's a park with a small lake not far from where I live that serves as home for various wild creatures, including a Blue Heron. Shy by nature, Herons that dwell in parks do acclimate to humans, but as long as 8-year-old boys walk the surface of the planet, they will always eye humans suspiciously.
I spotted this lovely creature early one morning as it was grazing on the far side of the lake. Using a 400mm lens, I started photographing the bird, making sure not to make any sudden movements or loud noises. After snapping a few frames, I slowly began inching closer to it, making sure to stop every few feet, pause, and to avoid unnecessary eye contact.
The Best Times of Day to Photograph Wildlife
Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to photograph wildlife because these are feeding and roosting times. Early morning and late afternoon are also the prettiest times to take pictures because of the warm, low angles of sunlight that pierce deeper into the tree canopies than the harsher and deeper shadows of midday light. This is especially true during the summer months.
Birds and chipmunks aside, photographic opportunities abound if you include insects, amphibians, and reptiles—there’s no doubt members of these species can be found pretty much anywhere—the number of subjects you can photograph is endless.
In the case of insects and smaller subjects, you might want to consider a macro lens. Macro lenses are available for all camera mounts. Although macro lenses are available in a choice of focal lengths, I would recommend a mid-range or longer telephoto macro lens because they allow for more distance between you and your subject, which is important if you don’t want to appear to be threatening to your subject. You are also less likely to cast a shadow onto your subject when shooting with a longer focal length lens.
Exciting close-ups of smaller wildlife creatures can also be captured using extension tubes, reversal rings, and close-up lenses that screw onto the front of your lens. To learn more about these inexpensive, yet effective close-up tools, check out Tools for Capturing Macro Photographs Without a Macro Lens, by yours truly.
Tripods and Camera Supports
If your subject is relatively static, or at a constant distance from camera position, I strongly recommend a tripod or other type of camera support when photographing with long telephoto lenses. The flip side is that when photographing birds flying overhead or animals moving in erratic patterns, tripods can often slow you down. A solution to this problem is to use a gimbal head on your tripod in place of a more traditional ball or pan/tilt head. Gimbal heads enable quicker response times when tracking moving subjects.
My preferred method of steadying cameras when shooting wildlife with long lenses is to mount the camera and lens on a rigid table tripod. Between the three points of contact from the tablepod legs against my chest, both hands on the camera, and a resting spot on my brow, I establish six points of contact, which together result in a higher percentage of sharper results than shooting the same scenario handheld.
As I said at the top of the page, you don’t need fancy gear to take eye-catching wildlife photographs. The trick is to get up bright and early when the light is right and the animals are feeding. And when you get where you’re going, open your eyes and, most of all, be silent and be patient. The pictures will ultimately come to you… I promise!
Have you had any experiences photographing wildlife? Share them with our readers and us in the Comments section, just below.