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With more and more budget telephoto lenses hitting the market, wildlife photography is becoming increasingly accessible. Consequently, you don’t have to look very far to see beautiful wildlife portraits, shot with a clean bokeh using a long lens. Close-ups like this definitely have their place, but this traditional form of wildlife photography is perhaps harder to achieve stand-out photos within nowadays.
But who said you had to use a telephoto lens for captivating wildlife photos? In nature photography, wide-angle lenses are traditionally associated with landscape photography. But by using a wide-angle lens with wildlife, you can incorporate the environment, and habitat of a species, into your photo. This is will add an entirely new perspective to your images, and it’s a really enjoyable technique to play with.
While you can do wide-angle shots of wildlife using a camera trap system, I’m going to be looking at firing the shutter manually. So here are some pieces of equipment you’ll want to get hold of.
These three bendy tripods are extremely versatile, and allow you to position your camera in all sorts of places, whether that be wrapped around a tree, or precariously positioned on a rocky beach. This will help you to position your camera low to the ground, in the ideal position. Tripods rarely let you go to ground level, as they often have a neck or centre column. Plus, they’re very large when spread out to the ground. But make sure you buy the more heavy-duty of Joby’s offerings, as the cheaper versions will not cope with the weight of a DSLR.
You’ll definitely need some form of wireless trigger for your camera. You can’t press the shutter directly, as no animal will come near your camera if you’re sitting right behind it. Instead, get hold of some wireless releases from YongNuo. They are about $40 and work perfectly well. They are a radio based system, which do not require line of sight, and have they a range of up to 100 meters (supposedly).
You need to think about what you’re trying to convey in your photo. The best part about a wide-angle lens is the ability to include the habitat of your subject, so think about what are its key features. For me, red squirrels are a great subject for wide-angle photography. They live in British woodlands, so the obvious backdrop is a collection of trees.
Position the camera as low to the ground as possible; you want to make sure you are at or below eye-level of the animal. This really shifts the perspective of the shot. Remember that because you’re shooting wide (perhaps even as wide as 14mm), you’ll need to ensure your subject comes close enough to the lens, or it will appear too small.
To do this, you can use some form of bait. I will stress right away that live baiting is seen as extremely unethical in wildlife photography, and I strongly suggest you do not take this approach in any form of wildlife photography. If your subject is a carnivore, then you can collect road kill or other already dead animals to use as bait. But for me, squirrels are omnivores and they are very happy with a few hazelnuts to bring them close to the camera.
Put your camera into aperture priority mode. Make sure you have your exposure compensation set to expose the scene properly, and any changes in light should be adjusted for by the camera automatically. Set your focus manually, predicting where the animal will turn up, and make sure to switch the camera’s autofocus off (otherwise it will attempt to refocus when you fire the shutter).
Now you can sit back and wait. Make sure you’re in range, but stay hidden. You can use a pop-up photography blind for this, and just be patient. Once an animal begins to approach, fire a test shot while it is still at a distance. This will help the animal get used to the sound of the shutter. For some animals a test shot won’t be appropriate, such as with birds that may fly away. If you’re lucky, your subject will realize that the camera means no harm, and happily sit and pose for your shot.
You should never put your photograph before the welfare of an animal. Period. There are no exceptions here, and to do otherwise is strongly condemned in the wildlife photography field. It therefore goes without saying that you should not perform this type of photography at the breeding site of an animal. If you shove a camera outside a bird’s nest, it will likely abandon it, and any chick in the nest will die. Disturbance like this never ends well.
There are some situations where you can hand-hold your camera and take wide-angle shots of wildlife. This is often the case for seabirds which nest on islands and cliff tops. These usually reside in wildlife reserves, and it is the case in the UK that you can walk around these reserves. Consequently, the animals are used to people and are completely unafraid. It’s therefore possible to get close enough. As long as your subject doesn’t show any signs of stress, then you are probably okay to approach.
Wide-angle photography is great fun with wildlife. It feels just like Christmas, not knowing what you’re going to get until you go back and check the camera. Sometimes you’ll be bitterly disappointed at an out-of-focus image that had potential, but eventually you’ll come away with something you can be proud of.