A Basic Guide to Wildlife Photography
Many people have asked over the years what gear is required for a wildlife photography outing. Although not an easy question to answer as things will always be missed and opinions amongst individuals vary I thought I would give it a shot and hopefully others will add what I have missed.
One item I gave long thought to was what pictures I would include to give examples of wildlife and situations discussed to round out this guide. After much thought I decided to include pictures which were taken with three lenses which to me create a good kit for any wildlife photographer. Again, some may argue the merits of other lenses but this would be my choice and it is a kit I have made many trips with. There was some thought given to include pictures taken with 200mm and 400mm primes as well as a few other lenses but my train of thought was lets present what a well rounded kit is capable of producing which may well still fall within the financial means of most of the camera labs members. One that can be transported easily in any environ and which is fairly light and mobile but hopefully won't break the bank.
With that in mind all pictures presented in this guide were taken with either the Canon 50D and either the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM or the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM attached or the Canon 7D with the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM attached. The vast majority will be pictures taken with the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM to show its versitility under different circumstances and to show as well that if one was to choose one lens a 100-400 or something similar is a very good choice for wildlife photography and will cover the vast majority of the shots you may encounter.
I chose at the outset not to discuss brands, except within the above paragraph, as this is a personal choice but even taking that into account there is a lot to talk about besides cameras and camera gear to make a wildlife outing both successful and enjoyable and this is what I will be focusing on so let’s get started...
When discussing wildlife photography one must first define what one means by wildlife and what basic camera settings apply to different types of wildlife. I tend to break wildlife down into three basic categories to begin with.
1) Wildlife: Wildlife found in non-urban locations which rarely if ever comes into contact with people and/or urban environs.
2) Urban Wildlife: Wildlife which makes its home in or in close proximity to humans and urban environs or urban-like environs such as large National Parks.
3) Zoo Wildlife: Wildlife found in zoos and enclosed animal parks.
The reason I differentiate between these three is because they require different approaches both in regards to photography as well as other gear and approach. We will for the most part be talking about wildlife so there is really no reason to get into a long discussion at this point on the differences but I will touch on them briefly at the end.
The next thing that should be broken down is the wildlife itself.
2) Small animals
3) Large animals
5) Marine Wildlife
Again... all of these subjects can go on forever but to keep this somewhat basic let’s discuss these five. You will find that as you proceed I will cover subjects which apply to all categories above. I have done my best to point out where these take place.
Birds can again be broken down into two groupings: small birds (birds smaller than a crow) and large birds (crows and larger birds). Small birds tend to be a lot more approachable than larger birds, especially raptors. When photographing birds of any kind one of the most important things to learn is the bird’s threat zone. Although every individual bird will respond differently I think it is pretty safe to say with a little patience it is fairly easy to get within 5 meters of most small species of birds. The same cannot be said for larger birds especially raptors. I personally have found that when it comes to raptors and other large birds if you can get about 40 meters away from them start shooting... chances are you won’t get a lot closer than that and if you can get to within 20 meters you are doing very good.
Small birds such as song birds can usually be approached to within 5 meters fairly easily. The shots below were all taken with a 100-400mm lens and ranges varied between 5 to 8 meters.
This next shot was also taken within 5 meters and shows that it is possible to approach small birds on nests and catch feeding behavior without interfering with their normal activity. The key is taking your time and understanding the species.
This is as good a place to say it as any and it applies to all wildlife of all sizes in all places. Start taking pictures when you first see the animal and you are still well outside of its threat zone. After a few pictures take a few steps closer and take a few more pictures... repeat until you have the shots you want, spook the animal or the animal decides to charge you... joking about the last choice. It’s better to get some shots than none at all.
One of the best ways to photograph birds, and other animals for that matter, is from a blind. Blinds can come in many shapes and forms and we won’t get into the details here suffice it to say use what works best for you. A blind can be as simple as a few branches properly placed to conceal your location or a snow wall with a hole cut in it to shoot through to elaborate structures which are permanently put in place. Before placing your blind make sure it is in a location which gives you the best chance to get the shots you want of the species you want at the time of day most convenient to you. Yes... time of day is also important as once you are in a blind your movement is nil. You want to ensure as much as possible that when you are there the sun is in the right position for good lighting... at least for a good portion of your outing. Blinds take time to set up and finding a good location isn’t easy either so there is work involved but the results are well worth it.
Blinds may take time to plan out and set up but the results can be well worth it as seen below. Both shots were taken with the 100-400.
The following picture was taken from a blind set up to observe ducks from ground level. Imagine my surprise when this hawk swept in to grab a baby duck. Right after a kill raptors will often take this pose protecting the kill with the wings while looking around for any threats.
One item not many think of as a blind but that functions exactly like one is a car. Call it a mobile blind but for some reason animals tend to let a car get a lot closer to them than a human. With this in mind, if a shot is available from it, never leave your car unless you have gotten as close as you can in it and have gotten the best shot that you can from it. Only then should you attempt to get out and get closer for a better shot if needed. There will be times when the angle isn’t right, light isn’t right or many other reasons so that shooting from a car isn’t practical. If this is the case then stop the car well out of the threat zone of the animal and plan your approach from there. One quick tip for shooting from your car is to turn off the engine if at all possible before taking your shot. Vibrations from the engine may well cause some blur and along with this exhaust fumes from the car may well cause atmospheric distortions if the wind is blowing the exhaust back across your shooting path. Chances are slight of this happening but it can occur if the conditions present themselves.
The following shot was taken with a 100-400mm lens and a shutter speed of 1/1600 from a car. I followed this hawk back and forth for a good 30 minutes while it was hunting the edge of a farm field without in any way disrupting its routine.
Stalking birds as well as any other animal is always an option and success is really determined by your knowledge of the animal’s behaviour as well as the environ you are in. Many may laugh but camouflage gear is an asset, especially in really wild areas or areas which receive heavy hunting pressure. Any little trick to help you get a few meters closer in areas like this is an asset. If you have spotted a bird or any animal from a distance look around to see if there are any natural ridges, tree lines, hedges, or even manmade things like gullies, trenches or the like to follow to get you closer to the animal while staying out of its line-of-sight. Try and find a place where you can pop up and take your pictures before setting out along the path. This is one of the easiest ways to approach an animal of any kind without it noticing you. Just be careful to be as quiet as you can. If this is not possible try and stay as low as you can as smaller objects are considered to be a lesser threat. It should not be beyond you to belly up to an animal for a better shot crawling on your belly to get to where you need to be. If you are in high grass with no other obstacles to obscure your approach crawling or bellying up are two very good approaches. If all else fails and you are in the wide open staying very low and moving only when the bird or animal has its head turned is always worth a try. When all else fails one approach for raptors that has worked at times for me is walking slowly in plain view of the bird stopping every few steps to take a few shots and watch the bird’s reaction. Plan ahead so that when the bird does take off hopefully you have found a hiding place close enough to the perch it was on to make a quick dash for. As the bird is flying away make a quick dash for the cover and remain perfectly still. If the bird didn’t notice your dash because it was flying in the other direction and if the perch it was on was a favourite perch for hunting there is a chance it may return after a bit of time if it does not spot you. Odds are not high for this approach but it has worked often enough for me to attempt it if I think the conditions are right.
Stalking an animal for a closer vantage point or better shooting angle is something anyone serious about wildlife photography needs to learn to do and it will take time. There will be a lot of disappointments, even after you think you have it down, but it will be your only way of getting within range to get your shot under many circumstances. A successful stalk may at times take quite some time as well. Taking 30 minutes or more to get into a good shooting position is not unheard of.
Bird photography in many cases will require your longest lenses. Although some will say 200mm may be enough and it may well be at times a safer length would be 400mm and even with that you will be wanting for more. Many serious bird photographers shoot 500mm or 600mm lenses. Keep in mind however that anything over 400mm will more than likely require a tripod or monopod at least and this is something to take into serious consideration if one does a lot of hiking. A 400mm will give you the freedom of shooting on the go if it has good image stabilization. A prime of course would be ideal but here again you may well find it limiting if hiking or backpacking and in these cases a zoom with a reach of 400mm would be much more appropriate.
Raptors and other larger birds become much harder to approach. Always be at the ready while approaching and if you notice one deficating get ready for them to take off as chances are they will as seen below. This shot was taken at 25 meters. This was again taken with a 100-400mm lens with a shutter speed of 1/1000.
Let us spend a minute or two talking about weather sealing and weather protection for wildlife photography. If one can afford it any gear used in wildlife photography should be weather sealed including lenses and camera bodies. One never knows when the weather will turn and inclement weather can result in some amazing wildlife photography so just because it starts raining doesn’t necessarily mean put away the gear. Another small thing that helps for lenses are lens coats. These typically are neoprene covers which snug over the lens and were designed to camouflage the lens. They also however provide a little weather sealing and most importantly for myself, on cold winter days, they keep the lens insulated a bit against the freezing temperatures thus making them more comfortable in the hand. One last point on these is that if you drop your camera or bang it against something the neoprene covering on the lens may well protect it from scratches and small dings as well as more serious damage. Lastly a good rain cover can prove to be invaluable when out shooting wildlife. There are many on the market these days ranging in price from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. Do not brush aside the ones for a few dollars right away however. I have seen disposable ones worth about $5.00 used on whale outings in the worst of weather and they functioned without any hitches and protected the camera just fine. It really boils down to personal choice and which bells and whistles one wants.
Back to the birds… some of the best bird photography comes in the spring when birds are on their nests with young. A very important thing to keep in mind here is not to harass or overstress the bird. With some bird species one can overstress the bird and it will not return to the nest abandoning its young and no picture is worth that in my opinion. Carefully watch your approach and how the bird reacts to it. In many cases it will carry on life as usual including, if you are lucky, feeding behaviour. But if the parent starts to become agitated or aggressive towards you slowly start to retreat to a safe distance.
The same can be said for feeding birds. Birds, especially predatory birds, expend a lot of energy on hunting their prey. If you disturb a bird while feeding and drive it off its meal and continue to harass it it may well not return to its meal or something else may take it. Depending on the time of year this could have detrimental consequences for the bird.
Although not ideal light due to a hazy overcast the following picture shows that if you take your time and plan your approach it is even possible to get nesting shots of larger bird species without disturbing the setting as seen below. Understanding the species and the environ came into play as well. With the nest being on a beaver hut about 4 meters off shore the goose's threat zone was a bit smaller than if the nest would have been on shore allowing me to get a few meters closer.
Many people while out birding will carry seeds, bread or even small pieces of meat or dead mice with them to bait the birds, and other animals, for better pictures. This is not the place to get into the morality of this suffice to say that if one undertakes these approaches and happens to capture a once in a life time image it is probably wise to mention this if the picture is entered into a contest or put up for sale. Again however, this is a personal choice. Pictures resulting from this practice can be amazing. You can place the bait where you like keeping in mind your location, light direction and the most likely direction of attack from the bird. If all falls into place the results can be spectacular. Again, although I do not personally agree with this practice, I think it is important to include as more and more are using it to get their shots.
When shooting birds one of the most important things to be aware of is your shutter speed. Personally I am always looking for a shutter speed of 800 or faster for birds. Getting it over 1000 is ideal. There are many reasons for this. Smaller birds tend to be very twitchy so to freeze these actions one needs a faster shutter speed. Feathers also tend to ruffle with the slightest breezes so again, to freeze this, one needs a faster shutter speed. When it comes to birds in flight one encounters the same difficulties. If you want to freeze the wing action shutter speeds up to 1600 may be required. Ducks for one have a very fast wing beat on takeoff as do most small birds. Hummingbirds… well nothing else needs to be said about their wing beats. Raptors on the other hand, for the most part, give a few strong beats and then tend to glide off their perch but one cannot go wrong with a shutter speed over 1000. All this being said I still do most of my bird photography shooting in aperature priority mode. I will resort to shutter priority only under the hardest of lighting conditions.
Birds in flight are always a challenge in regards to freezing the action, landings and take-offs especially so, but with a little trial and error with different species of birds it won't take long to get the hang of it. The following was taken with a shutter speed of 1/1250.
Bird migrations give a prime example of instances when a shorter lens may well come into play as seen in the following. The following two shots were taken with a 24-105mm lens.
Small animals would be the next category to discuss. In many ways a lot of the things that apply to birds apply to small animals. Your approaches to them should be the same starting to shoot while still outside their comfort zone and then slowly moving closer and closer until one gets the desired results. Shutter speeds can come down slightly but keep in mind that the faster the better just as with birds seeing that small animals can be just as jittery as birds. Shoot for shutter speeds in the range of 600 or more. Again, I tend to shoot small animals using aperature priority mode and only go to shutter priority under extreme lighting circumstances.
Small animals are always fun to shoot as they are much more approachable for the most part but always be aware that they can be very dangerous. The badger below is on alert because I was within its comfort zone and this is not an animal to be taken lightly as they are very aggresive. Although the other two below may seem cute one must also be on guard at all times. The pictures again were taken with a 100-400mm lens and all within 5 to 7 meters.
Lenses for small animals may well fall within the range of 200mm to 300mm and you will have a lot of success but something in the 400mm range will cover most of your small animal needs.
Small animals, much like small birds can be a bit more approachable than larger animals but this isn’t always the case. If it hasn’t become noticeable above by now let me make it clear here. One of the most important things to successful wildlife photography has nothing to do with your gear or your expertise at photography. It has to do with your knowledge of wildlife, its behaviour, and its environs. Without this knowledge wildlife photography becomes hit and miss and you will not have consistent results. Learn all you can about the area you are photographing in and the wildlife therein and you should experience the encounters you are looking for. Only after that will your photography skills come into play.
Small animals, although cute, should be approached with care. They will all bite and some carry diseases so caution should always be taken. Never get too close. By too close I mean within striking distance. When looking through the viewfinder we all at times get the sense of being apart from what one is looking at. This tends to be one of the biggest mistakes made by wildlife photographers and can result in serious injury.
Small animals also include small reptiles and amphibians. These animals can be approached slightly differently from other animals. Reptiles especially tend to let themselves be positioned and posed if approached correctly. Now, let me make this perfectly clear, I’m not speaking about handling any venomous or dangerous reptile or amphibian. Know the animal you are approaching and what it is capable of. If it is a reptile or amphibian you know for a fact is harmless and you feel comfortable handling it then do so. These species, if approached carefully and handled correctly, tend to become rather passive after a few seconds. At this time you can usually pose them on a log or any other place very close to where you found them for that ideal shot with the right angle and the right light. Again, if you do so do so with extreme caution to yourself and to the animal. When you are done return it to where you found it.
When shooting reptiles and amphibians a good macro lens can do wonders. When positioned properly the animal many times will hold the position for several seconds and as such one can get amazing results with depth of field using one of these lenses.
With all small animals, as with small birds, taking pictures of babies or while they are feeding have the potential of some amazing shots but as with small birds be careful not to interrupt them to the point of stress as the results could very well be detrimental to the animal.
Predatory small animals again should be approached with more caution than usual. When in their threat zone they have been known to attack and these attacks can result in serious injury both from the wound itself as well as from disease.
When shooting small animals you will more than likely be shooting at ground level so with this in mind you will more often than not not have the same light available as when you are shooting birds which will for the most part include some sky lightening up your image. Small animals may well also be in the shadows and their nests/burrows also create a lot of shade. A little more effort may be needed to get the appropriate shutter speed under these circumstances. Raising your ISO is one way to accomplish this and don't be afraid to do so. Today's cameras handle the raise in ISO a lot better and shooting at 1600 ISO can still create amazing images. Your noise level will go up but there is enough softwear out there to help reduce it during post processing. Lastly... using your pop-up flash to fill in some light under these circumstances also helps. Don't be afraid to try it. With a little practice your flash can help a lot in brightening up an image under these circumstances. If you do use your flash try switching to shutter priority mode and upping the shutter speed as most cameras go to a default shutter speed when triggering your flash. There is at least one product out there which increases the range of your flash as well. It's a handy product under some conditions and some may well find it useful. Flash extenders do have their place in wildlife photography so if you find yourself in need of more range for your flash give them a try... they can effectively double it.
Do not be afraid to up the ISO if needed when shooting animals on the ground as they may well be in the shade.
Or just coming out of their burrow. Both the above and below images were taken with a 100-400mm lens.
There will always be times while photographing animals when the light will be so bad that a flash will be required. Pop-up flashes can fill this role just fine as seen in the picture below. Flash extenders are also available if more range is required.
The same approach can and should be used for large animals. Shutter speeds can slow down a bit but again speeds in the range of 200 or higher are a good starting point. Amazing results can be achieved with shutter speeds of 100 but a little flinch by the animal will result in some motion blur. If the animal is in motion look for shutter speeds of 600 or more. It is a given that larger animals, just like larger birds, will have a larger threat zone and with this in mind one needs to respect that threat zone. Most large animals can do serious damage to a human in just a few seconds and that should always be on your mind. If approaching one always have a plan of retreat in mind. Make sure that you can reach a safe spot before the animal can reach you. Large animals, especially undulates, can be very unpredictable and as such should be approached with extreme caution if approached at all. Buffalo and moose are two prime examples. Both can be extremely dangerous. This of course holds true for all predators as well if not moreso.
Encounters with large animals are always exciting and getting a good shot is always the first thing on one's mind but the shot should never come at the expense of yourself or the animal. Take your time and plan your approach well but never get within a large animal's threat zone. If equipped with a 400mm zoom lens you need not get all that close to get great results as shown in the following images.
This last shot was taken at a range of about 25 meters compared to about 45 meters for the shot above. Both were obviously cropped. The reason I was comfortable getting this close to the ram below was because there was a 15 meter wide raging river between the two of us and I have a feeling this is why he let me get this close as well. Always be aware of situations which may allow a closer approach.
Along this same line of thought… when approaching larger animals with babies be very careful… let me say that again… be very careful. These are the most dangerous encounters of all and extreme caution needs to be taken. I think it is even safe to say do not approach these animals at all. If you do the last thing you want to do is get between the mother and the babies. If you do this you are asking for trouble. If you see a baby but do not see the adult do not approach the baby. As a matter of fact I would backtrack quickly and avoid the encounter all together until I knew where the mom was. These are the most unpredictable and potentially most volatile encounters one can have in the wild.
Extreme thought and caution should always be taken when approaching a large animal with young.
Under most cases a good 200mm lens will suffice for large animal photography but a lot also depends on the terrain. In wide open country one may well need a 400mm lens or more.
Again, as with smaller animals, large animals for the most part inhabit and make their homes in areas which at times may well have poor light or a lot of shadow. It is also a lot more difficult to position yourself in a better lighting position when encountering large animals. As above this is another area where upping your ISO comes into play so do not be afraid to do so. Finally... keep in mind that a flash and flash extender can also help under these circumstances but not nearly as much as with birds or small animals as distances to larger animals are, for the most part, much greater... but never rule out anything.
Light may not always be right but with larger animals in many instances you need to take what you can get. After a little bit of post editing you may be pleasently surprised with the results.
One area of discussion which at times can raise a lot of debate in all areas of wildlife photography is how to compose your shots. For myself there is no right way or wrong way. What I tell everyone when asked is do what is most appealing to you but don't get bogged down with one style and vary your compositions here and there. Myself personally I tend to focus on wildlife shots which try to at least show some of the environ in which the animal exists to put the animal in context so to speek. For myself I find these images most appealing and so do a lot of the clients I have sold images to. That being said I vary this approach often enough so that when doing a presentation there is something there for everyone.
Although a personal choice composition can completely change the way a species is represented either isolated on its own or as part of its environ. Below in the first image is a close-up crop. The second image brings into play some of the environ as well. Both shots were taken with a 100-400mm lens.
Even when shooting close-ups one can still incorporate some of the environ into a shot.
I guess a good example for myself would be a presentation I did a while ago on whales. Close-ups of course are always a favorite but taking shots specifically with islands in the backround or the main land, other shots with only water in the backround, maybe a shot of a whale cruising along a shoreline within meters of it, some extreme close-ups of an eye or a blowhole or maybe even whiskers if you can get that close and then take it to the other extreme with maybe a distant blow which comprises a small corner of the picture being dwarfed by a mountain range in the backround as the sun fades. The best compositions may not always be close-ups and if you are trying to put together a series of pictures on a specific animal keep this in mind. Catching it in different environs to show its various habitats really presents the animal in a unique way and also may prove to be educational for others viewing them in the future. Always be open-minded.
Sometimes a shot taken at a great distance can set the stage for a great story. Shots like this can leave a lot to the imagination and bring to mind the phrase "a picture paints a thousand words".
Although not limited to larger animals, or even preditors fot that matter, I think this is a good place to discuss another point of contention within wildlife photography and that is showing a lot of blood due to a kill. Although Europe is a lot more accepting of this North America and the USA in particular seems to at times have issues publishing pictures of animals showing a lot of blood. I've actually been asked to edit out some of the blood in photographs by changing the color from red to brown to make it look more like mud or dirt which unfortunately is turning into a somewhat common practice in some circles. This is again a personal choice and I have always refused to alter photographs for this reason but it is something to keep in mind for everyone.
Wounded and dead animals are part of the natural cycle of things and as such can tell a story of a particular species' plight as in the case below of a whale hit by a boat which is becoming more and more common especially amoungst Humpbacks.
Or here where even after their death pacific salmon supply a vital source of nitrogen to the forest around them helping increase the growth of everything within several hundred meters of the shoreline.
Along the same lines some people look at pictures of dead or badly injured animals and get very upset and ask why in the world would I take such images. Again... it is a personal choice. I do not have a morbid fascination with death or showing bloody animals but I do think it is very important for a wildlife photographer not to sterilize his or her work. It is another reason I think that some people have an unrealistic veiw of nature because many, in North America especially, tend to sugar-coat it. Blood and death are a part of nature on a daily basis and if one is to accurately repersent it one needs to include photos of this type in my opinion. That being said I also think it is important to warn people ahead of time if one includes pictures like this in one's work. I have a presentation in a few hours on the great bear rainforest and at the outset I make it clear that some people may find some images disturbing.
Insects can be a challenge to photograph but the results, to me, can create some of the most amazing wildlife shots. Another great thing about shooting insects is that you don't have to travel thousands of miles to capture them... well unless you want to shoot some exotic form of one that is. They can be found in your own back yard, your nearest park, or on any outing you may be on. Just ensure you have your camera with you.
Taken with a 100-400mm lens
Insects, for the most part, fall into the world of macro photography and as such a macro lens can do wonders but it is not absolutely necessary. I've gotten some very good results with my 100-400mm lens. That said a good macro lens can give amazing depth of field results and clarity if you can get close enough that is. Another thing to consider for insects is a macro lens or an adaptor which gives you greater magnification than one to one.
Insects can be very twitchy so you want to shoot at a relatively high shutter speed if you can. Again however, as with almost all of my other photography, I shoot in AP mode when shooting insects. For insects, for me, this is all the more important because I'm really looking at depth of field for these types of shots so smaller apertures are defiantely the story of the day and along with this of course a lot of light... do not be afraid to use your flash and along with this a diffuser. Along this same line angles are everything when it comes to macro photography and insects because chances are you are not going to get everything in focus.
Sometimes getting close just isn't an option. Once again taken with a 100-400mm lens. The bee was a pleasent surprise addition.
Insects can be one of the most frustrating things to shoot so you need to be patient. To get real close to insects can be trying to say the least. Take your time and make your approach real slow. Try not to cast a shadow over it as in most cases that will bring it into flight mode. It has been my experience that most insects are very sensitive to light alterations and movement. You also want to ensure the light is just about perfect seeing you want every detail coming through in all its vibrance whenever possible. All this being said... there is an upside to shooting insects even in this case and that is if you do spook them chances are they are not going to go far so keep your eye on them and watch for where they next come to rest. Then it is easy enough to try again.
And my favorite butterfly shot to date. Once again taken with a 100-400mm lens.
Many zoos have butterfly exhibits these days and this is a great place to go and shoot if one is near by you. Butterflies are fun subjects and images of them can be stunning to say the least. I just found out our local zoo has one and I can't wait for this summer to go there and photograph them. I can't speek on the lighting in these places or any other adjustments one might have to make as I have never been at one but that being said to have the opportunity to capture so many different varieties of butterflies under one roof cannot be missed. Yes... I'm going to the zoo for a photography session
This is the perfect time for me to touch on this... I do not necessarily think zoos are evil and I do encourage people to visit them. I get season passes to our forestry farm every year and when they have finished building their raptor recovery center I plan on volunteering there to help in that area. Most zoos these days no longer exhibit healthy animals taken out of the wild but rather exhibit bred animals or animals found injured that can no longer be returned to the wild. Exhibits have also become much more animal friendly over the years but I still can't help but think of the two wolves at our forestry farm who pace the cage all day and whimper every time someone comes close by.
All that being said the main reason I support them these days is because in many cases this is the only real live link urban people, urban kids specifically, have to the wonders of our wild environs. Without these I really feel there would be an even greater disconnect for most of our society from our wild environs which in my opinion would lead to even greater abuses in what remains of our wild areas.
I've was fortunate enough to move to Canada at a very early age and live in close proximity to wild areas most of my life. Canada, in my opinion, has the largest expanses of wild areas in the world. This has made my life somewhat easy when it comes to photographing animals in the wild and it is what I have grown to love. I fully realize however that this is not the case for most people in most places and as such wildlife lovers need to go to where these animals are accessable to them. In many cases these are zoos or urban environs.
After quite a bit of thought I think it is fair to break this category down into two groupings, surface wildlife and underwater wildlife.
Surface wildlife photography definately needs a lot of preplanning to become consistantly successful at. One of the most important things to be aware of and a lesson I learned the first time out is if any part of your outing includes taking shots of any type of marine animal colony, be it bird or marine mammal, find out where the colony is located and which direction it faces. A few years ago I went to Newfoundland to photograph nesting bird colonies and whales. The first tour I took was at 8am. Imagine my surprise when we reach the colony and it is facing due west on a very high shear rock face. This situation had the colony in complete shade until the PM. If at all possible find out this type of information before hand.
If you are on your own be aware of any potential weather which may prove hazardous to your outing and make sure your boat is equipped with all safely items. Have quality marine charts with up-to-date tidal charts as well.
If you are going on a tour find out if there are any photographers working for the outfit and if so ask for any helpful hints they may have in regards to equipment or best times. If there are none it might be a good idea to place some helpful hints in regards to what you will be looking for. They may not always listen or they may not be able to accomodate you but if you don't ask it will never happen. It's something I always do before going on guided tours and for the most part outfitters are always accomodating and happy to do so as they too learn something new which may very well increase their client base in the future. Check out their webpage as well. If they have so-so pictures offering them a few for their site goes a long way in getting your way on an outing. Trust me.. it works.
Shooting just after sunrise or just before sunset can definately create a different mood.
This is also an environ where it is a bit more important to have a rain cover for your camera. Along with this have plenty on microfiber cloths with you or anything else you may use to dry off your camera lens. A helpful tip here... have a squirt bottle of fresh water with you to rinse any saltwater off your lens before wiping it as the salt may scratch your lens. This is one place where you should seriously consider a filter for protection against this specifically. With this in mind an extra filter also is a good idea. I only needed one one time before and that was on a 3 week antarctic outing when the frozen saltwater spray got the best of my filter. On every extended outing I have been on however I have had to replace my filters after I returned due to scratches but that is mostly due to my laziness. Most of the times I just use my t-shirt to dry my lens which is obviously a no no in a saltwater environ.
For marine environs I definately suggest a hard bodied camera case that is completely waterproof as you will get water in the bottom of the boat unless you are in a large charter craft and there is always the potential of a serious accident. Keep in mind that a quality hard bodied case is not only waterproof but also very floatable. This may sound silly but I swim like a rock and I know if I were ever to end up overboard I would seek out my camera case.. not only because i want to save my camera but it is also another piece of extra floatation. The only downside to this, and in the end it is not your downside, is that a lot of outfitters do not appreciate hard-bodied camera cases scuffing up their decks and may suggest not to bring them. In the end that is your choice. It was suggested to me this fall not to bring mine on the bear outing and I quickly suggested I would find another outfitter. Needless to say they were more than accomodating.
Shooting surface marine wildlife brings several new elements into play in regards to photography. An animal's threat zone changes drastically whereas one sealion colony may prove to be very approachable another may be almost impossible to approach. It really boils down to trial and error on any given day. Marine regulations also come into play so be sure to understand them clearly as laws, for the most part, are strickly enforced and fines for violating them can be high. I know in Canada laws state that you cannot approach any marine mammal from directly behind or from directly in front any closer than 400 meters under power and from the side any closer than 100 meters under power. Many people think this only refers to whales but that is not the case... this also includes seals, sealions, and any other marine mammal. The other thing that Canadian law makes perfectly clear is that you cannot approach "under power". This means you can drift closer than the above distances or the animals can approach you. Even with this in mind however please always respect the animals you are trying to photograph. It has been my experience that marine mammals will make it perfectly clear if they are willing to be approached. In many cases they will actually approach you out of curiousity. Once you are clear on your local laws you are set to go.
Marine mammals can be very unpredictable when it comes to approach. The sealion colony below would not let us approach at all and shots were all taken at a distance.
Sunny days bring about a complete change some days and approaching may be very simple. Pictures were taken with a 100-400mm lens.
As said above... marine mammals become very unpredictable when it comes to approaching them. One thing I have noticed in my outings is that most tend to become a lot more actiive and a lot more curious on sunny, calm days. Sealions and seals in particular become very curious when its sunny. I have had sealoins stick their nose within centimeters of the side of a zodiac to check us out. One actually did a playful tail-flick less than a meter away from me flooding my lenshood with water. Patience plays a large role in marine mammal photography especially if regulations like the ones in Canada come into play. Having to plot a correct drift to get closer to an animal or a colony is not as easy as it sounds and it may take several trys. Along the same line trying to plot where to stop your boat to have whales come closer to you needs to take into consideration not only the movement of the whales but also wave and tidal action. Add to this sun direction and you can see how it becomes pretty intense at times. Of course all of the above may not be able to be accomplished but if everything above does fall into play you should get some amazing shots.
One cannot talk about marine wildlife photography without talking about sun angle and direction. Both come into play seeing that the glare off the surface can very well become so intense as to ruin shots. This same glare can also make an average picture into a once in a lifetime shot. Catching the glare off the water in front of your target may very well ruin the shot. Catching that same glare off the top of a whale tale, the side of a seal or sealion, or the side of a dolphin will definatey increase the quality of the image. The same glare making a whale spout shimmer yet keeping the rest of the water flat would be amazing. Its something 4 of us shot for one evening just before sunset for 1.5 hours and no one got. Yes... some of the most drastic glare occurs just after sunrise and just before sunset but it is also the glare that becomes most workable if you are willing to put in the time and effort.
The following is one instance where the glare, what little there was, was caught on the spout enhancing the blow against the dark backround.
This may sound very odd but shutter speeds for marine mammals, including whales, should exceed 800 if at all possible especially if shooting from a small platform like a zodiac. Keep in mind you are dealing with three seperate motions... the animal, the waves, and the boat rocking due to movement in the boat. These three combined means you want the fastest shutter speed you can get. All that goes out the window of course if it is dead calm.
Another reason for high shutter speeds is that the most common mistake I see taking place in marine wildlife photography is people thinking they can use the side of the boat, the boat railing or a tripod on the deck to stablize their shots. This is not the case especially if the engine is running. The vibrations are extreme to say the least even if it does not feel that bad. Sandbags or beanbags will absorb most of these vibrations but it is still not ideal. Even if the engine is off encounters with waves, more often than not, will cause your camera to jump off your support and once again you loose the shot. Find a comfortable stance and use your body to add support to your elbow(s) if possible.
Try not to use any part of the boat to support your camera directly as vibrations or unforeseen rocking of the boat may well ruin an image. Both myself and the other photographer in the picture below are using our lower bodies to brace ourselves against the railing but our arms are free to "float" so-to-speek and help absorb any vibrations or any sudden jolt.
Lets talk a bit about shooting platforms. Shooting from shore does not create any issues that you will not encounter anywhere else. The next option is a zodiac or something of similar size... lets say any boat under 9 meters. I personally prefer shooting from these boats as you tend to get a lot closer to what you are shooting... especially if you are shooting nesting bird colonies. Many times larger boats do not have the draft to get into these shallow waters. I also find that for the most part encounters become a lot more intimate. I won't say always because that theory went out the window this fall for me. The potantial is just more favorable in a smaller boat. That said shooting in a smaller boat is definately more of a challenge due to the things mentioned under shutter speed and they are amplified in smaller vessels. In smaller vessels glare also comes more into play and shots that you can get from a larger vessel which gives you a higher shooting platform are just not available in these smaller boats. One that comes to mind is trying to catch something just under the surface. More often than not this will be a futile effort in a small boat like a zodiac. All that being said a small boat is more maneuverable and usually a lot faster than a larger boat. It's also a lot faster to start up and reposition than most larger boats. kpr may have a good arguement for this however with the boats they use in search and rescue
Larger boats as well have their ups. Putting aside all the positives mentioned above for smaller boats larger boats can get out in rougher weather, are a lot safer, and do offer a higher shooting platform which offer many more possibilities in regards to getting shots just under the surface of the water without glare. There is also a lot more room to move around which is the plus side but along with that you will be dealing with a lot more passengers. I do however think they do offer you more movement which in turn should create more angles. Things like wave action and people movement will also not be as noticeable in larger boats leaving you a bit more room in regards to shutter speed.
Both a zodiac and a larger boat are shown below. It's easy to see how these two platforms will drastically change your shooting angles. Both have their place.
Larger boats give you the unique advantage of cutting through some of the surface glare. Shot taken with a 24-105mm lens.
whereas smaller boats can create more intimate encounters.
There may be times however when using your imagination may allow you to eliminate some of the surface glare when in a smaller craft. To take the following picture I had someone hold a paddle with my raincoat suspended from it over the side of the boat creating a shadow to eliminate the glare. This allowed me to take the following shot of a jellyfish just below the surface of the water.