Here’s a great way to make a photographer happy: After viewing her photos, say something like “wow, you must have really great gear.”
Everyone knows photography is not about the gear. Right? Well, it isn’t . . . but sometimes it is. Artistic vision is definitely not about the gear. And you’ll rankle a lot of artistic people if you say it is. I know a few people who are stocked to the gills with Hubble-style lenses, but who still haven’t cracked a book on composition or exposure — and it shows, in spite of the amazing equipment. And I know others, like my S.O. Hugh, who walk around town with an old iPhone camera and ekes out masterpieces with 2 or 4 megapixels. David Hockney created art with polaroid composites. Shooters reframe the world through the lenses of plastic cameras.
(As a side note, read this piece about Hockney’s opinion of photography as a medium, and its place in social control and art.)
Where gear matters is when your desire and skill exceed what your equipment can do. Or, when the vision is near impossible to execute without a bigger camera sensor, studio lighting, staging, or a 600mm lens.
In wildlife photography, gear does matter. Expensive lenses price a lot of people, including myself, out of what would be considered the top glass and technology for the task. But that doesn’t mean you’re priced out of the endeavor altogether. I’ve heard more than a few people say, “well, I can’t do wildlife photography because I don’t have the cash for the lenses.”
Guess what? I don’t either. I don’t have cash for the lenses. I’m a writer, which, if you know anything about the writing life, probably means it will be a while before I have cash for the lenses. But I’ve also spent the past five years immersed in wildlife photography, have sold some photographs, have had others published. Most importantly for me, photography is how I spend nearly every lucid (and not-so-lucid) moment away from work and other pursuits. It’s pure love, it’s therapy, it’s passion, and it’s a visual and emotional avenue toward connection with the animals and natural resources around us. And it can be that for anyone who can piece together a few basic components.
Budget Wildlife Photography Gear
So, what do you need? Bare minimum: a zoom lens, either fixed or interchangeable, and a deep interest in the photographic process. I can’t, in good conscience, advocate photographing wildlife without the physical distance of a zoom. It’s important for the animals that photographers give them space with a long lens — a critical tenet of wildlife photography ethics. Please don’t be one of those people chasing ducklings around the lake for a closeup with a point-and-shoot. Those stellar, published close-up shots are taken with long lenses, often 600mm equivalent or more. Trying to get physically close just traumatizes, and sometimes endangers, the animals.
I started off with a Panasonic Lumix FZ50 super zoom, not a DSLR. (I did have an old film SLR, but no tele glass back then.) The FZ50 has a fixed Leica lens with a 35-420mm range zoom. After shooting with that for a while, I added a 1.7x teleconverter which gave me additional zoom on the long end of my lens.
The FZ50 is a great super zoom or bridge camera. I still use it frequently as my main macro shooter — attaching a Raynox DCR-150 lens to the FZ’s barrel.
But the FZ is not pro-caliber gear. I stress that to suggest that you can, with extra effort, get some decent wildlife shots with a camera like my FZ50. They may not be headed for the pages of National Geographic. But for me, a super zoom was an affordable alternative to a DSLR and lenses — and a model I could easily throw in my pack on long hikes. The FZ50 also gave me practice in the features of more expensive gear, and forced me to apply ingenuity. I had to develop workarounds and find creative ways to shoot and frame my options in the face of my camera’s limitations.
If you have the funds for a base-level model, I’d recommend investing in an entry-level DSLR if you’re serious about action wildlife shots. You will be frustrated by the shutter response on quick-moving animals if you don’t have a DSLR. Still, with a zoom camera of any kind, you can, indeed, get some decent wildlife photos with still or slow-moving animals — or birds with predictable flight patterns. Photographing takeoffs and landings is a great way to hone the birds-in-flight technique, even with a slow shutter response. Check out brand forums like those at dpreview to view samples of what people are doing with some of their super zoom cameras.
When we finally saved up for our current gear — which is still “budget” when you compare against what the big boys use — the speed of the DSLR’s shutter, the autofocus, and the clarity of the image was damn near magic after slogging through the preliminaries on a super zoom. My photographs improved, no question. The ease of photographing wildlife with the new equipment was magical. My keeper-to-cull ratio improved significantly. But — I attribute some of my ability to get shots with my current system, to those first years of shutter lag and creative stretching. It forced me to find opportunities I might not have otherwise seen.
Right now, I’m shooting with a budget zoom lens — a 70-300mm Zuiko (Olympus). At one point, Amazon was selling this lens for less than $250. Of course, that implies a DSLR camera body to which you can attach the lens. Our smaller Olympus E-520 was less than $500 when we bought it. A lot of manufacturers now have comparably-priced entry-level DSLRs that are perfectly suitable for some wildlife photography. This is my second go ’round with gear, a move up from the FZ50.
Because it’s a four-thirds system camera, the effective reach of my Zuiko 300mm lens is 600mm (in 35mm terms). You can read more about those technicalities at Wiki (as in Pedia). I chose Olympus for that reason, actually, trying to find the best balance between our dollars, the weight of my hiking system, and the reach of my lens. It’s all very complex and very personal. I’m a huge Nikon/Nikkor fan, as well, so I’m not a brand vigilante. Canon is extremely popular with wildlife photographers. Pentax makes great cameras, as does Sony, among other examples. Figure out which features are most important to you, borrow friends’ cameras, and then decide how to allocate those bucks.
The Downside of Budget Gear
The first and least important downside is that you’ll walk into the wetlands or wildlife refuge with your comparatively tiny lens, and will get barely a nod from the gang of old-salt photographers, hauling their huge and respectable Canon and Nikon lenses. You can’t care . . . even if lens envy is normal. 🙂
The second downside is the speed of the lens and light. My lens is f4 at the wide end, f5.6 at full zoom. Each f-stop increase reduces the available light to the lens at that particular focal length. There are zoom lenses that are f2.8 throughout the range of the zoom — they usually start around $1400. There are prime lenses (fixed focal lengths of, say, 800mm) that run up to $12,000.
What that means for me is that my lens does well in bright light conditions, not so well in low light. And the images with my lens are best when I can genuinely fill the frame with my subject. The quality of light is, of course, critical to any type of photography, including wildlife.
My lens is also slow to autofocus and will hunt against backgrounds like blue sky — which means birds in flight are a bigger challenge. I frequently have to chuck shots where an expensive, fast lens might have captured the moment well.
There are images I have trouble getting, exotic nature excursions I haven’t taken, or photo seminars I can’t attend within the limits of my budget. But it hasn’t stopped me from engaging in one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done in my life. Relative to what wildlife photography can cost, I’ve managed to keep up and have fun with a bare bones kit.
The Most Important Aspect of Wildlife Photography
To me, the most critical aspect of photographing wildlife is the motivation behind it. The old adage, “photograph what you love” is still keen wisdom. To derive the most from the experience in the field, you need an insatiable curiosity about the subjects of your photos. If you don’t understand or care about the animals you are photographing, photo representations will probably lack the personality that you can infuse into your shots if you genuinely grasp their biology and behavior. If you don’t invest yourself in the greater issues of wildlife welfare and survival, a photo will be just that — a photograph without the greater context of story and environment and advocacy. Chances are, if you’re interested at all in wildlife photography, you’ve found your way there through a similar path to mine, which is a desire to know better, the wild lives intertwined with ours. And if that’s the case, there are ways to indulge that passion without totally busting the wallet.
A lot of nature photography is actually about spirit and perseverance. It’s about patience in the field and practice — waiting for the right opportunity and the right light, doing your homework on where to go, at what time, with what expectations. It’s about stealth, wisdom, and appreciation of the moments that evolve around you and your camera. It’s about getting up at dawn, getting soaking wet, with ice-pop fingers, and staying longer than everyone else. It’s about understanding light and exposure. It’s even more about wild animal behavior and biology. Wildlife photography is as much a natural history course as it is an artistic pursuit. Some of the best chances to photograph arise because you know or have learned where an animal will be and how she will engage with her environment, once she’s there. Most importantly, for me, wildlife photography is a way to immerse yourself in the wild world without harming a soul (if done correctly) — and with the potential to share that vision with others who may not [yet] appreciate what you’ve had the chance to see.
I hate to hear an enthusiastic wildlife advocate say, “I can’t do what you do” — if it’s purely a consideration of finances. If there’s a will and a passion for the pursuit, I do believe there are ways to finance a small, entry-level investment. There’s an initial expenditure, but there’s also a huge market for used gear in good shape, and a constant glut of new models which tends to bring the prices down. Stock up on an extra battery, an inexpensive tripod and some memory cards. Read everything you can, online and in books, on wildlife photography, exposure, lighting and technique and you’ll find there’s an incredible amount of mileage you can eke out of a basic photography package.
Our Gear, Acquired Over Time
- Panasonic FZ50 super zoom (< $400) with 1.5 teleconverter and $40 Raynox 150 macro lens
- Olympus E-520 DSLR (< $500)
- Olympus E-3 DSLR ($1200)
- Zuiko 70-300mm zoom lens (f4-5.6) — my wildlife lens ($<300)
- Zuiko 14-54mm zoom lens (love this lens for landscapes and wide shots < $400)
- Manfrotto lightweight tripod ($100). Friends just gave me a Gitzo tripod head for Christmas which I will need to match with suitable tripod legs soon.
- Manfrotto monopod ($60)
- Friends also gave me a wildlife photography blind, which I have yet to use. Not sure where I can set it up without freaking out people who might think I’m shooting deer from my leafy tent.
- Backup batteries and compact flash cards ($10-25)
- Lowepro sling pack and Tamrac photo bags. ($30-70)
My Early Wildlife Photos – Panasonic FZ50
These are all shots I took with my FZ50, before I invested in a DSLR. At the time, my FZ50, with fixed zoom lens included, was less than $400. Some of these shots would have been better, even with my existing gear, had I understood light and exposure better back then.
This photo is part of my best series of American Avocet shots. I was able to photograph them quite close, undisturbed, at Palo Alto Baylands in Northern California. After I bought my DSLR, I tried to replicate the scenario but to date, have not been as close to the birds.
This Mallard mother is on high alert not because of me, but because of a dog owner and off-leash dog coming along in the distance. I’d been set up for a while with my tripod while the ducks slept. The dog finally rousted the ducks and sent them into the water. It was a leash-only area, incidentally. That particular form of negligence really gets to me, especially during spring nesting season.
I shot this image at Redondo Harbor in Redondo Beach — in Southern California. There’s a breakwater where the pelicans rest as the sun goes down. Unless you’re in a boat, it’s tough to be on the right side of the sun and still have proximity. So, this image would have benefitted from better light on the other side of the rocks.
I didn’t notice that this poor Canada Goose had just one leg until I looked at my photos later. Although I’ve seen my share of debilitating and fatal injuries, there are disabilities wild animals can sustain and still continue to thrive. This was one of them.
This photo was taken at Cesar Chavez park at the Berkeley Marina. The area where Burrowing Owls nest is now cordoned off so that off-leash dogs don’t harm the owls. (Dogs are not supposed to be off-leash at the perimeter of the park, but some owners don’t pay attention to the restrictions.) I shot this image in a different area of the park, an area where we haven’t seen the owl in subsequent years. The spot was far too vulnerable to dogs running free on the pavement. I fear that may have been the driving force behind the owl’s failure to return.
This was taken near Tiburon one afternoon when the Brown Pelicans in the area were particularly unafraid. I sat on a dock and shot some frames as they swam by. The photo was taken shortly before the Cosco Busan oil spill on San Francisco Bay. When I was out in the field later, helping with searches for oiled birds, I often thought about this intimate afternoon I had with the pelicans. I hoped they were okay.
This Anna’s Hummingbird photo is actually a good example of where a super zoom falls short of a DSLR photo. (You’d see it more clearly at full size.) If you compare it to the photo below it, you can see the difference in sharpness and clarity. At the time, though, I was elated I was even able to capture a flying and hovering hummingbird with the FZ50, shutter lag be damned.
This image shot with my Olympus E-3 and Zuiko 70-300mm