Gear Up with Gusto, for Wildlife Photography!
Many of us aspire to be wildlife photographers, whether as hobbyists or professionals. This genre of photography does not come easy. First of all, you need to spend lots of time in the outdoors, in different habitats and often expend loads of patience to get that perfect shot of your desired subject. After all, much about wildlife is unpredictable, and the best shots are often those that depict unique moments related to behaviour, habitat etc. But what makes this challenge a tad bearable is having the right photography gear. If you are looking to put together a great “wildlife photography gear-bag”, look no further. Get the basics clear and make your choices as per your style and preference.
- Camera: One of the most basic choices and a beginner’s choice is the choice of camera. One must consider several factors when deciding on the camera:
- Crop-sensor or full-frame DSLR camera: Crop sensors due to their crop effect offer better “zoom effect”. For example, a crop factor of 1.6 and a 600 mm lens means that you are actually viewing at “600*1.6” i.e. 960mm. Full frame cameras do not offer this “extra reach” they make up with their better low-light performance, thanks to the full sensor size.
* Another emerging category is that of mirrorless cameras, which are gaining traction due to their ease of use and convenient operations. However, DSLR cameras currently rule the roost when it comes to wildlife, mainly because of the vast choice of lenses (from a range of providers like Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tamron etc.) and better control that you can exert to get the image you want. If you want to try your hand at the mirrorless genre, here are some good cameras to experiment with: Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II, Sony A9, Fujifilm X-T2 and the Sony a6300/a6500.
- Autofocus performance: Capturing compelling action shots often requires quickly changing the autofocus focussing point, a task which is made easier with more number of autofocus points. Another factor is how fast, accurately and noiselessly does the camera autofocus? Also look out for a feature called “focus-tracking”, which allows you to “lock” the focus even if the subject is moving, which is often the case in wildlife photography. This gives you crystal clear focussed images even with a mobile subject, without you having to constantly readjust and refocus.
- ISO capabilities: A a thumb rule, full frame sensor cameras have better high ISO performance than crop sensors, simply because they capture more light through their larger sensors. ISO capabilities matter because much of wildlife action happens at dawn or dusk when every light ray captured significantly affects the image quality. Low ISO performance means grainy images, which is simply not acceptable.
- Frames per second: If you are able to capture more frames per second you will be able to capture every split-second action that a species does.
- Ruggedness: Shooting wildlife means you may not find yourself in the best of environmental conditions, neither will your gear. The more sealed the body of your camera, generally the better is its ruggedness and durability.
- Telephoto Lens: A telephoto lens (typically 200 mm +) has the extra reach that almost every wildlife photographer may die for. Some of the choices to make are:
- Zoom or prime lens: Prime lenses offer better image sharpness and quality, while zoom lenses allow you to capture various perspective (zoomed in and out) from the same location. The choice really depends on what kind of photographs you click. For example, if you like to click close portraits as well as habitat shots, a zoom lens would serve both purposes well. A disadvantage of zoom lenses is that they are quite slower at their longest focal length than at their shortest focal lengths.
- Focal length: Focal length is what will determine how close you will get to wildlife. Accordingly, you must have a telephoto lens (200 mm +) if not a super telephoto lens (400 mm +). A good focal length range to have is 70-300 mm, which is offered by various brands. You can also opt for a super-telephoto lens (400 mm+) such as 100-400 mm, 150-500 mm, 150-600 mm etc. These allow you the extra zoom needed to get up, close and personal with wildlife while giving them their space.
- Aperture: Look for a wider aperture because it will let in more light, allowing better image quality even during dawn or dusk. A general recommendation is to have a lens with apertures of f/4.0 or wider such as f2.8, f 1.8 etc. Not only is the low light performance better, but it allows a better depth of field, creating a nice bokeh and bringing attention to the subject.
- Binoculars: One may wonder what a binocular has to do with photography? But the first step to clicking wildlife is spotting it, often in vast terrains that trick the eye. This challenge grows multi-fold because most telephoto lenses have a narrow field of view, making it difficult to cast a sweeping glance for species-search. A good pair of binoculars solves this thanks to factors such as magnification and low light capabilities, making it possible to view the low-light nocturnal species. How do you select the best one? Look out for something printed on the binoculars body- of the form- “10×42”.
- 10x is the magnification i.e. the image will appear 10 times bigger. Most people simply select the highest magnification binoculars in their budget, but this is not a correct approach. Higher magnification often leads to reduced brightness, a lesser field of view and accentuates hand-shake. 8x-10x is generally considered to be ideal for general purpose wildlife viewing.
- 42 is the field of view. This figure gives the width in feet of the image when you are standing at a distance of 1000 yards (420 feet) from it. A larger field of view makes it easier to view a large expanse of the scenery.
Generally, a larger magnification results in a narrower field of view, hence one must select the optimum balance that gives the best of both.
Some suggestions are:
- Beanbag / Tripod / Monopod: Much of wildlife action happens during dusk or dawn, in low light conditions. Holding a large and heavy telephoto lens mounted on your camera is a challenge in itself, let alone keeping it steady and stabilized for that perfect shot. Invest in a good tripod /beanbag depending on what you shoot, for example, a tripod/monopod may be difficult to install on a safari gypsy due to lack of space. A beanbag mounted on the seat handles is a better option in this case. Plus, bean bags are great to carry around without the filling.
- Lens and Camera Cover: Protective gear is extremely important for shooting in extreme conditions. If you wish to embark on a snow leopard expedition in sub-zero temperatures or wade through the swamps in the wet Western Ghats, make sure you buy a sturdy camera and lens covers, camouflage style.
- Ancillaries: Make sure you carry spare batteries and memory cards with you in the field. Once you are out there in the wild, there’s no way to Google up a digital shop and buy an extra one! And the dust, cold, heat etc. can have unpredictable effects on your equipment. Best to be prepared with extras than repent later.
Some suggestions for building a wildlife photography kit:
Cameras: Nikon D500, Canon EOS 7 D Mark II, Canon EOS 1DX Mark II (high end), Nikon D5 (high end)
Lenses: Nikkon 200-500mm f/5.6, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, Canon EF 70-200 F/2.8 L IS 2, Nikon 70-300MM F/4.5-5.6G VR OR Canon EF 70-300MM F/4-5.6L IS USM LENS, Sigma or Tamron 150-600MM F/5 – 6.3MM LENS, Canon 16-35 F/2.8 OR Nikon 17-35 F/2.8 (for habitat shots)
Binoculars: Upland Optics Perception HD 10x42mm, Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10X42mm, Nikon 8X42mm Monarch 5, Nikon PROSTAFF 10×42mm Binoculars, Zeiss Terra 10x42mm ED, Olympus DPS I 8X40mm (beginners)
Tripod: Manfrotto MKBFRA4-BH BeFree (lightweight), Vanguard VEO 265AB (stability), Vanguard VEO 204AB (portability), BONFOTO B671A (budget)
Of course, one may not be able to purchase all this equipment right at the outset. It is then important to prioritize what is your interest area within wildlife. For example, avid birders may be better off with a super telephoto lens, while a reptile photographer may opt for a durable lens and camera cover to ward off the elements. But the most important part is not just buying the right gear but knowing your gear in and out. Go all out and experiment, get familiar with the nitty-gritties of your wildlife gear- this is one of the basic ingredients to guarantee you amazing wildlife moments captured.
Cover Photo: Youth4Clicks 2017-18 Participants during Youth4Clicks Wildlife Photography workshop at Kaziranga National Park
Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild
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Have something to add to this story? Tell us in the comments section below.
Just one correction, in 8×42, 42 is the diameter of object lens in MM.
What is the best magnification for a monocular for distance shots?