Photography Equipment and Preparation:
“Luck” is being prepared to take advantage of an opportunity. Likewise, capturing that award-winning, once-in-a-lifetime, wildlife photo requires some forethought and preparation. Over the years, and the course of many wildlife photo outings, I have learned (usually the hard way) what works and what doesn’t. My goal is to shorten your learning curve by giving a better idea of what to expect and by sharing my best-practice techniques and equipment recommendations. Naturally, “my way” isn’t the only way, and you’re welcome to experiment. However, I believe my recommendations will greatly increase the odds of your taking home the amazing, high-quality photos you came to get.
Unless sleeping, wildlife and birds are in constant motion. Also, most photo ops and the best quality of light are in the early morning or late afternoon. This means you’ll be shooting moving objects in relatively low light situations. The goal is to capture wildlife/bird behavior. If possible, show them in action doing something besides sizing you up.
Lesson Learned – the hard way:
After the first of my many Africa wildlife safaris, I was very disappointed to find many otherwise great shots appeared unsharp. I knew my equipment could capture very sharp images. So, if it wasn’t the camera or lens, it had to be me… something I did or failed to take into account. After scrutinizing the photos, I determined the problem wasn’t related to the focus, but rather motion blur. While modern digital cameras/lenses incorporate some form of “image stabilization” technology, in fact it only reduces the effects of camera movement. It does nothing to reduce the effects of subject movement, or motion blur. (see related post – “Image Sharpness”)
The Issue and Fix:
As you probably know, there are three basic camera/lens controls upon which digital photography relies, whether manually or automatically controlled. These are: lens aperture (f-stop), camera shutter speed, and camera light sensitivity (ISO*). Fact of photography, these factors are often in conflict and must be correctly balanced by the photographer or “smart” camera. The issue of motion blur is a factor of shutter speed. This means, the faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter must be to keep the image sharp. In turn, that effects the related lens aperture and ISO requirements. It’s definitely a delicate balancing act. For photographing wildlife, my priorities are: 1) Shutter speed to limit motion blur; 2) Aperture to minimize depth of field; and 3) ISO* to limit digital noise.
My Shooting Strategy: Be prepared to shoot quickly, hand-held. Pre-set camera settings to cover 90% of anticipated situations; e.g. shooting mode, AE/AF option, shutter speed, etc. Keep your camera at the ready.
Recommended Equipment: 1) DSLR camera, DX or FX format; 2) f/4.5 or faster 70-300mm zoom lens (DX); 3) camera/lens optical stabilization; 4) f/2.8 or faster 30mm (DX) lens for landscapes and San People shots.
Settings: 1) exposure – shutter priority, 1/500; 2) white balance – auto; 3) ISO – auto, maximum limited*; 4) AE/AF – spot; 5) shooting mode – continuous 6fps or more.
Photo Equipment: 1) data cards – twice as many as you think you need; 2) three camera batteries, 1 charging, 1 in camera, 1 backup; 3) battery charger w/AC cord; 4) cleaning supplies – blower, wipes, brush; 5) lens shade.
Tips: 1) in dusty or wet conditions, keep a protective filter on your lens; 2) keep cleaning supplies handy for periodic cleaning 3) when not shooting, cover camera with a bandana/cloth to minimize dust exposure; 4) don’t change lenses or open camera in the field; 5) bring/carry the least amount equipment you need 6) buy high-speed (faster the better), high-capacity data cards for continuous shooting; 7) you’ll get more/better shots using a faster lens, don’t rely on a tele-extender; 8) a photo vest with lots of pockets is great for keeping photo accessories and personal items handy.
Optional Limited Use Equipment: 1) polarizing filter; 2) tele-extender; 3) monopod; 4) tripod (less useful); 5) laptop computer for viewing/editing photos.
*Do you know, your camera’s ISO setting doesn’t actually change the sensitivity of the digital sensor? Instead, what it does is control the amount of gain added to the electronic signal from the sensor. Unfortunately, “gain” usually equals “grain” (digital noise). With that in mind and before going out into the field to photograph wildlife, test your camera’s high ISO settings. Judge for yourself just how much noise is acceptable, then set the upper limit of your camera’s ISO setting accordingly.