Some Notes on DSLR Wildlife Photography

The magnificent Painted Turtle

Equipment

You don’t need much, but you can do more with more

In the above slides, I give two pairings of lens and body that make a good starter kit for wildlife photography.

DSLR cameras are the core of an ecosystem

My current DSLR is a Canon, largely because my first DSLR 15 years ago was a Canon, and so all my old lenses and many of my accessories were Canon-compatible. Once you buy a camera body, you’re buying into an ecosystem of compatible products; you can buy lenses, for example, from third-party manufacturers, but they will only be compatible with one manufacturer’s bodies. And once you’ve got several lenses for that type of body, your next body is likely going to be from the same manufacturer.

Some accessories are essential

DSLRs and long lenses are neither cheap nor light, so reducing the risk of damage, particularly from drops and scratches, is essential. Personally, I’ll never buy a lens without a matching “UV filter”. This is a completely transparent, thin piece of glass that screws into the filter thread on your lens and takes any scratches or dirt that might otherwise damage the lens. Price varies with size; mine varied between $10 and $75, the latter protecting a $900 lens. Similarly, I always put a screen protector on the rear screen on my DSLRs; these serve a similar “sacrificial” purpose as a UV filter does for a lens. Far cheaper to discard this if damaged than try to repair or replace a camera.

Some accessories are just useful

You might have guessed that I’m a fan of Peak Design; their kit is all cross-compatible and I’m a big fan of systems that work together. I also use their “capture” system to secure a camera in a “quick access” position on the front of my rucksack or my belt, and the plates these use also act as the fastening for their tripod. Their prices are high; to my mind it’s justified by the quality, but they won’t be a brand everyone immediately stocks up on.

Technology moves fast

My first DSLRs alluded to above, bought around 2005 (and both still working!), were a Canon EOS 350D (aka Digital Rebel XT) and EOS 400D (Digital Rebel XTi) having 8 & 10 megapixels respectively. The T8i and EOS 90D we have now 24 and 32 megapixels. More megapixels doesn’t automatically mean a better image, but it does give you more room to crop and zoom in post-production. Raw number of pixels isn’t the the only difference, either; the newer cameras have much better intelligence and performance. They handle low light better, focus faster, support more storage, and produce generally better pictures.

Approach

You’re not paying by the shot any more

Continuing the theme of “SLRs aren’t what they used to be”, gaining the “D” has completely changed the economics of each shot. Film used to give you 24–36 exposures per roll, which you’d have to buy, then send off and pay for development. Modern DSLRs will hold thousands of full-resolution images, which each cost nothing. As such, the days of “picking your shot” are largely gone.

Birds blink

It’s not something everyone tends to initially consider, but, like at least one human in almost every group photo, birds blink. They also jump around, stick their heads under their wings, hide behind leaves, and generally act like small, feathery toddlers. In particular, when photographing small birds at a distance, it can be hard to see if you’ve got a side, front, or rear view until reviewing the picture. Taking short bursts of photos, rather than single shots, can be a good start in terms of getting a reasonable pose and expression (yes, birds definitely have expressions) in at least one of them.

Telephoto focus is shallow

“Depth of Field” is that range of distances away from the camera which are in focus at the same time. This is a problem we don’t have with the human eye, which scans and refocuses its subject rapidly and automatically. The depth of field in a photo is fixed when it’s taken, and it can be very shallow, particularly when using long lenses. For example, if photographing a small bird 12 feet away with a 400mm lens and a typical aperture, the depth of field can be around one inch. If your camera has focused on the ground, or a twig, an inch in front of it, you’ve got a blurred bird. Taking multiple photos or bursts, and allowing the camera to refocus between them, is going to improve your odds of catching the bird in focus.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take

You’ll miss most of the shots you do take, too. This is OK. Considering the above constraints, if 1% to 5% of your photos are “good”, you’ve done well.

Get *a* shot before you get *the* shot

You will be a potential threat, or an unknown, to most wildlife. The closer you get, the scarier you get, and the higher the chance of your subject either fleeing or hiding (or just randomly deciding to be elsewhere). Take a shot on the way in or while zooming, even if it seems too distant. A “poor” shot beats no shot, and can serve as a memory, an identification aid, and a step towards that “great” shot another day.

Wildlife is wild

If a wild subject doesn’t flee from you, it means one of the following:

  • It hasn’t perceived you yet
  • It’s unconcerned, so far
  • It’s terrified, and frozen
  • It can’t see an escape route
  • It’s too young either to flee or to fear (in which case, how are the parents likely to react?)
  • It’s exhausted
  • It’s deciding whether it can, or should, attack

Photography isn’t intensive activity (but it’s great for fresh air)

It’s a natural tendency (or at least, something I did), when you first start wildlife photography, to combine it with another outdoor activity such as hiking. It turns out this doesn’t work so well; when you’re hiking for exercise, you tend to want to cover the distance at a decent, known rate; when you’re photographing, you want to be moving slowly, intermittently and quietly, and you’ll never keep to a schedule. Trying to mix the activities will compromise both (which you may be fine with), so these days when the hiking boots go on, I’m either going out for a hike or for photography, not both.

Technique

Automatic: For the people, not the wildlife

Modern cameras are smart, and their automatic mode can do a lot, but it’s generally oriented towards human situations, and stationary scenery. You’ll get much better results understanding, and applying, just a few core settings in your camera for wildlife photography. As such, “Full Auto” should only ever be considered a fallback in cases where you haven’t time to dial in the right settings. (It does happen — if you see an Osprey heading your way, you’re not likely to start reprogramming your camera).

Speed is good. Noise isn’t

A long-standing rule of thumb states that, for hand-held photography, the slowest shutter speed you should use to avoid blur from lens movement is 1/your focal length. Eg, if you have a 400mm lens at full extension, shoot at 1/400 second or faster. The more margin you can give yourself, the better.

  • Just learn to hold your camera really still. This comes with practice, and can also rely on finding the hold on the camera that works best for you.
  • Brace the camera against something. Trees, railings, rocks are all useful. Just don’t lean on the focusing ring.
  • Hold your breath while taking the picture.

Your eyes will deceive you

As noted above, your eyes handle focus very differently than your camera. They also process light very differently, too.

Wildlife is often small and far away

And it likes hiding in complex environments like forests, too.

  • Single-Point Focus (or better, Spot Focus if you have it). Your camera will use the smallest possible area (which you’ll have to place over the subject) to focus. On the plus side, this means it won’t get distracted by, or focus on, objects around the subject. On the minus side, it means the camera has to work harder to obtain focus detail from that area. Usually (except in low-contrast light situations), this isn’t too much of a problem for modern cameras.
  • Single-Shot Focus. Rather than telling the camera what area to focus on, it tells it “once you’re focussed, stay focussed”. This means the camera will stay focussed while the shutter release is half-pressed, and not waste time refocussing until you release it fully. This is great if it got the focus right, but it can be worth re-focussing and taking more shots just in case it didn’t.
  • Area or Zone auto-focus. This selects a bunch of focus points, usually in the middle of the screen. Keeping at least one of these over the subject while moving will keep it in focus, so long as the background is plain enough not to distract the camera.
  • Servo (or AI Servo) auto-focus. This tells the camera “Once you’ve focussed on something, keep that thing in focus, even if you have to adjust focussing to do so”.

Autofocus loves twigs and leaves

Autofocus (give or take some modern enhancements) looks for a pattern of sharp edges in the area you define, and will usually prefer the closest such option. Twigs and leaves (which your eyes will automatically filter out when observing a subject) are fantastic sources of such edges, and so autofocus will frequently pick the wrong subject in a twiggy, leafy or complex environment. At this point, you have the choice of repositioning slightly to get the obstructions out of your line of sight, or switching to manual focus. The latter can be very tricky when dealing with fast-moving creatures, but sometimes you’ll get a subject that’s cooperative and still enough to practice on. Take these opportunities; sometimes they’re just good practice, and sometimes they can deliver great results.

Composition: Simple is usually better

While the best wildlife photographers can do wonderful things with scenery and composition, when starting out, three points are key:

  • Get the eye sharp
  • Get the entire animal in the shot
  • Don’t worry about filling the frame. You can always trim down, but you can never recover out-of-frame content
  • Zoom far enough out that the eye is central, and the whole subject is in one side or corner of the image, and crop later
  • Focus on the eye (by half-pressing the shutter release, usually) and then recompose such that the entire animal is in frame, then complete the press to take the shot
  • Move the selected focus point on the screen using your camera’s settings (only practical for still or slowly or predictably-moving subjects), then take the shot

Post-processing

JPEG is for sharing, not shooting

Most DSLRs and similar cameras will give you a choice of shooting in JPEG, RAW, Compressed RAW or some combination thereof. My advice is to always shoot with RAW, compressed if your camera supports it. JPEGs in-camera are nothing but clutter.

Half fieldwork, half homework

While you obviously have an option to download images, select a few to post as-is, and leave the rest aside, you can gain much more from your images if you’re willing to manage and post-process them. How far down this path you go is your own choice, but it’s not unusual (if you’re interested in managing your collection) to spend almost as much time processing images as taking them.

Identifying your subjects

The most common task you’re likely to want to perform is identification of your subjects. The solution depends heavily on where you’re working and what you’re identifying, but two key resources in the USA are:

Keeping score

My personal approach may strike many as obsessive, but my experience is that, if you want to be able to find pictures later, you need to keep on top of your library! I use Lightroom, and every image gets a tag with its species, and a star rating, so that I can, for example, go back and find “best pictures of Painted Turtles” later on. I also tag the location of most shots, but it’s worth remembering that you may not want to upload location data when you share images.

Fix it in post

You’ll have noted above that I’ve generally advised “cropping later” to get the image framing you want, rather than trying to nail it in the camera. Once you’re sat at home with your computer, it’s “later”.

Recovering from the speed/noise tradeoff

I noted above that higher ISOs will allow you the higher speed needed for handheld photography, at the cost of some noise. Lightroom and Photos both come with basic de-noising capabilities, but they’re limited. For significantly better performance, I prefer Topaz DeNoise AI, a paid product that integrates with Lightroom via Photoshop.

Putting your name on it

Sharing your photos is a major part of the hobby, but seeing your photos re-shared either without attribution or claimed by someone else can sting. Therefore, you may prefer to watermark your pictures. I generally recommend just a discrete watermark in the corner rather than anything that obscures or impairs the image. In most cases, unless you’re going pro, you’re only trying to protect against opportunistic re-use.

Sharing with credit

Claiming the rights to your image doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s worth exploring Creative Commons licenses, which allow you to specify who can use your images and how, with a six-letter summary that can be included in a watermark if you’re so inclined. Most of my photos (albeit not the one above) are marked “cc: by-nc-nd”, meaning “You can share this under CC rules, If you say who it’s BY, for Non-Commercial purposes, if you make No Derivatives”. CC licenses allow you to tweak all of these requirements if you so desire.

More Photos

Many of my better wildlife photos from 2020 onward are available at my portfolio site at https://photography.parsingphase.com/. A wider selection can be found on my Flickr account, where all images display their EXIF data including tags, lens and exposure data, which will help you see the technique and settings I’ve used for each image.

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Richard George

Richard George

Multilingual development and DevOps, with occasional politics and craft beer. Like the work? Contribute at https://ko-fi.com/parsingphase