Wildlife and Nature photography

 your camera

 Wildlife and Nature photography go hand in hand and hence, even though the title says wildlife photography, it will  talk  of nature photography as well. So first, what is  wildlife ? Animals (including birds) insects, micro-organisms, and even plants fall into this category. Pets are not included in this list.

Wildlife photography can be very exciting (and so can other genres!), but it requires stricter discipline. It goes without saying that one has to be really passionate about wildlife; if you don t love nature, if you are inclined to be lazy, if you don t want to take the trouble of getting up early, and sleeping late, if you cannot do without the comforts of your cosy bed, maybe wildlife photography is not for you. It can be rewarding, but believe me, it is tough.

It is important for a wildlife photographer to love nature, and hence he should go all out to preserve it. This also means to avoid doing anything that can put the subject s life in danger. For example, clearing of plants or leaves that cover a nest so that you can get a clearer view, is a big  no-no. Predators and other birds of prey would find it easier to locate the nests and kill the chicks. Handling of chicks or eggs in a nest, staying within close proximity of a nest (so that you can get some shots of parent birds coming in) should be totally avoided. If the parent birds are disturbed, they may never come back to the nest again and the young chicks may die of hunger and starvation. Remember, life-any life-is more important than your pictures!

(It is for this reason that many photography competitions do not allow pictures of nesting birds.)

Cameras don t take pictures; you do!

Whatever equipment you have, make sure that you understand how to use its features. Make sure that you know your basics of photography. The best camera in the world (if there is any such thing) will not give you great photos if you do not know how to use it. Do remember, modern cameras are complex. You may have pots of money, but if you are not inclined to study

your camera to the hilt, you may be better off buying a less expensive but  easier-to-use  model. Don t go by what your neighbour has; go by what you are comfortable with!

Know your subject

This goes without saying, but all the same,

I am saying it. A story goes that a wildlife photographer who had photographed many charging African elephants, stood his ground when an Indian elephant charged at him. He expected the Indian elephant would make a mock charge just like the African elephant does. You may have guessed it-he is not around to read this article!

Know your subject. Know its likes and dislikes. You don t stand anywhere near a hippopotamus because he  looks so cute.

You don t eyeball a wild animal because in animal language that is a challenge to fight. You don t surprise a bear, because he ll go for you. You don t go close to a rhinoceros thinking that he has poor eyesight and won t notice you and then run because he is getting closer to you, because that may be the last time you ll run! It attacks anything that moves fast. When you get too close to an animal-get within his fear circle-he will either flee or fight. If he flees, you live. If he does the opposite, you may die.

Study your intended subject beforehand and stay healthy. We need you around to read our magazine!

Wildlife photography can be very exciting (and so can other genres!), but it requires stricter discipline. It goes without saying that one has to be really passionate about wildlife; if you don t love nature, if you are inclined to be lazy, if you don t want to take the trouble of getting up early, and sleeping late, if you cannot do without the comforts of your cosy bed, maybe wildlife photography is not for you. It can be rewarding, but believe me, it is tough.

It is important for a wildlife photographer to love nature, and hence he should go all out to preserve it. This also means to avoid doing anything that can put the subject s life in danger. For example, clearing of plants or leaves that cover a nest so that you can get a clearer view, is a big  no-no. Predators and other birds of prey would find it easier to locate the nests and kill the chicks. Handling of chicks or eggs in a nest, staying within close proximity of a nest (so that you can get some shots of parent birds coming in) should be totally avoided. If the parent birds are disturbed, they may never come back to the nest again and the young chicks may die of hunger and starvation. Remember, life-any life-is more important than your pictures!

(It is for this reason that many photography competitions do not allow pictures of nesting birds.)

Cameras don t take pictures; you do!

Whatever equipment you have, make sure that you understand how to use its features. Make sure that you know your basics of photography. The best camera in the world (if there is any such thing) will not give you great photos if you do not know how to use it. Do remember, modern cameras are complex. You may have pots of money, but if you are not inclined to study

your camera to the hilt, you may be better off buying a less expensive but  easier-to-use  model. Don t go by what your neighbour has; go by what you are comfortable with!

Know your subject

This goes without saying, but all the same,

 your camera

I am saying it. A story goes that a wildlife photographer who had photographed many charging African elephants, stood his ground when an Indian elephant charged at him. He expected the Indian elephant would make a mock charge just like the African elephant does. You may have guessed it-he is not around to read this article!

Know your subject. Know its likes and dislikes. You don t stand anywhere near a hippopotamus because he  looks so cute.

You don t eyeball a wild animal because in animal language that is a challenge to fight. You don t surprise a bear, because he ll go for you. You don t go close to a rhinoceros thinking that he has poor eyesight and won t notice you and then run because he is getting closer to you, because that may be the last time you ll run! It attacks anything that moves fast. When you get too close to an animal-get within his fear circle-he will either flee or fight. If he flees, you live. If he does the opposite, you may die.

Study your intended subject beforehand and stay healthy. We need you around to read our magazine!

The equipment you need for wildlife photography will of course depend on the subjects you wish to photograph and your bank balance. Long telephoto lenses can be very expensive. And did I mention that you have to regularly go to a gym and build up your muscles? A 500 mm prime lens can weigh about 4-5 kilograms; a pro D-SLR body about 1 kg. Add a couple of other lenses and extra bodies, total it up with a pro camera bag weighing in at about 4-5 kg, and you need to be ready to lug around about 18-20 kgs. Oh, I forgot my close friend, the tripod!

(I did try to indicate earlier that wildlife photography is not for those wanting comforts.)

250mm f/4-5.6, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, or the 300mm f/4 primes. Mid-level photographers could consider lenses like the 100400mm f/4.5-5.6, 50-500mm f/5-6.3, 150-500mm f/5-6.3, 200-500mm f/5-6.3 etc. If you are really serious (and have the money to spare), or are a pro, then consider  fast  pro prime-lenses like the 300mm f/2, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, or  fast  zooms like the 200-400mm f/4. You could also consider using teleconverters like the 1.4x, 1.7x or 2x that will increase the focal length of your lens by a factor of 1.4, 1.7 or 2 respectively. Personally speaking,

I would try not to use the 2x since it does show a drop in image quality. Also remember, teleconverters work better with prime (single focal length) lenses than with zooms.

If possible, do keep a 50mm lens or a short zoom lens ready, just in case an animal comes too close (as it often happens during African safaris). With a long lens, you may cut off parts of the animal if it approaches too close.

For macro and close-up work, the choice is rather limited. Depending on the subject and cost, you can choose from 60mm, 90/100/105mm, 180/200mm macro lenses.

Remember, a long focal length macro lens allows you to stay at a comfortable distance from spooky/ dangerous critters and also offers a narrower coverage of the background (which is very important because it does not capture unnecessary or disturbing background).

Nikon 60mm macro

What about wide-angle lenses? Speaking strictly from wildlife perspective, you may feel that having them is not important, but you don t always need a close-up of an animal. You may also want to show the surroundings, the environment. Jungles and forests provide us with beautiful landscapes, so having a good wide-angle lens should be considered.

When choosing camera bodies, the choice is very wide. Your first decision is likely to be based on the cost. Do remember, it is the lens that eventually gets you the picture, not the body. So spend more on the lens. I am not saying that the body plays no part in the image quality, for it does! But in my opinion, the lens is more important. This is the way I would decide:

1. Do I need most of the features a pro-body offers?

2. Do I need the build quality of a pro body? Of course, we all love to have a strong build quality but consider the cost (and the weight) too. If you expect to shoot wildlife on regular basis, a pro body could be considered. On the other hand, if you are likely to go for a wildlife safari once in a year or two, you could do with a mid-level camera body.

3. If  burst shooting  is your love, consider a camera body that has a large buffer and the capability to fire away many frames per second. When shooting hand-held, shooting in a quick burst of 3 or 5 frames can be an advantage

since the mid frame is likely to be the sharpest. Don t make that a regular practice though; use this technique for very important shots.

4. Consider too the inherent image writing speed. If your camera is not capable of writing fast, having a fast memory card does not serve any purpose.

5. Consider the shutter life of your intended camera body. Pro bodies offer a much longer shutter life (check the specifications).

 your camera

I see many rich photographers go in for the latest and the most sophisticated camera bodies. There s nothing wrong in that but be very honest with yourself and ask yourself whether you know all (or at least most) features on the camera? Be very honest and tell me if you really know how to set up the camera for optimum image quality. Do you know how one setting, directly or indirectly, has an effect on the other

settings on the camera? The reason I m mentioning these things is to prime you into seriously studying the camera; only then will you get the best out of it. And let me add, modern cameras are not easy to understand and set up.

What about ILCCs, Prosumers and Compacts? Can they be used for wildlife and nature photography? Of course, they can be used, as long as you know their limitations. Compacts generally have limited focal range and hence are not of much use in wildlife photography, but they can certainly be used for macro and landscapes in the forests/jungles. Prosumer cameras (Bridge cameras), due to their unusually long focal range, can serve reasonably well for wildlife photography. Here s something you should keep well in mind though. Don t expect sharp results at the longer focal lengths unless you use a firm tripod. Because of their light weight and ease of use, one is often tempted to use such a camera hand-held. As a example, a prosumer model with a 600mm equivalent lens offers 12x magnification over a normal 50mm lens in the 35mm format. This means that hand movement during exposure is also magnified 12 times! Also keep in mind that due to their smaller sensors, such cameras cannot compete with D-SLRs and ILCCs in the digital noise department and in dynamic range.

Fine. But what about ILCCs? If you can tolerate the shutter lag (the shutter lag in these cameras have certainly improved but they still cannot match the unnoticeable shutter lag in D-SLRs), then of course you can use these cameras for wildlife. Because of their compact size and lower weight, they can be conveniently carried over long distances. As a comparison, a 600mm lens with a pro D-SLR body may be around 6-6.5 Kg, whereas a 600mm equivalent lens with an ILCC may be around 1.2 Kg! As an experiment, I recently made a decent-looking 9 feet tall photo of a grey heron using a (hand-held) ILCC with 300mm lens (equivalent to 600mm in the 35mm format).

I am not suggesting that you use such equipment hand-held; in my case it was an experiment.

Note that even ILCCs (currently) cannot match the noise levels and dynamic range of D-SLRs.

What else does one need?

As mentioned earlier, a thorough knowledge of photography in general, adequate knowledge of using your own equipment, good knowledge about the subject you intend to photograph, good shooting discipline, being at the right time at the right place and of course, a good dose of luck.

The last part-luck-plays a very important part. I remember a 2-day visit to a wildlife sanctuary in Maharashtra, and all we could see were crows!

Approaching wildlife

Most animals walk on four feet while we walk on two. Our vertical position makes us look  different  in animals  eyes. Animals have an inherent fear of mankind, may be due to the years mankind has spent hunting animals. Hence taking pictures without them noticing you could yield better pictures. That s where  hides  come in. A hide is any camouflaged cover from where you can photograph wildlife without them noticing you. There are various types of hides but a easy-to-get hide can be your own car. Animals feel safe as long as you are in your vehicle. You can attach your camera to a special clamp which could be fixed at a convenient place in the car or a car window mount and take pictures safely without getting out of the car. A bean-bag can also be used on the window glass of your car (See images below).

Various types of camouflaged hides are available. An easy and inexpensive hide can be made from a 1/4-inch plywood attached to two L-shaped brackets. The plywood should be painted/covered with a camouflage material and have a hole in it for the lens (See sketches below) When setting up a hide, don t do it in one go. If the birds/animals suddenly see a hide where none existed before, they get suspicious. Hence the hide should first be placed far away from the actual site. After a couple of days they ll get used to the hide. Now move it closer to the final place. Again leave it there for a few days and repeat moving it closer and closer till the final destination is reached.

Birds and animals are quite clever.

If they see you getting into a hide, they will be vary of you and may not approach the hide. Hence wildlife photographers often play a trick on them. Here s the trick: Go in a small group, talking loudly so that birds and other animals can see and hear you. Then one of them, the photographer, slips away from the group and quietly gets into the hide. The others walk back, again talking loudly so that the birds/animals can see you leaving.

Fortunately for us, animals cannot count and won t notice that one less person has walked back. Once inside the hide, don t do anything that can disturb the animals.

When approaching wildlife, don t approach them directly. If you think they have seen you approaching, walk away from them in a way that they can definitely see you leaving. Wait for a while. Then, slowly and cautiously, zigzag your way back.

Some more tips

1. Pictures showing animal activity always get more viewer attention than those that just show them standing or sitting doing nothing.

2. Be patient and wait till you see a glint in their eyes and then take the shots.

3. Take many pictures. Remember, some shots may be slightly out

 

of focus, some may have some disturbing out-of-focus twigs or

leaves in front of the animal; some pictures may have the animals looking away from you; some may be shaky due to low shutter speeds; there are variety of reasons why some pictures fail to impress.

4. Whenever possible, use a firm tripod. If not possible, consider a monopod or a bean bag.

5. Focus accurately on the eyes. Remember, fast lenses enable crosstype focussing sensors and as such could be more reliable.

6. When a bird or an animal is surrounded by twigs/leaves/grass or other such elements, autofocus may be difficult or even impossible. Focus manually at such times.

7. Keep an eye on your shutter speeds. Faster shutter speeds ensure sharper images (at the point of focus) by avoiding camera movement during exposure and also prevent fuzziness caused by subject movement. For hand-held shots, try to maintain a minimum shutter speed of 1/the effective focal length.

8. Unless depth of field is your main consideration, try to use the optimum aperture of your lens. The optimum aperture is generally 2-stops down from the widest opening.

9. A camera that allows you to shoot at higher ISOs without disturbing noise is a bonus. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D3/D3s/D4 fall

in to that category. In low light (and lots of wildlife subjects are found in low light), such cameras allow you to increase the ISO (without fear of digital noise) which in turn allows you to use faster shutter speeds, providing sharper pictures.

 

 

10. Use a faster shutter speed than what you would normally use when the subject is close by.

11. Use image stabilisation if your camera has the provision. Note that at shutter speeds faster than 1/500sec, image stabilisation may not be of help. If you are using a tripod, switch off the

stabilisation (unless you have one of those lenses that allow the use of stabilisation with a tripod).

12. When shooting hand-held with long heavy lenses (something that you should avoid), try to trip the shutter as soon as focus is achieved. Waiting for a while could further tire your hands, resulting in the possibility of shaky pictures.

13. Anticipating what your subject is about to do and acting on that can get you some extra-ordinary pictures.

If you, for example, see a tiger crouching low and walking very carefully through the bushes, get ready to fire away. When you see a deer stamping its feet, or when you hear a monkey giving out a warning cry, you can be certain that a predator is nearby.

14. Consider having two camera bodies, each with a different focal length lens. For example, on one body you may attach a 100-400mm lens; on the other, a 24-70mm. Remember, especially during safaris in game reserves, wild animals often come very close to the vehicle you are travelling in. With a telephoto zoom, it is possible that you may cut off a part of the animal because it is too near. The second camera body fitted with a different focal length lens may help.

15. Always set your camera to  Continuous High  firing mode, but learn to fire only one shot if necessary. When the action starts, you don t want to fiddle with the controls, trying to set the camera to continuous firing mode!

16. Shoot in Camera Raw if possible. In this mode, you don t have to worry about the White Balance because you can change the WB as desired during post processing in your favourite Raw Converter

17. Don t rule out shooting in JPEG. In JPEG, you can shoot many more frames before the  Buffer  fills up and locks the camera! However, if shooting in JPEG, ensure that you set the proper White Balance and that you set the JPEG for the highest image quality.

18. Learn to use Exposure Compensation. When shooting in one of the auto modes, and photographing lighter subjects (lighter than mid-tone), compensate your exposure on the plus side. When photographing darker subjects (compared to mid-tone), compensate the exposure on the minus side. This assumes that you want your light tone subjects to stay light; your dark tone subjects to stay dark.

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