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Wildlife Photography; Lenses, ISO, And Shutter Speed:
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Shooting Perspective
The major frustration I have when I am shooting from a vehicle—such as when I’m on safari or in places like Bosque del Apache in New Mexico—is that the shooting position is too high. When you photograph wildlife, the subjects gain greater stature if you shoot from ground level. Lying on the ground creates a more intimate portrait and one that is incredibly compelling. This is true for small animals that are very close to the ground, like sally lightfoot crabs in the Galapagos Islands (#11) and warthogs (#12) as well as large animals like elephants (#13). We all know that elephants are huge, of course, but to photograph them from ground level makes them even more impressive. In Africa, whenever I have the opportunity to shoot out of a vehicle, I take it. On a recent photo tour to Namibia, I brought my group to a cheetah preserve where we were able to shoot captive cheetahs in natural environments while we were kneeling or laying on the ground. Everyone was thrilled with the pictures (#14).

#11

#12

#13

#14

Even when a larger animal is lying on the ground, like the Siberian tiger I photographed at a Montana game farm (#15), spread the legs of your tripod out so the camera can be positioned below eye level. The tiger appears to be even more powerful than we know he is because my camera was just a few inches above the snow when I took this picture.

#15

If you must shoot from a vehicle, instead of standing up and taking pictures out of the hatch, shoot through the side window. It is less comfortable, but it will result in better pictures. Also, use the longest lens you have. If the animal is far away, the fact that the lens is parallel with the ground and not oblique to it (as if you are shooting downward) means that you’ll get the best type of composition without shooting from ground level. The black rhino I photographed in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania is an example (#16).

#16

ISO Strategy
The optimal setting for the ISO is as low as possible. This minimizes digital noise. When we all shot film, many photographers liked fast and ultra fast films because of their coarse grain structure. The pronounced texture added an interesting look to the images. Now, however, no one likes the digital equivalent—noise. Therefore, the lower the ISO setting means your pictures will look sharper, have better contrast, and won’t have the unattractive texture of noise.

The other side of the equation, though, is shutter speed. When shooting wildlife, this is especially important because animals move. If your pictures are blurred due to a slow shutter, lack of digital noise is irrelevant. Therefore, the strategy that you have to use in circumstances where the light is low is this: raise the ISO until the shutter speed is fast enough to get a sharp picture. The rare nyala, an antelope I photographed in South Africa (#17), is an example. The light was muted, and in order to take a sharp picture I had to raise the ISO until my shutter speed was fast enough to get a sharp image.

#17

If you see that your shutter is 1⁄80th of a second and the lens you are using is a 300mm, in order to increase the speed of the shutter to at least 1⁄300th of a second (this is two f/stops—1⁄80>1⁄160>1⁄320) the ISO has to be raised by two steps. If the ISO is 100, it needs to be changed to 400. If the ISO is already high—say 800—then it needs to be pushed higher, to 3200. This is assuming, of course, that your lens aperture is already wide open. When you are struggling to make the picture as sharp as possible by raising the ISO to get a faster shutter, you don’t have the luxury of depth of field.

None of us like shooting with such a high ISO, of course. 3200 is uncomfortably high, even with the new generation of cameras that handle digital noise quite well. You might try and get away with ISO 1600, but then the shutter speed will be 1⁄160 in the example above. This might give you a sharp picture, or it might result in a photo that is almost sharp. That’s the challenge. If you have the time, you could shoot it both ways. Since wildlife subjects are so unpredictable and they move all the time, this may not be an option. I would first go for the faster shutter speed, and then if necessary in post-processing you can use a noise-reducing program like Noise Ninja to reduce the unwanted noise resulting from the high ISO setting.

Animals In Captivity
There are many types of opportunities you’ll encounter in your travels where you can photograph wildlife in captive environments. Sometimes these places are photographer-friendly. These include zoos, rehabilitation facilities, bird parks, reptile houses, butterfly farms, and aquariums. Photographing animals in these circumstances is not as rewarding and exciting as shooting them in the wild, but the pictures can nevertheless be outstanding and you can have a great time doing it.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, for example, I was able to get a good shot of a Komodo dragon (#18). I haven’t been to the island of Komodo yet, so this was an opportunity to photograph the largest living reptile. On the island of Bali also in Indonesia, there is a wonderful butterfly farm and here you can take pictures of many species of exotic butterflies, including the birdwings—the largest butterflies in the world (#19).

#18

#19

When I was in Kenya, I was able to visit the Jane Goodall chimpanzee center and photograph the chimps on a small island with a telelphoto (#20) and also through the electrified fence where mothers brought their babies (#21) to view these strange creatures with cameras.

#20

#21

In a reptile house in Costa Rica, I bring my photo tour group to photograph the exotic indigenous snakes, frogs, turtles, and other reptilian denizens of the country (#22). This is a wonderful opportunity to capture amazing animals that would be extremely difficult and sometimes very dangerous to get close to in the wild.

#22

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