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Wildlife Photography; Lenses, ISO, And Shutter Speed
If your primary goal on a trip is to photograph animals, say on a safari or “eco-tour,” this changes your approach to photography quite a bit. You have to think about many things that don’t apply to other types of travel work.
I would recommend 400mm as a minimum focal length for shooting wildlife. Obviously, the longer the focal length, the more you can fill the frame with small animals and birds. Not all compositions have to be frame filling, of course, but for maximum impact it’s great to see your subjects close up and with tremendous detail. I feel that’s why the shot of mating lions (#2) is so powerful. They were about 80 ft away, and with a 500mm lens I was able to focus exclusively on the action.
The maximum aperture of the lens is extremely important in your decision to buy and carry a lens for wildlife photography. The reason why this is so crucial is because you want sharp pictures. The general rule that helps photographers get sharp pictures with telephoto lenses is this: the shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens—or faster. For example, if you are using a 400mm lens, you should be shooting with a shutter speed of 1⁄400th of a second or faster to get a sharp picture. If you are using a 500mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, then according to this guideline the shutter should be at least 1⁄700th of a second. Because the shutter speed is so critical to getting sharp images, the maximum lens aperture is a vital part of the equation. Even a one stop difference in speed can mean that your pictures will be tack sharp as opposed to disappointingly soft.
Most wildlife shots will be sharp if you use 1⁄250 to 1⁄500th of a second. When I traveled to Memphis to photograph pandas in the zoo, the lighting conditions were dim, and therefore I had to use slower shutter speeds. The picture I took behind glass (#4) was shot at 1⁄125th of a second, but because the animal was moving so slowly I was able to get away with the slower speed primarily because my focal length was only 170mm. Fortunately I was able to get close enough that I didn’t need the super telephoto.
An option that you may consider in buying a telephoto lens for wildlife photography is to get a DO lens. DO stands for Diffractive Optic, and although these are not inexpensive pieces of equipment, they are shorter than standard lenses and they also are designed to decrease chromatic aberration. For example, the Canon 70-300mm DO lens has the same maximum aperture as the standard 70-300mm (f/4.5–f/5.6) but it is 1” shorter. If the volume of equipment you carry is of the utmost importance, then this is a good option for you.
Fill flash is an important aspect of outdoor lighting, and again situations may arise where the additional light you can provide is crucial to opening up the shadows and balancing the light on the subject with the light in the background. The unique visitor at the front door of the Giraffe Manor outside of Nairobi (#7) is a great example. Had I not used fill flash here, either the giraffe would have been exposed correctly with the background entirely overexposed, or the giraffe would have been a silhouette against a correctly exposed background. The flash enabled me to expose correctly for both the foreground and the outdoor environment. I used the same technique in Costa Rica when I photographed a rare jungle cat, an oncilla (#8). Photography in a tropical forest is challenging because the light on the jungle floor is so dark, so in this case I was fortunate that I had a flash with me.
I was also lucky to have a flash on safari one evening. We were late in getting back to the lodge for dinner because we spotted a leopard in a tree at twilight (#9). It was a unique situation, and in balancing the flash with the cobalt blue sky I captured a favorite picture from the trip. I never expected to use flash, but it’s good to know it’s in my backpack because so many times it proves its usefulness.
Hummingbird photography requires a multiple flash setup to freeze the movement of the wings. When I traveled to Costa Rica to photograph some of the exotic species there (#10) I had to use four flash units. Two were placed on either side of the flower that attracted the birds, one was a backlight on the bird, and the fourth one was positioned to illuminate the background (which was a large print of out of focus foliage). Besides the controllable lighting, the reason why flash equipment is used is because the flash duration can be made to be extremely short. If you cut the power down to 1⁄16th power on all four flash units, the flash duration (i.e. the actual length of time the light inside the flash is on during the exposure) becomes approximately 1⁄16000th of a second. This is brief enough to freeze the wings. The shutter speed of the camera becomes irrelevant in this case. Its function is to be fast enough to eliminate ambient daylight but slow enough to sync with the flash. I usually use 1⁄250th of a second as the camera’s shutter speed when shooting hummingbirds.
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