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A short drive from my home north of Fairbanks, Alaska lies a small wetland. It’s a bog-like mosaic of ponds and water-filled inlets lined with cattails and thickly growing willows. Though much of the year, here in the sub-arctic, the ponds are frozen with a thick layer of ice, during our brief summers the wetland comes alive with birds.
From mid-May until late June, I try to stop by for an hour or so each morning, camera in hand. In reality, an hour is not enough for photographing birds and wildlife, but I know the place well, and can quickly move into the most promising locations. Knowing a place is actually one of the best tools a wildlife photographer can have at their disposal. But there is more to it.
Bird photography has exploded in popularity in recent years. As high-quality, super telephoto lenses have become more affordable, wildlife photography has grown approachable. No longer is it limited to pros or wealthy amateurs who could afford the $10,000 USD price tag on the big lenses by Canon and Nikon.
Whether you are shooting with an f/4 bazooka, or a more manageable, compact telephoto lens, field technique, and composition will play the most important role in your success. Here are a few tips for your next visit to your local lake, pond or wetland for photographing birds and wildlife.
First, the most important rule of wildlife photography is – don’t harm your subject! If you are approaching a duck on a pond, and the duck moves away from you, you’ve come too close, too quickly. Back up and try again, this time approaching more slowly.
If the bird flushes, you’ve screwed up badly. You’ve wrecked any opportunity for photos and stressed the bird unnecessarily. Don’t approach birds on nests, they are particularly vulnerable.
In short, be aware of the impact of your actions, and remember that the well-being of the animals you are photographing is more important than the images.
While a monster 500mm or 600mm f/4 lens is not a necessary piece of equipment for quality bird and wildlife photography, a decent telephoto is definitely an important part of any wildlife photographer’s kit.
There are advantages and disadvantages to different types of telephotos. Big, fast lenses like the aforementioned 500-600mm f/4 options, allow faster shutter speeds at lower ISOs, have exquisite sharpness, and a wonderful, shallow depth of field for isolating your subject. But they are large, cumbersome, heavy, hard to use hand-held, and cost more than a good used automobile.
Smaller lenses, like the increasingly popular telephoto zooms, are more compact, easier to carry and have optics that are improving with every generation. Canon’s 100-400mm and Nikon’s 80-400mm and 200-500mm, are good options. Third party manufacturers have also joined this race in a big way with high-quality 150-600mm lenses coming from both Sigma and Tamron. These lenses still aren’t cheap, but you probably won’t have to take out a second mortgage to afford one.
My choice: For years, I used and relished in using a big Canon 500mm F4. This big white lens was sharp with a beautiful, dreamy bokeh, and its enormous size had great snob-appeal. But as I have begun focusing my efforts on remote areas, the size and weight became a serious hindrance, and more often than not, I found I was leaving it behind in exchange for something smaller.
This winter, even though it broke my heart a little bit, I sold it and the rest of my Canon gear. I now shoot two systems, Sony mirrorless for landscape and night photography, and the Panasonic Lumix system for wildlife and most travel photography.
The micro four-thirds sensor on the Lumix buys me a built-in 2x crop factor. I’m using the Lumix G9 with an Olympus 300mm f4 (600mm equivalent) which, in my opinion, is easily comparable in sharpness to the big Canon lens. So far, I don’t miss the bazooka even a little bit.
Fast shutter speeds are very important for creating sharp images of wildlife with long telephotos. In bird and wildlife photography, particularly in wetland environments, the subjects are in constant motion. I am almost always shooting above 1/1000th of a second, and often much faster.
The aperture serves two purposes, allowing in more light (and thus faster shutter speeds), and controlling the depth of field. Very often in bird photography, you want to isolate your subject from a cluttered backdrop. So shooting wide open, or nearly wide open is important.
Some lenses have a notable loss of sharpness with a wide aperture, so be aware of your own equipment and its limitations. With my own gear, whether it was the Canon 500mm F4 of my previous life or my current Olympus 300mm F4, I find I’m comfortable shooting wide open, or nearly so. Play with your own equipment and see what works for you.
Use the ISO to balance your previous settings. As most cameras on the market these days can easily handle ISO settings of 800, 1600 or above, feel free to crank it up a bit.
Focus settings are also important. When shooting wildlife I almost always use single point focus (so I can grab the subject’s eye), and AI Servo, continuous or tracking focus mode. If the animal moves, I want my camera to automatically stay focused where I want, and not have to constantly be pressing and re-pressing my focus button.
Use a high frames per second shooting rate, and set your camera for burst mode. While my Lumix G9 is capable of nearly 30 fps with the electronic shutter, I rarely go that high. Instead, I opt for a standard high-speed shutter of about 9 frames per second. That is more than enough to assure a fast burst, without cluttering up my memory cards with hundreds of unnecessary shots. A frame rate of anywhere from 5-12 frames per second is sufficient.
The first, and most important, skill for getting close to wild birds is really a non-technique, technique. It’s called “patience”. When I have the time to dedicate to a shoot, I will frequently take a small waterproof pad, plop it down on the waterline of my local pond, spritz myself with a generous dose of insect repellent, put the camera on a tripod, and sit down. There, I will remain, sometimes for hours.
In time, the local birds relax after my initial appearance and go back to doing what they do. Often, they will paddle close, forgetting (or not caring) that I’m sitting there, clicking away. Wearing neutral colors will help you blend in. Or if you are really into it (or your subject is very skittish), you can make a “blanket blind” by taking a piece of camouflage cloth, cutting lens holes into it, and throwing it over yourself after you sit down. This simple type of blind will help mask your fidgety movements and obscure your human-outline.
The other even simpler technique for getting close is to go shoot somewhere the wildlife is accustomed to people. At popular birding areas, wildlife refuges, and national parks, wildlife is frequently used to people being around. The animals will be much less shy, allowing a closer approach.
Regardless of where you shoot, move in slowly, a few steps at a time, pause for a minute, and then move in a bit further. When you see the animal show signs of stress, stop and wait for them relax before approaching again.
Your goal as a bird and wildlife photographer should always be to photograph animals exhibiting their natural behavior. A stressed-out bird, flying or swimming away, will be inherently less interesting than one that is relaxed, or interacting with other animals.
The biggest mistake I see wildlife photographers make is shooting from too high a perspective. When standing upright, you will be aiming down on wetland birds that are sitting on the water. This is never the best angle.
Instead, kneel, crouch, sit or even lay down on the ground. The low angle will provide a better separation between your subject and its surroundings, and can create a pleasing blur of foreground and background.
Always focus on the eye. While it’s a general rule, with plenty of exceptions, when your subject’s eye is not in focus, you’ve missed the shot. Using a single focus point, select the animal’s eye, focus, and then click the shutter.
In the cluttered habitat of a local wetland, it can be hard to find a place where you can isolate the subject from the background. Distance helps. When the bird is well away from its background (this is where getting down low comes in) the backdrop will fade to a nice blur, which is frequently exactly what you will want.
Sometimes, particularly when photographing songbirds in the pond-side brush, there is a chaos of branches that disrupt the scene. Shooting with a wide open aperture helps narrow the depth of the field providing some separation. But sometimes showing the habitat becomes a necessary part of the shot. Compose carefully, don’t center the bird, and let it blend in with the scene.
Sometimes a full-frame portrait isn’t what you want. Some of my favorite wildlife shots show some context and tell a bigger story about the place where the animal lives. In this type of shot, good compositions are vital. You need to show the scene in a pleasing way, and avoid distractions.
When your subject is too far away for a portrait, think about how it is interacting with its surroundings, and find a way to place it in the broader scene. Think of these as landscape shots that include a wildlife element.
Wildlife photography can try one’s patience. I’ve spent many hours, sitting still, being devoured by mosquitoes, watching, waiting, and taking zero pictures. On such days, I can leave utterly dejected and frustrated. On other days, that patience pays off, with a wild animal in beautiful light, or with some fascinating or humorous behavior.
Wildlife photography is a lot more than just using a long lens. It’s about understanding the animals and the place. It’s about knowing how to compose, to get low, to hide, and being patient. And your local wetland, like mine, is the best place to practice, and maybe the best place to get something remarkable.
Sometimes, you’ll just get something meme-worthy! The two images below, of a beaver at my local wetland, I made within seconds of one another. In the first, he’s blowing a raspberry at me, in the second, he’s laughing at me. What a jerk! (Never underestimate the power of humor in your images).