Lesson #1: First Things First
Success as a wildlife photographer starts with a natural affinity for the outdoors and the creatures which inhabit it. Most serious wildlife photographers, while not formally trained biologists, are astute observers of wildlife. They spend far more time reading about and watching animals than they do actually making photographs.
Today, there are many more sources of information about animals than at any previous time. Local libraries have access to books on just about every species known to exist. An incredible source of information about animals is the internet. There are literally hundreds of sites with information on wildlife behavior. Not to be overlooked are outstanding animal videos such as the National Geographic productions, which can be rented or purchased from any number of sources.
Lesson #2: Quality
The quality of your wildlife images depends upon capturing the most interesting behavior of the animals you wish to photograph. The first and foremost rule of wildlife photography is that a photographer must never do anything which endangers or unduly stresses an animal. It is the animal’s natural behavior that provides opportunities for interesting wildlife photographs, and you should do nothing to alter that behavior. For instance, the antics of the fall breeding season (rut) are of great interest to the photographers of elk. In order to record this behavior, you have to know where to find a large number of fairly cooperative elk, and you need to know exactly when the breeding season occurs in that particular location.
This bugling elk put on a magnificent display of rutting behavior. Knowing something about elk behavior made it possible to be in the right place at the right time in order to create this image.
Alaskan brown bear photographers, on the other hand, will want to capture the concentration of bears as they feed on a run of salmon. They’ll need to know when and where the salmon are running, and how the bears are likely to behave as they’re feeding. Now, if you want to capture the pageantry of a caribou migration, you’ll need to identify a location where you can photograph the herd just after the calves are born. You’ll also need to know how you can get close enough to this phenomena to create quality photos.
Photographing wolves in the wild is best accomplished at their denning area. Knowing where a pack has established their den, whether pups are present, when they are active, and how the pack is likely to react to the presence of a photographer are essential pieces of information. Even photographing a squirrel in your backyard requires some understanding of the animal’s behavior patterns and tolerance of humans in order to record effective images.
Equipped with some basic knowledge about a species’ behavior, the photographer’s next step is to find a population of animals which is accessible.
Migrating caribou demonstrate some of the most interesting behavior that I have observed. Sometimes they’ll break into a run when they spot a patch of snow on the arctic plain. Led by the new calves, a group of animals will repeatedly run to the top of the snow field and slide down. Sometimes the cows get involved, but I’ve never seen a bull sliding. I’m not sure of why they do this, but it looks like they’re having a wonderful time, sliding hell-bent-for-leather with their long legs askew.
Depending upon which species you want to photograph and where you live, this could be as close as your own backyard or as distant as another continent. The excellent national parks and wildlife refuges of the United States and Canada are home to most of North America’s species. These animals are usually not hunted and are more tolerant of humans than those living outside of parks and refuges. Some wildlife photographers take advantage of the opportunities to photograph captive or semi-tame creatures in zoos or on game farms. Others refuse to do this on ethical grounds, insisting upon photographing only wild and free animals.
Equally as important as gathering information about various wildlife species is the acquisition of basic photographic knowledge. Successful wildlife and nature photographers all started by photographing things which didn’t try to run away! Photography is one of those endeavours nobody knows everything about. It is a matter of life-long learning. Beginning and intermediate photographers need to take every workshop, class, and photo tour that they can afford. They also need to read every photo book and magazine available. Photographic artistry comes from years of study and practice, practice, and more practice.
Related topic: Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography
Lesson #3: Wildlife Photography Camera and Lens Support
Perhaps the most important piece of equipment for wildlife photographers is a high quality, heavy-duty tripod. Although there are many brands available, the ultimate tripods are manufactured by Gitzo although Manfrotto, Slik, Benbo, and other companies also produce excellent tripods. Today, the photographer can choose between traditional metal styles and the newer carbon fiber construction. No matter which material you chose, it is essential that the tripod be sturdy enough to support your longest lens at slow shutter speed, but not so heavy or unwieldy as to keep you from using it. Depending upon your physical strength and the focal length and weight of your longest lens, the best choices are probably Gitzo’s 3 and 4 series or other maker’s tripods of comparable size. The lighter weight of the carbon fiber legs allows the photographer to use models with larger diameter legs. This resident of Denali National Park was not crazy about my photographing him. When I saw his hackles go up and his ears lay back, I knew it was time to back off. Moose can be aggressive and dangerous photo subjects. Knowing a bit about wildlife behavior can prevent photographers from injury.
The most popular tripod heads with wildlife photographers fall into two categories. First are the traditional large, precision ballheads such as those made by Arca-Swiss, Studioball, and Kirk Enterprises. These heads have the great advantage of movement in all directions being controlled by one knob. The second type of head is the gimbal style head such as the Wimberly head or Kirk Enterprises Cobra. The gimbal style is excellent for the fast action of wildlife photography with a long, heavy lens because its design suspends the lens at its balancing point, allowing it to swing easily from side to side and up and down.
My favorite example of this style is the Wimberly Sidekick which fits into a traditional ballhead, converting it to a gimbal head. By adding the Sidekick to your arsenal you can have the advantages of both styles at your fingertips.
One other camera/lens support that every wildlife photographer needs is a good window pod. Many of the subjects that you’ll want to photograph are tolerant of vehicles, but will not stay around for a photographer on foot. Kirk Enterprises and L.L. Rue both sell excellent window pods.
Lesson #4: Cameras and Lenses
Professional wildlife photographers buy a camera system. In other words they add pieces of equipment as they need them, and so they choose a manufacturer that produces a wide array of cameras, lenses, and accessories. Many serious wildlife and nature photographers use either Canon or Nikon equipment. Both companies manufacture professional quality cameras and lenses, and they lead the industry in bringing innovations to the market.
Both Canon and Nikon produce a number of cameras in different price ranges that are more than adequate for most wildlife photographers. The flagships are currently the Canon EOS 1V and the Nikon F5. These are amazing instruments, with capabilities that most photographers won’t utilize. Even Nikon’s and Canon’s lowest cost cameras are light year’s more advanced than the best cameras made only a few years ago. Some features are more important than others. Autofocus, a fast motor drive, several exposure modes, depth of field preview, and a choice of metering modes are very important features. Whatever models you choose, be sure you have a second camera body. That way a malfunction in one camera won’t put you out of business.
Related topic: 5 Best Cameras for Wildlife Photographers
Becoming familiar with a tolerant population of a particular species is helpful. There is a refuge which protects the endangered Columbian white-tailed deer a couple of hours away from my home. Many hours of observation has helped me anticipate when and where the animals may be photographed.
Most wildlife images are made with telephoto lenses. The ultimate wildlife lenses are the 500mm f4 or 600mm f4 models made by several manufacturers. Also popular are zoom lenses which extend to 300mm or 400mm. Some newer lenses by Canon and Nikon feature image stabilization or vibration reduction technology, a great advancement for wildlife photographers. At a minimum, an aspiring wildlife photographer needs at least a 300mm telephoto. Faster lenses (those with larger maximum apertures) are much more expensive than slower ones, but they are also much smaller and lighter.
Serious photographers should buy the fastest long lenses that they can afford (discounted prices can approach five figures for some Canon and Nikon lenses). It is also advisable to buy the same brand of lenses as your cameras. Or, if you can’t afford Canon’s or Nikon’s latest, to buy all of your lenses from the same reputable lens manufacturer such as Tamron, Tokina, or Sigma. Useful accessories include 1.4x (or 1.5x) and 2.0x teleconverters which extend the useful range of your lenses. They should be made by the same manufacturer as your lenses.