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Getting Started in Wildlife Photography

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly on Purple Coneflower

Opportunities to photograph wildlife are often found close to home. In my case as close as our backyard, which is a Certified Backyard Habitat and Butterfly Garden. While not everyone will have that type of garden, adding a few bird feeders or plants that attract butterflies may increase your opportunities to capture images of wildlife. Also, there are often nearby nature centers, wildlife refuges or other outdoor spaces where wildlife photography can be pursued.

A previous blog post, Capturing Images and Video of Wildlife, discussed various camera types that can be used in wildlife photography. This post will focus in more detail on the use of more conventional cameras and provide a few tips on how to get better images. I am sometimes asked what types of camera I use. While wildlife photography usually requires more camera features than smartphones or simple point-and-shoots, once the minimum requirements are met the camera is less important, in my opinion, than technique and an eye for good composition.

Blue Jay

What should one look for in a camera that works well for wildlife photography? As in most things, researching cameras can leave you wading through a lot of very opinionated commentary. There is no totally ideal camera so it is important to decide what your photographic goals are and look for a camera that will help you achieve them within your budget. Here are some of the decisions you will face.

1. Camera Type

If you have watched wildlife specials on television you will most likely have seen the high end equipment used by professional wildlife photographers. They usually include a full-frame DSLR camera with a separate large (and very expensive) telephoto lens. Full-frame refers to the old 35mm film format size that is commonly used as a reference standard in describing digital cameras. At the other end of the range are point-and-shoot cameras with a built-in telephoto lens. In between are a number of variations in types, many of which involve camera bodies with interchangeable lenses and different sensor sizes.

Camera Sensor Sizes

2. Sensor Size

The sensor is that part of a digital camera that captures the image.

The graphic shows the relative sizes of different available sensor types.

3. Telephoto Lens

A good telephoto lens is essential for wildlife photography. The more

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

advanced point-and-shoot cameras will often include some type of built-in telephoto lens. The other option is to purchase a camera body that accepts interchangeable lenses. There is a wide range of options in both categories with a corresponding variation in cost. I use both types of camera. For the wildlife enthusiast a point-and-shoot camera with a good built-in telephoto lens may meet most or all of your needs. Things to look for in a lenses are:

a. Lens Speed

The speed of the lens refers to how well it handles low light conditions. This is described in terms of f-stops. The f-stop capability of the lens may vary at different points throughout the zoom range. Better (and more expensive) lens have better f-stop capability. Look for lenses that have low f-stop numbers.

b. Optical Image Stabilization (O.I.S.)

Many cameras as well as interchangeable lenses have built in O.I.S. Some cameras with O.I.S. can interact with the stabilization feature in the lens. This is a very useful feature for wildlife photography. Wildlife typically moves quickly and often requires using a hand-held camera.

c. Autofocus

Again, given how quickly animals and birds can move, good autofocus is an important feature.

4. Putting It Altogether

It takes patience, perserverance and practice to get good images of wildlife. Knowing something about the life cycle, behavior, and habits of your subjects is essential. As in all photography, the essential elements of a good image result from manipulation of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (sensor sensitivity). Familiarity with the controls of your particular camera is very


You've probably heard that you should capture images during the 'golden

Eastern Grey Squirrel

hours' of sunrise and sunset. However, many of my images are captured during the middle of the day in quite bright light. I also like to take my camera out on cloudy, overcast days. The light then is more even and colors more saturated. Here are some tips based on my experience.

Shoot using RAW format. I generally use Aperture Priority and sometimes Shutter Priority. Adjust the ISO to suit the particular light conditions and image you are trying to capture. Increasing the ISO increases the sensitivity of the sensor and allows faster shutter speeds in low light conditions. Higher ISO will add graininess to the image. The amount depends on the quality and characteristics of the camera's sensor. This can usually be modified in post-processing. To minimize image graininess use the lowest ISO that will allow you to capture the image.

I also generally set the camera for auto white balance. To accommodate a very bright portion of the scene in high contrast situations I slightly underexpose

Red-spotted Purple Butterfly

the image. If possible take several shots using slightly different exposures. Since many of the creatures you will be imaging may move rapidly it is a good idea to watch their behavior and test exposures in locations they frequent in advance. Get to know your camera and experiment. Using RAW captures a lot of image data that can be adjusted in post-processing.

This has been a brief introduction for the person starting out in wildlife photography. There are many sources of information including online courses and books. The best classroom of all, however, is the outdoors. Take your camera out as often as possible and shoot a variety of subjects in different situations. With time and patience your images will improve.


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