Welcome to the first article in a series dedicated to wildlife photography. I’m going to respond to some common questions I’ve heard from wildlife photographers both online and in my workshops. I’ll try to give you honest answers about equipment, planning, settings, and the process of wildlife photography in the field.
When is the best time to photograph wildlife?
There are two parts to this question: time of day and time of year.
Time of day is easy. Different species are active in the morning, daytime, sunset, and night. There is almost always something to photograph, though. You can choose a time of day based on the species you’re after (make sure to learn its behavioral patterns), or based on getting good lighting conditions. Or you could base it around your schedule. There’s no wrong approach.
As for the time of year, a great thing about wildlife photography is that you can do it practically all year round. However, that doesn’t mean you can photograph anything at any time. As the distance from the equator increases, so do the differences between the seasons. This brings with it a change in the rhythm of animal behavior, and therefore different subjects to photograph.
Step one is to learn as much as you can about the animals you are photographing and plan your photo shoots accordingly. For example, in the temperate zone, early winter is a good time to photograph birds around feeders. Spring is good for migratory birds, and high animal activity in general. Whereas autumn is good for the flood of colorful trees, and summer is ideal for macro photography, especially on foggy days with dew on the grass at sunrise.
As for the tropics, seasonality is not nearly as pronounced as it is in the temperate zone. I dare say you can go to the equatorial countries at almost any time and find something to photograph. However, I would recommend visiting these countries before or just after the rainy season – not enough so that you’re stuck inside, but so that you get a bit of rain and atmosphere on certain days. Also, bird activity is greater at this time of year.
I am a busy person and don’t have much free time. However, I love wildlife photography and would like to devote myself to this genre. Is there a solution?
There is definitely a solution, and paradoxically, it can lead to better results than if you had a lot of time. The answer is to do more photography on your home turf.
That may sound disappointing compared to traveling to exotic destinations, but I can tell you from experience that a lot of your best photos wildlife photos can happen near home. The problem is that when you are at an exotic location, you will usually be moving around and changing locations every few days at the most. Often, the result is photos that skim the surface and don’t reflect much of the animal’s behavior.
Meanwhile, if you photograph near home, your job will likely force you to shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. This is when the light is best and animal activity is at its highest. Also, you have the opportunity to return to the same location over a long period of time and really start to understand your subject. It also allows you to try less traditional techniques such as wide-angle close-ups, external flash photography, and so on.
You live in a city where this is not possible? Not to worry! Surely there is at least one park, river, or botanical garden in your area. I really like botanical gardens, by the way. The advantage of an urban environment is that the animals that inhabit it have largely shed their shyness. Otherwise, their coexistence with humans would not even be possible. Moreover, the inhospitality of the surrounding concrete jungle causes the animals to concentrate in relatively large numbers in these green islands.
I have a limited budget and I definitely can’t afford a camera like the Nikon Z9, Sony A1 or Canon R5. Not to mention fast telephoto lenses. Would you recommend any equipment I could use to photograph wildlife?
Don’t succumb to the marketing pressure that you won’t get a great photo unless you have the best equipment on the market. Even with a used camera for a few hundred dollars, you can take photos that will turn heads, go on gallery walls, win contests, or whatever your goal may be. After all, the very cameras that cost a few hundred dollars on the used market today are the ones that were on the cutting edge of technology just a few years ago.
Of course, today’s cameras offer you the convenience of advanced autofocus with eye detection, higher resolution, a noiseless shutter, and a few other benefits. But these are all things that fall into the “nice to have” category, and they aren’t necessary.
In terms of specific recommendations, depending on your budget, a used Nikon D7000 goes for very little these days. For Canon, you can’t go wrong with the 7D Mark II (or the original 7D to save money). And if your budget is a bit higher, a used Nikon D7500 or D500 will be excellent as well.
The situation with lenses is a bit more complicated. Their price is not dropping as fast as the price of aging cameras, although the rise of mirrorless cameras means that some older DSLR lenses are now excellent bargains. For example, used Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 or Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lenses can now be purchased for a fraction of their original price.
Stepping outside the realm of DSLRs, cameras with smaller Micro 4/3 sensors also offer good value for money. They also have the advantage of being very portable. For example, models from Olympus such as the OM-D E-M1 Mark II (or Mark III) and the Panasonic Lumix G9 are worth considering. They also have some well-priced telephoto lenses, and various other features for wildlife photography like excellent autofocus systems.
In short, the basic answer is that you can step back a generation (or down a sensor size) and get less expensive used equipment, while still using what pros were using at the time. You won’t be missing much, despite what today’s marketing executives would like you to believe.
This concludes the first part of a series of questions and answers about wildlife photography. Do you have any questions for me to answer in this series? Feel free to post it in the comments below and I’ll try to answer it next time!
For lenses, I’d say get a used 300/f4 (I have the old Nikon ‘D’). They go for a few £00 nowadays, less than half their old retail price. Add a 1.4 TC and an aps-c camera (I’d say a used D7500 for value) and off you go.
(If you insist on 35mm, used D610s are inexpensive, but don’t expect to take moving subjects).
I’ve had both the (Nikon) 80-400 and 200-500. Both were sold but the 300mm remains. It just has better IQ. And I have framed 19inch x 13inch photos from it around the house.
The good old 300mm f/4 is a great lens, with only one blemish. It doesn’t have IS, but one can live without it. And you’re right that optically it’s a great lens for great money.
I too got great results from the 300/f4 AF-S paired with the 1.4 TC and the D800. However, the game changer for me with the 200-500 is the image stabilization. So I tend to get more keepers with the 200-500 than I did with the 300/f4 with moving subjects.
That’s very interesting. I found the opposite – I sold the 200-500 because its acquisition of focus was so much worse than the 300mm. The 200-500 did take good images of static subjects.
Guess it goes to show that it’s best to test a lens in a shop, where possible.
Good article, Libor, enjoyed reading it. I shoot Fujifilm these days, but started with Nikon, and do shoot some wildlife when the opportunity arises. Your comment about what gear to use resonates with me in that every now and then I come across a file taken with my D7000 and I recognise them straight away. There is a slight softness about them, I guess mostly due to the larger pixels. It almost takes on a slightly analog look. I still really like the pics taken with that camera and you’re right, shoot with what you have. And who knows, getting pics with something different makes your pictures, somewhat different
Thanks for the comment, Michael. I myself am sometimes pleasantly surprised when I reach for a photo I took with a Nikon D200 or D300. Recently, I even re-edited files taken on the D70! I was shocked at how new software can breathe life into even these old pieces. No, technology is not the limiting factor. The limit is our time and convenience.
I’m still using my long-suffering D800 with the capable NIKKOR 200-500 f5.6 for wildlife and have felt no need to upgrade. Granted, I have to work a bit harder to get moving subjects in focus, but the results are still quite good. I originally wanted the NIKKOR 500 f5.6 but it was out of stock so I went with the much less expensive (and heavier) 200-500 and haven’t looked back (although I do sometimes covet the lighter lens). 36 MP is more than adequate for what I do with plenty of room for cropping and really quite good noise and dynamic range specifications. I also have a D7100 that sits lonely on the shelf because I like the look and feel of the D800 photos that much better (the difference is subtle but noticeable to my eye).
I applaud you for sticking with the D800. There is something very special about D800 pictures that none of its later grandchildren can quite match. I have a D800, D810 and D850, and I can never quite abandon my D800 because it has that quality. I wouldn’t sell it for anything. Good for you.
The D800 is still a great camera. The autofocus really isn’t the fastest, but the sensor quality is perfect even by today’s standards. And the feel of a solid piece of metal in your hand… I’d say that with a 200-500mm lens they are good mates. Neither are world champions in speed, but they do a great job.
I’ll add one: Don’t fall into the trap of getting so focused on whatever it was you set out to capture that you miss other opportunities.
That’s right. It’s good to have a plan, but it’s equally good to take things as they come.
Perfect timing since I just bought my first super tele. I was selfishly thinking I should ask Photography Life to put together tips for newbs so the timing almost seems uncanny to me. Thank you!!
I’m glad I was able to time my article so well. I wish you the best of luck with your photo hunt, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask, I’d be happy to answer it.
I put up a bird feeder and stock it regularly. I have dozens of bird species that I can shoot that come right to my house every day now. Oh, and squirrels.
That’s great, Jason. What species do you get the most at your feeder? Feeders are a great way to get animals closer to people. Just keep in mind that higher concentrations of animals can make it easier to transmit infections. That’s why it’s important to make the feeder easy to clean. Feeders also attract predators, such as cats. Therefore, they should be placed out of their reach. A bigger problem that is harder to solve is that many birds like to feed on the ground with seeds that fall off the feeder. This makes them easy prey for cats. A clear environment around the feeder can be a solution, making it difficult for cats to get near it unnoticed.
I mainly get sparrows, housefinches, cardinals, phoebes, wrens, mockingbirds, and doves. I have a lot of flowers that also bring in the hummingbirds and goldfinches occasionally. I randomly see lots of other birds as well depending on the season. Amazingly enough, the grackles haven’t found me yet.
Fortunately, there are no cats roaming freely in my neighborhood and if it became a hunting ground for cats, I’d stop doing it. Stray cats and outdoor cats don’t last too long in this area because of the coyotes. I did have the feeder in my backyard, but I found that my dog was good at chasing the birds against the fence and killing them, so I only feed in the front now. But I can hear them chirping all day from my office window so that is nice.
Looks like your feeder is full of life, that’s great. The coyotes are doing a good job, because free-roaming cats are a real disaster for small vertebrates.