If it isn’t obvious from the photos I share on Photography Life, the camera equipment I use makes it quite clear: I am not a wildlife photographer. In fact, my longest lens weighs in at 105mm — nowhere near the super-telephotos used by most wildlife pros. However, although I rarely seek out wildlife opportunities, animals do not avoid me. I have been fortunate enough to see everything from whales to reindeer while taking pictures, and I’ve learned some tips for photographing wildlife with a short telephoto lens along the way.
1) Include Context
Context is the most important part of making effective wildlife photos with a short telephoto lens. In fact, it’s something that would be very tricky with a super-telephoto.
Whereas super-telephoto lenses are good at isolating a subject from its background, wider lenses are better at showing the scenery nearby.
In part, this context stems from the larger perceived depth of field from wide lenses, even at maximum aperture. I took the photo below at f/2.8, for example — an aperture that would have rendered the entire background featureless with a 400mm lens.
Wider telephoto lenses also provide context by allowing you to frame the wildlife as a smaller part of your composition. Whereas a 400mm lens cannot show a large portion of the nearby landscape, a 105mm (or 70-200mm, or 50mm) allows you to include part of the scenery around the wildlife as well.
Although traditional wildlife photography focuses on magnifying the subject as much as possible, don’t discount the benefits of a more context-based composition. Some of the best wildlife images I have ever seen depict a beautiful landscape, and it takes a moment to realize that an animal is hiding in the photo as well.
Sometimes, the best way to photograph wildlife with a shorter lens is simply to wait. Because a wider telephoto lends itself to including context, I sometimes frame my photo before I even see wildlife — then, I just have to wait for an animal to appear.
Granted, this doesn’t work in most locations. But, in wildlife-concentrated areas like coastlines, it often is possible to anticipate where an animal will be before it enters the scene. If you wait for wildlife to be in the perfect location, you can give more thought to the way you compose your images.
Whenever you see wildlife in front of an interesting background, you can make an educated guess that it will return — plan your compositions accordingly. Yes, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime fluke for the animal to be there, and you may never see such a scene again. More likely, though, the animal is crossing a well-travelled path, and it will be back shortly.
When I was photographing at Jökulsárlón lagoon in Iceland, a single seagull flew by my camera, far larger and faster than any of the nearby birds. I missed the photo, but that seagull made the same maneuver ten minutes later — and the next ten minutes, and the next. Because I stayed in one location and pre-framed my shot, I was able to frame the shot below with my 105mm lens.
3) Get closer
If you are using a shorter telephoto lens, you will find it difficult to photograph distant wildlife — and including context doesn’t work if your subject is only a few pixels wide. This means that you must get closer to your subject than you would with a longer lens.
Typically, you need to outsmart the animal, especially if it is skittish. I wrote in my Photographing in Iceland article that I learned a way to approach reindeer for photography, and I wasn’t exaggerating.
I already stood downwind from the reindeer in the photo below, but they moved away whenever I approached. To get the shot I wanted, I left my tripod behind, walked to a nearby hill, and lay down. Within fifteen minutes, the reindeer had approached much closer, and I was able to frame the shot I wanted.
Far more advanced techniques exist for approaching wildlife, of course — everything from camouflaged tents to duck calls. For the casual wildlife photographer, though, it should be enough just to stay downwind and remain motionless.
Yes, this would have been easier with a super-telephoto. However, with the equipment that I had, I am happy to have taken such a photo.
3) Get much closer
Although most animals are scared of people, you will find some (those who are around humans constantly, or those who have never seen humans) which may allow you to approach as close as you want.
In such a scenario, you can frame your images just as you would with a longer lens. There is an added benefit, too: whereas super-telephoto lenses will compress a distant subject, a wider lens provides more dimension to the wildlife if you fill the frame.
Take care not to abuse these animals’ trust — you wouldn’t want to startle nervous wildlife with a loud shutter (cough, A7r) or cause it distress by getting too close.
4) Photograph Groups
Take a look at the photo below:
Although the birds cover about half of the photo’s horizontal width, each individual bird is quite small in the frame.
The morning I took this photo, my goal was to take a photo of a single sandpiper rather than this group. Birds are skittish creatures, though, and it is almost impossible to fill the frame with a lone sandpiper using a 105mm lens.
However, although my lens is too short to photograph a single bird, sandpipers tend to travel in larger groups. I was lucky enough to find four of them walking down the beach together, a wonderful opportunity for a group portrait.
This technique isn’t perfect — and it is harder to take quality wildlife images when you are multiple animals need to look good in one photo, of course. It took several dozen tries before I got an image with all four sandpipers facing the same direction, without any bird blocking the others.
It goes without saying, too, that you can not always photograph wildlife in a group — some animals prefer to travel alone. However, when you are working with a wider lens, it is worthwhile to search for wildlife that sticks together; a single animal may be too small for your intended composition, but a group makes it far easier to fill the frame.
A super-telephoto lens will always be the most important staple in a wildlife photographer’s kit, but that doesn’t make it the only lens available. Whether you have a nickname for your 600mm f/4 or you have yet to purchase an extreme telephoto, consider photographing wildlife with a wider lens than typical — you may be pleasantly surprised by what is possible.