Beginner’s Guide to Wildlife Photography

I’ve just returned from another trip to the wilds of Northern Scotland. It was a holiday spent with my family so it wasn’t primarily a photographic trip, however, every opportunity was used to take advantage of the beautiful scenery and amazing wildlife that the area provided.

My kit for this was a Canon 6D along with a borrowed Canon 100-400mm L f5.6 tele-zoom. The 6D has some benefits and one huge drawback for wildlife photography. One of the benefits is full-frame shooting, so that cropping tight in post-processing still gives acceptable images and can be the equivalent to tripling, or even quadrupling, the focal length of the lens. For the examples I use below I will include the original image so you can see the difference that Lightroom adjustments and cropping can make.

The 6D also has excellent low-light capabilities and although the high ISO settings (800 and above) do show visible noise, if there is sufficient detail in the image, this passes relatively unnoticed.

The drawback: focusing speed is slow, so tracking moving objects, or focusing on something that is flying towards you is, to say the least, tricky and requiring not just skill but a modicum of luck too.

I have a friend who produces excellent images, in the same locations, with a Canon 7D and 70-200mm L f4.0, so do not feel that without a huge lump of expensive glass that you cannot engage with your loves of wildlife and photography.

I also took with me a tripod, a Giottos Silk Road Series GYTL8383, but I only used it for the fish where it was a question of standing and waiting and hoping. Hand-holding in those circumstances would have been tiring and probably resulted in zero usable images.

Now, since I’ve mentioned the fish, that might be a good place to start.

The Highlands of Scotland are wet – very wet. One consequence of this is that there is a lot of surface water in the form of rivers and lochs. The Highlands, as the name suggests are far from flat so all that water, trying to find its way to the sea, tumbles down slopes and over rocks, creating spectacular waterfalls and rapids. These are very picturesque, but also form a formidable barrier to the salmon that have to spawn in the quieter, gentler areas near the source of these streams. At the time of year when these fish return to spawn they can be seen jumping up over these obstacles and they create a wonderful opportunity for wildlife photography that just needs a quick finger on the shutter – since they are only out of the water for a fraction of a second.

They do however, usually have a preferred area where the jump requires a little less energy and the river flow is less turbulent. Watch for a while, notice their favoured spots and focus your lens in this area then wait. This is where the tripod and a cable release comes in useful. If you make a mental note of the area covered by your lens you don’t even have to stand with eye glued to the viewfinder. Just set up, pre-focus and wait. This is much easier to do when there are a lot of fish jumping but when you have to wait five or ten minutes between fish, then concentration can start to drift and you will miss. Failure rate is likely to be high, but don’t worry just persevere and you will eventually grab a shot that you are pleased with.


 

1/1000 f13.0 ISO6400

In comparison, birds are much easier as long as you can get close enough to them. Birds in flight offer you more image detail because of the spread of the wings. Certainly the images of the gannets in flight looked far more impressive than those of them sitting on the water and required a much smaller crop to create a useable image. This is one of those areas where it’s ok to take loads of images with the expectation of deleting most of them later. It’s so easy for the focus to be off just a touch because of the bird’s speed of movement. Hand holding a long telephoto lens would suggest the use of higher shutter speeds to minimise camera shake, and it is essential if you want to freeze wing movement. Mind you as long as you can get the head sharp you may be happy with blurry wings so that you can convey that sense of movement to your viewer.

The following images were all taken from the safety of dry land with the birds out at sea.

 

 Oystercatcher 1/2000 f8.0 ISO 1600

 

 

 Gannet 1/2000 f5.6 ISO 400

 

Gannet 1/2000 f9.0 ISO 3200

 

One of the tricks you can use, especially when using shorter lenses or the animals are just too far away, is to select groups of animals. That way more of the frame is filled even though each individual is quite tiny. Imagine the difference in each of the following two images if there had been only one cormorant, or just one grey seal in the image.

 

Cormorants 1/500 f9.0 ISO 800

 

Grey seals 1/500 f9.0 ISO 800

 

Large animals provide much better photographic subjects if only you can get close enough to them. Most animals have a safe distance and once you  move inside that they are off, so approach slowly, quietly, and take plenty of pictures on the way so that if you spook them you will at least have something in the bag. These seals allowed an approach of something like 60 ft away, so I was able to get some reasonably frame-filling portraits.

 

Grey Seal 1/2000 f5.6 ISO 3200

 

 

Grey Seal 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 1600

 

…and if you can’t get anywhere near the animals you want to photograph (and red deer are incredibly wary – but that’s probably because people keep shooting at them) then just create something atmospheric.

Red Deer 1/250 f4.5 ISO 400 EF24-105 f4 L @ 105mm

So what you need to do is to find out where the animals are that you wish to photograph, and turn up equipped for any weather. Be sure to check the weather forecast, but don’t rely on it to be accurate and make sure that you can keep you and your equipment dry, and you warm. Rocky or pebbly beaches require waterproof walking boots to protect feet and ankles, and if you are off somewhere remote then make sure you let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. One of the problems with the more remote areas is that mobile phone coverage is very hit and miss so don’t rely on your phone to get you out of trouble.

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