I don’t want to intrude on an area already covered to death by others, so this section won’t be a technical ‘what lens is the right one type of deal?’ Lets just say that a telephoto (prime or zoom) lens is required for wildlife photography. The only question here is how close do you want to get to your subject. There is, however, one Nikon lens I have hugged, loved, still love and I think it’s a fantastic wildlife lens and that is the Nikon 200-400mm f/4. Lets get away from the which lens talk and just touch briefly on lens selection and it’s effects on wildlife photography.
The opening paragraph teased you with ‘how close do you want to get’ and that is where focal length matters, the longer the focal length you have access to, the closer you can get to your subject. Why do I want to get so close you may ask? Here are some basic reasons:
- Birds are fairly small, to get detail or fill the frame, 600mm or more is not uncommon
- Many animals are skittish. Longer focal length keeps you further away from them (out of their fight or flight zone)
- Some animals are dangerous and it might be wise to keep a safe distance away. This may require a long focal length to fill the frame
- Most of the time you want to observe animals’ natural behavior, and distance or camouflage are two methods of many to do this
This is a perfect example of using a long focal length to bring the subject closer, while keeping a safe distance from the grizzly bear sow and her cubs. So the next question that usually arrives is, how do I get longer focal lengths and how long is enough. That’s a question I don’t really want to answer, because it will open up all sorts of debates and I want to wimp out of those. Let’s just say I have a 600mm and a 1.4 teleconverter (and teleconverters degrade image quality), but if I am going to use a teleconverter, then the only one I find acceptable for f/4 glass is the 1.4x TC II (I am a Nikon man – Nikon TC). So the answer that everybody is looking for is, that there are times for long (600 +) focal lengths and the way you get there is your personal choice based on quality and dollars.
Nasim has written a couple great articles on bokeh and I will refer you to those for the technical talk and will just mention why I think it plays an important role in wildlife photography:
The story in the above image is the bear browsing in the rocks and the cuteness of the bear, so the part bokeh plays in this photo is separating the bear from the background and making your eyes focus on the bear, rather than on distracting things like a busy background. Longer focal lengths have a shallower depth of field, so good quality long/fast lenses make it easier to achieve the bokeh effect you are looking for. You can get great bokeh with a fast portrait lens, but you may get eaten in the process if you try that while doing wildlife photography. In brief, the level of bokeh is relative to the distance between you and the subject and the subject to the background and with the right lens/distance combination you can almost eliminate unwanted backgrounds that might contain distracting or unwanted elements.
I’ll try and show you want I mean photographically. This photo is not one of the best from the sequence of photos taken that morning, but it will help explain my point. I want the story of the photo to be the 2-day old chick, the care, and interaction between mother and baby, not a busy background I can’t get rid of. The location is what it is and I have to deal with it:
I chose to shoot this scene with a 600mm focal length for three main reasons, ultimately reason #1 is most important to me:
- The bird is on a nest sitting on eggs, I definitely don’t want to spook it or be the reason it abandons the eggs – distance is then key.
- I want the bird to be comfortable with my presence and behave normally, but I also want to fill the frame – distance and focal length are key.
- I want separation of bird to background in a hard-shooting setting, where I can’t change much except for my position and even that is limited by ‘good light’ that only hits the nest at certain times of the day – bokeh, angle and shooting distances are key
This section on lens selection could be so much longer and detailed – we have only touched on the very basics, but all items are worth mentioning.
- Long focal lengths get you closer
- Big lenses are heavy and hard to take trekking long distances
- Quality lenses are sharper and more robustly built
- Zoom lenses give you flexibility when framing subjects
- Buy the best lens you can afford, good lenses are great investments and hold their value for years
- Protect your expensive lenses against bumps and scratches with covers like LensCoat – also helps with re-sale value
- Get wet weather gear for your lens and camera, so you can get adventurous
- Experiment with your lens selection, learn to use various lenses for different effects.
For a more detailed discussion on Nikon lenses, see Nasim’s Best Nikon Lenses for Wildlife Photography article.