Making Sharper Wildlife Photographs - [Part 1 of 2] - Digital Photography School
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Making Sharper Wildlife Photographs – [Part 1 of 2]

Canon EOS Digital Rebel, Canon 100-400 F4.5-5.6L IS lens @400mm, 1/800th of a second at F8, ISO 400 - Hand held

Mountain Bluebird with prey: Canon EOS Digital Rebel, Canon 100-400 F4.5-5.6L IS lens @400mm, 1/800th of a second at F8, ISO 400 – Hand held

If there is one area that seems to flummox more aspiring wildlife photographers it is the subject of making sharp images. You’d think that with today’s modern cameras and equipment that there’d be no problem going home with sharp images after each wildlife encounter. Un fortunately, that isn’t the case and I’m going to provide you with some tips and tricks to make sure you’ve got the best possible chance of making sharp images.

Lenses

One of the truisms in wildlife photography is that it is virtually impossible to have too much lens. This means it is extremely rare that the wildlife critter you are trying to photograph is too big in your viewfinder and in fact the opposite is much more common. Not everyone can afford one of the prime super-telephoto lenses that the major manufacturers produce. These lenses in the range of 300mm to 800mm can set you back anywhere between $5,000 and $11,000 respectively. Unless you’re a pro or a serious amateur with a healthy bank balance, these lenses aren’t feasible for the average user.

So, what’s a person to do? My recommendation is to purchase the largest telephoto lens you can afford. And when you’re looking at telephoto lenses, you want the biggest number of millimetres that you can afford. Common lens lengths include 200mm, 300mm and 400mm.

If you end up purchasing a zoom lens, look for one that has the shortest range possible. Why? Because in general, the more extreme the range the lens covers, the lower the quality at all those ranges. Therefore, I’d choose a lens that gives a range of 70-300mm over a lens that gives a 35-3500mm range every time. You also want to purchase the fastest lens you can afford. All lenses have a maximum aperture they can photograph at.

A lens rated at F2.8 is two stops faster than a lens rated at F5.6 and allows four times as much light to reach the camera’s sensor. Because wildlife is often photographed under challenging lighting conditions, a faster lens allows for faster shutter speeds which equals sharper images.

Long-tailed Weasel pauses outside of ground squirrel burrow: Canon EOS Digital Rebel,  Canon 500mm F4L IS, 1.4x Extender II @ 700mm, 1/500th of a second at F7.1, ISO 200 - Hand held

Long-tailed Weasel pauses outside of ground squirrel burrow: Canon EOS Digital Rebel, Canon 500mm F4L IS, 1.4x Extender II @ 700mm, 1/500th of a second at F7.1, ISO 200 – Hand held

Teleconverters/Extenders

I also recommend purchasing a teleconverter (or extender). Teleconverters are rated by the number of times they magnify your lenses range. So, if you’re using a 1.4x teleconverter on a 300mm lens, you’ve now got yourself a 420mm lens. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of some light and so if your 300mm lens was rated at F2.8, a 1.4x teleconverter will cost you one stop of light and it will effectively become a 420mm F4.0 lens. Stay away from the two-times (2.0x) teleconverters unless you happen to own one of those multi-thousand dollar prime super-telephoto lenses we were discussing earlier.

You’ll often hear that teleconverters degrade the quality of the image and this is true, but there is a trick for overcoming this problem. The solution? Stopping down up to a full stop. If you’re not familiar with the terminology, stopping down means using a smaller aperture setting (smaller aperture == larger f-stop number).

While it is a general practice to photograph wildlife wide open (at the lenses largest opening or smallest f-stop) to separate the subject from the background, I recommend practicing with your lens/teleconverter combination to see how much you need to stop down to make sharper images. Depending on the lens I’m using, I find I need to stop down between 1/3 of a stop up to a full stop.

Support

What else can you do to get sharper images? Use some sort of support. I’ve met a few photographers who have no problem making sharp images hand-holding over 6.5kg (14 pounds) but the majority of people will make sharper images using support. Buy the highest quality tripod you can afford. Make sure the tripod is rated to support at least the amount of weight you’re going to put on it. High quality tripods can be pretty pricey but another alternative to consider that will also give your camera/lens combinations great support is a monopod.

These handy devices also provide excellent support for even the heaviest equipment and they are a lot easier to pack and move about. If you want to save some money, (and who doesn’t), consider purchasing aluminum tripods and monopods over carbon fibre. They aren’t quite as light and they get cold as heck in the winter, but they are strong and a whole lot more affordable.

So, now that you’ve got yourself the best wildlife photography equipment your pocket book will allow, stay tuned for my next column (next week) where I’ll give you the tips and tricks you’ll need to make the sharpest photographs possible. Update: read Part 2 of this series here.

Until then, get out there and practice, practice, practice!. Photograph ducks at the local pond or go to a dog park and capture some of the action there. Regardless of whether you are in a remote location or on your own back deck, the more familiar you are with your equipment, the better chance you’ll have of making an award winning shot.

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Paul Burwell is a professional photographer, writer, educator and enthusiastic naturalist with over twenty years experience working with and educating adults. In addition to being the owner of the Burwell School of Photography, he is a contributing editor and regular columnist with Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Paul has been a finalist in the Veolia 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year' worldwide competition in 2009, 2010 and 2013 and was named a 'Top Wildlife Shooter' by Popular Photography Magazine in 2010.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    I am not much of a wildlife shooter (it takes time and patience) but I will definitely try smaller aperture.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Sue Lucas

    Just the article I was looking for, for my upcoming trip to South Africa! Looking forward to Part 2.

  • Michal France

    Thank you for the article! I was already thinking about 1,4 converter. I have canon 100mm 2,8 macro and it could be already a help. Does anyone know if the converter works with every type of a lance for canon? Thanks!

    otherwise here is a try of catching a city-wildlife:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8479455854/in/set-72157632777156007/

    canon 100mm, F2,8

  • http://www.photographika.fr Seb

    Very interesting article. Thank you.
    I try to practise wildlife photography since last summer, with a 300mm + TC 1.4 and I am pretty happy with this combo.
    Here is a link to my blog with some nature/wildlife captures :

    http://photographika.fr/category/blog/

  • Scottc

    I’d suggest a look here, this guy has incredible wildlife photography skills.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/fdcpr/8335176240/

    It’s something I need to work on.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5707176335/

  • JvW

    @ michal france
    Í guess I’m not allowed to post a URL with the information, because my post 30 minutes after yours didn’t get by the moderator, but the answer is NO, there’s no Canon 100mm f/2.8 lens compatible with the Canon extenders.

  • http://Www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    Carrying and hand holding a large lens such as the Nikon monster lenses, prime 400mm + , is definitely something to bear in mind.

    The do take sharp photos though

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-birds/G0000XwUHH9qS0yY/I0000zHSQlV7iPJU/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • http://www.flickr.com/gipukan Rob Gipman

    My best combo for africa was and still is the EOS 7d with the ef 100-400L and sometimes a monopod and sometimes my kenko pro dg 300 1.4x teleconverter when the light is extremely good.

  • Simon

    This is where the long-zoom compacts have a certain edge over the more expensive SLRs. They have their faults, but they offer a good telephoto option for a tiny fraction of the cost of SLR lenses.

  • lori burrows

    Glad to see this article. I am going to rent a Canon 300 2.8 to take with me to Alaska and now I know I am going to get the converter too. Any suggestions for a great walk around lens to take also.

  • http://www.bsop.ca Paul Burwell

    Lori,

    A great walk around lens in the Canon line is the 100-400 IS lens. It is much maligned because of it’s push-pull action, but for a light, hand holdable lens with a tremendous range (and if you stop it down to F6.3) it can produce some fantastic images!

  • David

    Paul, I have the canon 100-400IS lens on a Canon 50D body. I battle to get crisp shots when using bean bag on car window or mono. It almost looks like the IS is causing blur. Should I be turning the IS off in these cases?

    Thanks.

  • Cecilia

    Thank you so much Paul – an excellent article. I have a Canon 70-300mm , f4.0-5.6IS,USM on a Canon EOS 600SD which has an APS-c sensor which I believe gives me either 450 or 480mm instead of 300m,
    What would adding the x1.4 extender give me?
    Thank you,
    Cecilia

  • http://www.bsop.ca Paul Burwell

    David,

    I always have IS turned on when shooting from a bean bag from the car.

    Hopefully this isn’t too obvious but are you turning the car engine off? That causes a ton of vibration and will add softness to your images.

    If you want, email me a full resolution image (paul at bsop.ca) and I’ll take a look at it and see if I can figure out what is causing the blur you’re seeing.

  • https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com marius2die4
  • David

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks, I will send a couple through. I do turn the car off but not a silly question as made that mistake early on!

  • http://almostspring12.blogspot.ca/ Wanda

    Taken on a walk in a local park.

  • http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-l2JEsFDrTPc/US6XrVjMc8I/AAAAAAAAAzk/AqC5Aw0RH48/s1600/DSC_1152.JPG Wanda

    Chickadee

  • http://steveboer.smugmug.com/ Steve

    @david, you also need to give the IS a second or two before you finish pressing the shutter. I have the same lens and it does take a moment to stabilize.

  • David

    @Steve, thanks. My subject seems to be in focus but the background bokeh is very “jumpy”? Not sure if this makes sense?

  • http://www.courier-spain.com Edmund Sykes

    You recommend aluminium (aluminum) tripods over carbon fibre (carbon fiber) on the grounds of cost but shouldn’t you also say that, as well as being lighter and less cold on a cold day, they also absorb more vibration and are therefore technically better?

  • http://www.bsop.ca Paul Burwell

    Edmund,

    I don’t think I say that I recommend aluminium over carbon fibre other than if price is an issue for the photographer. All things being equal and assuming budget isn’t the issue, I’ll recommend carbon fibre tripods over aluminium any day of the week.

    Sorry if that wasn’t clearer.

  • Beverley

    Another option is to hire a lens for a specific outing or assignment. I know someone who does this a couple of times a year and spends a relatively small amount for the use of a lens costing thousands.

  • Rosanna

    Do you have a favorite tripod? I’m looking for a carbon fibre and want to make sure of my purchase?

  • http://www.bsop.ca Paul Burwell

    Rosana,

    I use the Gitzo 3541XLS which works great for me because I’m fairly tall.

    I hope that helps.

    Paul

  • http://www.courier-spain.co.uk Edmund Sykes

    I use a Belkin C-127 with a KJ-0 head which is well under half of the Gitzo cost. You must also be aware of the weight of a tripod – this weighs nearly as much as my Panasonic G3 and 4 lenses put together so I often carry a Gorillapod instead with a head that takes the same tripod mounting plate.

  • Johan Bauwens

    Most important factor is time and patience. Most people who work fulltime, have a wife (or husband) and kids won’t find the time to sit for 10 hours in a hide in the weekend. The only people I know who take amazing wildlife pics are (rich) retired people or people who make a living out of it.

  • tired

    Go to zoos.

  • Dawn (USMC Mom)

    Use a tripod when possible, with a zoom at 300mm you will be more prone to hand shake at lower shutter speeds.

  • Ron Clifford

    Great advice

  • marius2die4

    I like the article! I use a 150mmf2.8 with teleconverter 1.4x and a 70-300mm. It is a affordable combination.

    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2013/04/turdus-pilaris-ii.html

  • tmlakshmi

    tutorials are great. I find it cumbersome to use tripod when taking shots of birds in flight. Focusing becomes a problem. When camera is held in hands, it is easier to take shots of moving objects

  • Olindo

    What a terrible person it must be to be rich and retired.

Some older comments

  • Edmund Sykes

    April 1, 2013 06:23 pm

    I use a Belkin C-127 with a KJ-0 head which is well under half of the Gitzo cost. You must also be aware of the weight of a tripod - this weighs nearly as much as my Panasonic G3 and 4 lenses put together so I often carry a Gorillapod instead with a head that takes the same tripod mounting plate.

  • Paul Burwell

    March 30, 2013 07:36 am

    Rosana,

    I use the Gitzo 3541XLS which works great for me because I'm fairly tall.

    I hope that helps.

    Paul

  • Rosanna

    March 30, 2013 07:15 am

    Do you have a favorite tripod? I'm looking for a carbon fibre and want to make sure of my purchase?

  • Beverley

    March 14, 2013 01:27 am

    Another option is to hire a lens for a specific outing or assignment. I know someone who does this a couple of times a year and spends a relatively small amount for the use of a lens costing thousands.

  • Paul Burwell

    March 12, 2013 08:39 am

    Edmund,

    I don't think I say that I recommend aluminium over carbon fibre other than if price is an issue for the photographer. All things being equal and assuming budget isn't the issue, I'll recommend carbon fibre tripods over aluminium any day of the week.

    Sorry if that wasn't clearer.

  • Edmund Sykes

    March 11, 2013 08:48 pm

    You recommend aluminium (aluminum) tripods over carbon fibre (carbon fiber) on the grounds of cost but shouldn't you also say that, as well as being lighter and less cold on a cold day, they also absorb more vibration and are therefore technically better?

  • David

    March 11, 2013 04:30 pm

    @Steve, thanks. My subject seems to be in focus but the background bokeh is very "jumpy"? Not sure if this makes sense?

  • Steve

    March 10, 2013 10:52 am

    @david, you also need to give the IS a second or two before you finish pressing the shutter. I have the same lens and it does take a moment to stabilize.

  • Wanda

    March 10, 2013 06:16 am

    Chickadee

  • Wanda

    March 10, 2013 06:10 am

    Taken on a walk in a local park.

  • David

    March 9, 2013 05:06 pm

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks, I will send a couple through. I do turn the car off but not a silly question as made that mistake early on!

  • marius2die4

    March 9, 2013 06:30 am

    Nice foto.Congrats!
    https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Paul Burwell

    March 9, 2013 02:31 am

    David,

    I always have IS turned on when shooting from a bean bag from the car.

    Hopefully this isn't too obvious but are you turning the car engine off? That causes a ton of vibration and will add softness to your images.

    If you want, email me a full resolution image (paul at bsop.ca) and I'll take a look at it and see if I can figure out what is causing the blur you're seeing.

  • Cecilia

    March 8, 2013 02:48 pm

    Thank you so much Paul - an excellent article. I have a Canon 70-300mm , f4.0-5.6IS,USM on a Canon EOS 600SD which has an APS-c sensor which I believe gives me either 450 or 480mm instead of 300m,
    What would adding the x1.4 extender give me?
    Thank you,
    Cecilia

  • David

    March 7, 2013 09:22 pm

    Paul, I have the canon 100-400IS lens on a Canon 50D body. I battle to get crisp shots when using bean bag on car window or mono. It almost looks like the IS is causing blur. Should I be turning the IS off in these cases?

    Thanks.

  • Paul Burwell

    March 4, 2013 01:23 pm

    Lori,

    A great walk around lens in the Canon line is the 100-400 IS lens. It is much maligned because of it's push-pull action, but for a light, hand holdable lens with a tremendous range (and if you stop it down to F6.3) it can produce some fantastic images!

  • lori burrows

    March 4, 2013 05:12 am

    Glad to see this article. I am going to rent a Canon 300 2.8 to take with me to Alaska and now I know I am going to get the converter too. Any suggestions for a great walk around lens to take also.

  • Simon

    March 3, 2013 07:16 pm

    This is where the long-zoom compacts have a certain edge over the more expensive SLRs. They have their faults, but they offer a good telephoto option for a tiny fraction of the cost of SLR lenses.

  • Rob Gipman

    March 3, 2013 10:41 am

    My best combo for africa was and still is the EOS 7d with the ef 100-400L and sometimes a monopod and sometimes my kenko pro dg 300 1.4x teleconverter when the light is extremely good.

  • Steve

    March 3, 2013 02:08 am

    Carrying and hand holding a large lens such as the Nikon monster lenses, prime 400mm + , is definitely something to bear in mind.

    The do take sharp photos though

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-birds/G0000XwUHH9qS0yY/I0000zHSQlV7iPJU/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • JvW

    March 2, 2013 10:08 pm

    @ michal france
    Í guess I'm not allowed to post a URL with the information, because my post 30 minutes after yours didn't get by the moderator, but the answer is NO, there's no Canon 100mm f/2.8 lens compatible with the Canon extenders.

  • Scottc

    March 2, 2013 10:13 am

    I'd suggest a look here, this guy has incredible wildlife photography skills.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/fdcpr/8335176240/

    It's something I need to work on.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5707176335/

  • Seb

    March 2, 2013 07:28 am

    Very interesting article. Thank you.
    I try to practise wildlife photography since last summer, with a 300mm + TC 1.4 and I am pretty happy with this combo.
    Here is a link to my blog with some nature/wildlife captures :

    http://photographika.fr/category/blog/

  • Michal France

    March 2, 2013 04:28 am

    Thank you for the article! I was already thinking about 1,4 converter. I have canon 100mm 2,8 macro and it could be already a help. Does anyone know if the converter works with every type of a lance for canon? Thanks!

    otherwise here is a try of catching a city-wildlife:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8479455854/in/set-72157632777156007/

    canon 100mm, F2,8

  • Sue Lucas

    March 2, 2013 03:39 am

    Just the article I was looking for, for my upcoming trip to South Africa! Looking forward to Part 2.

  • Mridula

    March 2, 2013 03:17 am

    I am not much of a wildlife shooter (it takes time and patience) but I will definitely try smaller aperture.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

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