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Prepared for Anything: Photographing Wildlife

Photographing wildlife can be difficult at the very best of times, so why make things harder?

If you’re planning a trip to photograph animals in their natural habitat, preparation is everything; from scouting good locations to carrying the right equipment – and hopefully some of the tips I’m sharing with you will increase your chances of success!

Harris Hawk
Harris Hawk

1. Do Your Homework

It may sound silly, but this is definitely worth doing – spend just a couple of hours online researching and you may save days in the field.

You’ll find that a lot of species can be highly localised and just being in the right country or state isn’t enough!
Take a look on local forums, wildlife enthusiast sites and Facebook groups – if you’re interested in finding and photographing the species, others will be too.  You’ll often be able to learn from their experiences; from successful locations to recent sightings and more . . .

Owl Butterfly
Owl Butterfly

2. The Right Equipment

I’ve been shooting wildlife for many years and when I’m out in-the-field I have a really refined setup, that’s been carefully curated for my personal needs and the subject.

You may be used to the luxury of the studio and having a whole host of different bodies, lenses, lighting and more to choose from whenever is convenient – but most of the time when photographing animals in the wild you’ll have to carry the majority of your equipment on your back.

This means you need to make the decisions before you set out, and be confident you have what you need.  It needs to be as light as possible, very portable,  and versatile, whilst still allowing you to create the incredible images you’ve been commissioned to capture!

I’ve listed some of my essential items below:

  • Canon 6D & Canon 5D MkIII

I’ve always used Canon cameras (ever since my first camera, the Canon G10!) and for me they’re perfect – intuitive, fantastic quality and reliable.

My personal favourite is the 6D – which is full frame, compact and really amazing in low light conditions; which is often the case when working with wildlife. I also take the Canon 5D MkIII as it has a slightly faster FPS than the 6D.

  • Sigma 150-600mm lens & Canon 400mm lens

The Sigma 150-600mm lens is really incredible.  It’s great for subjects near and far, and gives a superb image quality throughout it’s focal range. 

When I know the subject is definitely going to be further away, the 400mm prime is always my go-to lens as it is lightweight and produces crystal clear images.

I’ve used many tripods throughout my career, and the Manfrotto 290 XTRA is always my tripod of choice when travelling in-the-field.  

Previous tripods have deteriorated quickly – pieces falling off when scrambling through undergrowth or corroding after exposure to harsh weather conditions (or salt water!) but the Manfrotto tripods have withstood the test of time, and that’s why I now use them both in-the-field and in the studio.

The Manfrotto 290 XTRA is lightweight, but still gives a very sturdy base; which is essential when shooting with longer lenses and the telescopic legs set in 4 different positions and can give you a shooting position of up to 1.7m vertically!  It’s an incredibly versatile tripod, which is exactly what you need when shooting wildlife – but still maintains the portability of smaller tripods.

Although Gimbal heads are often the ‘go-to’ for many wildlife photographers – I’ve found that they can often be cumbersome, and their weight will also make them impractical for travel.  That’s why I use the the Manfrotto 3-Way head with the 290 XTRA

The Manfrotto 3-Way head handles the longer lenses wonderfully and allows you to pan and track your subject both fast and smoothly.

  • Loads of Memory Cards & Delkin Memory Card Case

You can never carry too many memory cards – and make sure you use high-speed cards to ensure they can keep up with your cameras continuous shooting modes. 

I use the Delkin memory card case as I’ve found it to be incredibly strong and sturdy – withstanding LONG falls and submersion in water.

  • Spare Batteries

This one should be obvious, but you’ll kick yourself if you run out of juice . . . and that’ll inevitably be when you could have caught some of the best shots of your trip.

  • 13” Macbook Air

I will often connect my Macbook up to my camera whilst in-the-field.  It allows me to check the images more easily and also means that they are saving not only to my memory cards, but also to my hard disk at the same time – you can never be too safe!

  • Camouflage Netting

Okay this one isn’t hi-tech or camera related, but it is amazing what a difference camoflauge netting makes!  You can pick it up pretty cheap from military surplus stores . . . 

Otter
Otter

3. Set it up First

Every photographer will have experienced this . . .

You’ve got the perfect equipment, you’ve settled in the perfect location and then you see what you’ve been waiting for!  

Instinctively you start shooting your elusive subject, filling up the memory card with shot after shot of spectacular imagery and once the creature has moved on you look down and review the images you’ve captured . . . only to realise you were using your camera with settings from earlier in the day or from a previous shoot.  They are too dark, over exposed or just plain un-saveable. 

This is why I will always tell you . . . to set it up first!

Each time you encounter slightly different habitat, the weather changes or time passes – make sure you’re constantly reviewing your settings and taking test shots – so that if you have the chance to photograph your subject, it isn’t missed.

I only shoot in manual.  The aperture is often mid-range between F8 and F13, unless the subject is very close and relatively slow moving (in which case I love to use a high aperture and capture the animal with a beautifully blurry background!).

A high shutter speed is really important, I’m normally using anywhere between 1/4000 and 1/2500 – ensuring the images are as sharp as possible when the subject is moving.

The ISO tends to be very varied – and especially nowadays with newer cameras, there is far less noise even with really high ISO levels . . . and when there is noise in an image, it’s normally fairly easy to remove!

Alley Cat
Alley Cat

4. A Test of Patience

You’ve already done your research, found your location and set up your equipment . . . now all you can do is wait.

Patience.  It is difficult to learn and can be the worst part of the job for many wildlife photographers.

Wildlife is exactly that – Wild.  You can’t ask it to come to you or change position, perhaps prune it’s feathers, groom it’s fur or move that annoying branch out of the way . . . all you can do is wait.

Sometimes it takes hours, sometimes days.  Sometimes you’ll be really lucky, and you’ll get your chance before you’ve even arrived!  Photographing wildlife can be unpredictable, and at times just plain boring.

Make sure you’re prepared for a long, still and quiet wait . . .

Making Ripples
Making Ripples

5. Don’t Stop Shooting

This one is really important.  Your subject has appeared and you’ve started to shoot . . . don’t stop until you have to!

I nearly always work in a silent-continuous-shoot mode, and I don’t stop shooting until the animal moves on, the card runs out or the battery dies.  It means that afterwards I do have thousands of near-identical images to sort through – but that is far better than looking through and wishing I had taken more, or one from a slightly different angle or of more varied expressions or positions.

Now that photography is digital, you don’t lose anything by shooting hundreds (or thousands) of photographs; you’re just increasing your chances of capturing that perfect image!

I hope that these tips will help you in your adventures in wildlife photography, and perhaps my images may inspire some more of you to give wildlife photography a go!

 

 

Aaron NorthcottOther articles by author

A multi award-winning photographer, Aaron has a diverse portfolio of powerful, inspiring imagery and an impressive résumé of clients and commissions.

Specialising in Wildlife, Travel & Landscape photography, the work Aaron produces has been seen around the world and has been used for everything from Tourism and Conservation to Outdoor Living, Lifestyle and Adventure.

Aarons passion for photography, his subjects and the world around us is always evident through the images he captures - and pushes himself constantly to be one of the most versatile, creative and innovative visual artists working in the photography industry today.

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