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Photography and Art

Article: Wildlife Photography

Taking good photos of animals or insect life is a very challenging but rewarding subject matter to tackle. An appreciation of the animals to be photographed will go a long way in helping you coming away with the photos you want. Studying the behaviour of the animals that is of interest to you will reveal when it's a good time to take photos. Be prepared for a lot of waiting around for the right photo opportunity as sometimes the animal or the environment may conspire against you.

A good way to start is perhaps photographing your own pet (if you have one or the neighbours). If any rules are to be applied here then the main rule would be to get down to their level. Shooting from the animals eye level (or there abouts) helps to give a more realistic rendition.

As mentioned earlier there may be a lot of waiting around, but, this time should not be wasted. Use the time to understand the typical animal behaviour. It is often the case that it will take some time to determine an animals behaviour but it is worth putting in the effort as it will pay off in the end.

Equipment

Wildlife photography is one of the areas of photography where having the right equipment will make life a lot easier to achieve the desired results. It is important to match the equipment you intend to use to the kind of wildlife you intend to take photos of. Certainly a pro-body DSLR is not essential but it does offer a highly responsive body usually protected from the elements. Most important for the DSLR user is the lens used. The choice of lens will be dictated by the type of animal to be photographed. Some just cannot be photographed at close range without disturbing them (and making yourself subject of their next meal). For animals in the wild at some distance away there may be no choice but to use the large, heavy, and expensive 600mm telephoto lens to ensure reasonable magnification. A slightly shorter lens with a tele-converter may also fit the bill. In this case keep in mind that not only do you lose a stop or two of light but image sharpness will also be degraded.

Should you not be taking photos in the wilds of some safari plain then you may find that a 70-200mm, 70-300mm, 200mm or a 300mm lenses may offer sufficient magnification. Tele-converters can be employed as a more cost effective way to get greater magnification. Keep in mind that if shooting with a DSLR using an APS-C based image sensor the effective crop (compared to a full frame image sensor) gives the impression of added magnification. For Nikon, Pentax and Sony DSLRs this is 1.5x, for Canon it is 1.6x, for Sigma it is 1.7x, and for Olympus and Panasonic it is 2x. So, a 200mm focal length will give the impression of a 300mm lens with an imaging sensor cropping by 1.5.

Wildlife photography is not all about using super telephoto lenses. The shorter focal lengths are very much valid and are suitable for animals you can get closer to. Prime lenses such as the 30mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm are very capable but depending on the animal, the flexibility of a zoom lens, such as a 16-85mm lens (24-128mm on an APS-C DSLR and x1.5 crop) may be more advantageous.

Photographing insects and various kinds of bugs is another challenge that may not suit some if they don't like bugs. The macro lens is king here and there are various versions to suit different requirements. Ideally, there should be sufficient distance between the front of the lens and the subject. This firstly reduces the possibility of the subject being disturbed and secondly, it ensures sufficient light can call on the subject. There is always the temptation to get as close to the subject as possible for dramatic macro photos but with resulting obscured light or the need to use some kind of additional lighting.

It is well worth keeping in mind what the typical lighting conditions are likely to be when selecting which lens to use for a shoot. Lenses like a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 are fine in good light but it's relatively slow optical speed means in non optimal lighting conditions (overcast, shaded, or just low light levels) the AF may performance may be hindered (the factor here will be dependant on the AF capabilities of the DSLR body). The cameras ISO sensitivity will need to be boosted to compensate for the poor light. It is well understood that boosting the ISO will impact on the quality of the captured image (increased image noise, potential desaturation of colours, and reduced contrast). Some of the high end DSLRs with full frame imaging sensors are fully capable of achieving quality images even at very high ISO but this is not the normal (at this time). For most cameras it is better to limit the ISO and consider a faster optic. With the super telephoto lenses there may be no option as size and weight constraints limit the maximum optical speed. For the less powerful optics there are usual high speed variants.

Fast optics have many benefits apart from the obvious fact that they gather more light. Depth of field becomes more shallow and allows for greater differentiation between the subject and the background (as well as the foreground). A downside to consider here is that the DOF many become too narrow if the subject is close and the aperture would have to be stopped down to compensate. With faster optics the image seen in the viewfinder is brighter which is a benefit under more trying lighting conditions. This added brightness is also used by the AF module which means autofocusing remains responsive and accurate as light levels decline.

Perhaps the most popular high quality telephoto zoom lens is the 70-200mm f/2.8. Most of the camera systems will have a version of lens and they are usually built to a high standard. Unfortunately to travel with they are not so much fun as they are typically heavy due to the large optics and the robust build. Not the lens to have when you want to travel light but a lens to have when high image quality is the priority.

Obtaining (or maintaining) the correct exposure can be a difficulty when taking photos with powerful telephone zoom lens. The high optical magnification results in any camera shake being magnified also. Depending on the situation, a monopod or tripod will be required and attached to the lens if the lens is heavy and has a tripod collar. The use of the tripod or monopod may not be practical in some situations and perhaps not desirable if wanting to little the weight and the items you travel with.

Many lenses now feature image stabilisation built-in and make it more practical to shoot hand held in more challenging lighting conditions or where the shutter speed is just below what you require. The alternative method of stabilisation is within the camera body. This works equally as well but has the added advantage of providing image stabilisation to any lens attached. Both systems typically provide between 3 to 4 stops.

Autofocus / Focus Techniques

This is one time when it is useful to employ the full capability of the autofocus array of your camera. On many occasions using the central AF sensor and locking focus then recomposing the the shot as required. This works well if the subject is stationary for a certain amount of time but is too slow if the subject is on the move. To ensure you get the composition you want the non-central AF sensors come into play. Depending on the camera used the AF sensor will attempt to track the subject should it move by handing over to the next available sensor. Continuous focus would be required to be set to get full benefits and focusing accuracy.

It is recommended to focus on the animals eyes as this is usually the most important aspect that you'll want to render sharp. The focus point can be very critical especially when shooting with a fast lens with a narrow depth of field or when using a telephoto lens. Avoid just focusing on any part of the animal in the hope of getting a good shot. If focusing on the right point is difficult due to the subject moving then consider increasing the depth of field to make up for some focus placement inaccuracies. However keep in mind the impact this will have on the overall exposure and the possibility that the ISO sensitivity may have to be boosted.

Exposure metering is carried out as per normal but special attention should be paid to animals very light in colour (more so if the ambient light is very bright). Subjects such as white tigers, pelicans, and swans will challenge metering systems. Even the light orangey colour of flamingos can cause metering issues. Evaluative metering will try to achieve a decent exposure balance between the subject and it's background but it will likely be to the detriment of highlight detail. With animals such as indicated, the highlight detail will likely cover an extended area which will effectively burnout. Exposure compensation needs to be applied and the degree of correction will depend on the light levels and how much of the frame is taken up by the animal.

Attention should also be paid to brightly coloured animals in direct sunlight. The colour may look impressive and striking but they could potential cause exposure issues. The overall exposure may initially seem fine but closer examination will likely show that the colours have become clipped. This may not be apparent from the standard luminance histogram but if your camera can show RGB histogram the clipped colours will be apparent. Exposure compensation will need to be employed to protect again this and the use of an image processing application used to restore the image but with better controlled colours. This all implies that the photos are captured as RAW files as this format provides the highest level of flexibility.

Hide or not to hide

Where you take your photos from will be dependant on the environment in which you find yourself and the type of animal you wan to photograph. Animals that don't see you as hostile or prey make the task of photographing them a little easier but that does not mean they will necessarily wait around to smile at your camera. Primates tend to an interesting challenge. It is not unknown for these animals to turn their backs towards you as if they don't want you to see what they are doing. It can be a long wait for them to turn round again if you find the places you can take a photo from is limited. At other times the opposite may happen and they spend time observing 'the strange humans'. These make for interesting challenges and so be prepared to go home empty handed or at least with not the shots you had in mind.

Some animals may initially run for cover when first sighting a human but if you stick around long enough they may return and go about their business almost as though your weren't there. In reality they are keeping a keen eye on their surroundings and will vanish again at a moments notice.

Get out there

With all the potential waiting around and carrying heavy gear it pays to have a decent camera bag that will protect your equipment from the elements (EA: I've been caught in sudden heavy showers before on a few occasions) and to not wear you down over an extended period of time.

Perhaps the ultimate way to travel light is to shoot with one of the modern super zoom compacts which provide an image stabilised lens with typical focal lengths from 28-400mm. A lot can be achieved with this kind of camera in decent light and with the subject relatively motionless. Keep in mind that such cameras tend to have very wide depth of field which may make it a bit harder to differentiate the animal from its surroundings unless the subject is fairly close. This makes it more essential that the photographer takes extra care to avoid backgrounds that may detract from the main subject.

Wildlife photography will challenge any photographer whether they are shooting with a compact or a top of the line DSLR. It is down to the photographer to understand the capabilities and deficiencies of their camera and make it work to their advantage. EA

 

Mini News

22 November 2012: Sigma 18-250mm now available in Sony's A-Mount

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17 October 2012: Firmware update for Sony NEX 7 v1.01

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Firmware updates are also available for the a77, a65, and a57.

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