Some Notes on DSLR Wildlife Photography

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The magnificent Painted Turtle

I tend to shy from offering advice on photography, as I don’t see myself as any sort of expert, and I’m certainly no professional. But, as in all things, there will be things I know which others don’t, and vice-versa. And, since others have told me they’ve found my notes useful, I thought I’d share them here.

Some of these points are obvious, some are learned. Some will be obvious to some, and new to others. While the points are all from the view of a DSLR user, many will be generally applicable.

For some examples of what can be achieved with these notes, and for a shorter summary, see my slides from a recent talk.

Equipment

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

My “core kit” remains the Canon EOS 90D with the Sigma 100–400mm f/5–6.3 lens shown, and this is plenty to enjoy the hobby. I’ve recently added a Sigma 150–600mm f/5–6.3 lens and a tripod to add further options. The 400 is a great general-purpose lens, and is light enough that I consider it my “hiking lens”. The 600 is more capable, but significantly heavier so that I’ll only take it if I’m taking it specifically going out for wildlife photography, rather than for exercise and distance. It gets referred to as the “Howitzer”.

The Rebel T8i and 300mm zoom that my wife uses remain a good lower-cost and lower-weight alternative; about the only thing we feel the lack of is a “spot focus” capability that is one of the differentiating features between the Rebel and x0D series.

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.

Multiple manufacturers exist; personally, I’ve never regretted buying Canon.

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.

On a related note, I’ll rarely use a zoom lens without a lens hood on; their main purpose is to stop light coming into the lens from outside the picture area and so causing hazy images, but they also work well as a shield for the lens/filter, catching any twigs or swinging straps that might otherwise scratch glass.

Besides scratch protection, I also consider a decent strap essential — primarily a hand strap that helps support the DSLR in the hand. My choice here is the Peak Design “Clutch” strap — not just a safety measure; by taking much of the weight off your grip, they both help keep the camera still and reduce hand fatigue. Most people will also want a neck strap; once you’re in the Peak Design ecosystem, it’s worth considering their “Slide” straps.

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.

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.

So far, so obvious. But the side-effect of this pace of change is that a lot of the advice around SLR photography is outdated; 15 years ago, trying to shoot handheld in anything but ideal light at 400mm or further would have resulted in a blurred, noisy mess. Nowadays, it’s entirely possible to shoot this way and get entirely acceptable results, giving an entirely new dimension to handheld photography.

Other benefits of the last 15 years include bluetooth and wifi capability in cameras, better battery life, USB image download without resorting to card readers, GPS tagging via your smartphone (not 100% reliable yet), and HD video recording and webcam capability.

Approach

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.

This doesn’t mean you should just point the camera vaguely at the subject and just ”spray and pray”. Not only will that fail to get any decent photos, it’ll rapidly get really expensive in terms of cloud or hard drive storage, and in the time you spend sorting through your images. With typical SD card sizes of 64GB, and laptop drives of 1TB, you can fill your drive in a dozen or so card-fulls. So there’s a balance to meet in terms of making best use of these “free shots”.

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.

“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’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.

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.

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

It does not mean that it’s “tame”. Try to consider, in all interactions, what effect your presence is having on the animal, how it might react, and how to minimize the risk of harm to it and to yourself. This includes avoiding the use of flash; the small flash built into your DSLR will do nothing to light a distant subject, but any flash can still startle an animal or even dazzle or damage the eyes of sensitive species. Further, never bait or handle any wild creature; not only is this risky and unethical, but it will result in your images being rejected by most groups or competitions.

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.

The one exception is when we’re hiking someone we may not return to, in which case we take lighter kit (my 400 rather than 600 lens, for example) for opportunistic or scenic shots (with a wide lens) and try *not* to stop every time we hear tiny birds twittering three rows of trees away. The struggle is real.

Technique

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).

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.

The easiest way to ensure this speed is to set your camera to Shutter Priority (S, aka Time Value or Tv), dial in a speed faster than the length of your lens, and set your ISO to “Auto”.

However, there’s a flip side to this. Faster speed requires either a wider aperture or a higher ISO. Wider apertures reduce depth of field (see above), and higher ISO means more noise in your image. On my kit, noise starts becoming an issue at around 3200 ISO, yours may vary. Eventually you’ll run out of both ISO and aperture (your camera will often flash a warning if it detects that a photo is likely to be too dark), and will need an alternative.

If you run out of aperture and ISO, you’re going to have to reduce your speed by dialing it back down. Without a tripod (and even if you have one, a tripod is not a split-second option), you have a few choices:

  • 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.

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

Human eyes, and the human visual system, while they pale in comparison to those of many wild creatures, are still a hyper-adaptive miracle of evolution, and will tell you there’s “enough” light in almost every daylight situation. Cameras, stuck with dealing with physics rather than perception, can’t do that. There may be a fraction of the light under cloudy skies, or thick forest, that there is under clear or even hazy skies. As you get more experienced with photography, you’ll start seeing those situations in which you’ll either have to adjust your camera settings, adapt your approach, or choose a better day. Symptoms of this awareness include staring out the window in mid afternoon at something several miles away, while complaining how dark it is.

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

Modern cameras have a range of autofocus settings, and you’ll need to choose the right ones to get decent wildlife shots. The “right” settings depend on the subject, but examples include:

Distant, or small, stationary animals, either on the ground or perched above it: I tend to refer to this as “Bird In Tree” mode, and it needs the following two settings:

  • 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.

The counterpart to “Bird In Tree” mode is “Bird In Flight” mode. Here we assume that the bird is moving against the sky, and that we’re going to be trying hard to follow it and are not likely to be able to keep a single focus point on it. In this case we need:

  • 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”.

Bird In Flight photography is hard, both for humans and cameras. The above is a starting point, but don’t expect miracles. However, when it works, the results can be great.

The EOS 90D conveniently has two presets, marked C1 and C2, on its mode dial. On my camera, I’ve programmed these with the above two settings.

One case I’ve not covered above is “animals moving on the ground”. This is even harder for both cameras and humans, and at my current level of experience, my advice is “select Auto mode and hope”.

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.

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

If you can achieve these, you can often rely on cropping the photo in post-processing and the inherent interest in your background for context and composition.

Once you’ve got those points right, you can start developing your own style over time.

The trickiest of these points is getting the eye sharp. Above, we discussed “Bird In Tree” mode, and center point focus. However, the eye is rarely at the center of the animal, and focussing on that gives you various options:

  • 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

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.

The reason for this is that, if you’re going to post-process an image, you want to give the processing software as much completely original data as possible to work from. RAW files are a direct recording of the light that fell on your camera’s sensor, plus some metadata about settings, so they’re always the best place to start processing from. JPEG is a format that’s compressed in a way that’s optimized for the human visual system, and which removes “irrelevant” data that you won’t see… until you start processing the image and change the importance of that missing data.

The RAW format in your camera depends on the manufacturer. Canon has CR2, CR3 (Canon Raw v2 & v3) and C-RAW (Compressed-RAW) formats. Strictly, the C-RAW format is both compressed and “lossy”, but it’s compressed in a way that’s designed to support later processing, and it’s a useful space-saver without the trade-offs of JPEG. Nikon (as I understand it) calls its RAW files NEF and NRW. Other manufacturers will have their own, incompatible formats.

Because RAW files are not designed for compatibility or for sharing, you’ll want to make sure your image library software supports a format before relying on it entirely. OSX’s Photos and Adobe’s Lightroom will certainly support the main manufacturer’s RAW formats. You’ll also want to export your images in a non-RAW format, usually as JPEG, after processing (at which point the human-centered compression isn’t a problem), to share them online and with friends.

Personally, I use C-RAW only, and disable JPEG entirely in my camera, because saving images as both both fills up the memory card faster, and gets really annoying when you can’t work out which file in your image library is JPEG and which is RAW before you start processing it.

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.

There are multiple steps you can take:

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:

Beyond that, your best bet is to search online for “your state or country birds/reptiles/mammals” or similar to find the equivalent local sites.

Once you’ve identified your subject, it’s a good idea to add a tag or description to the images in whatever image library software you use. My personal experience is with OS X Photos, which is free and a reasonable option for getting started, or Adobe’s Lightroom, which is subscription software which provides most of the tools a professional will need. Both of these pieces of software will generally let you import all of your images directly from the camera (via a USB cable) or from the memory card.

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.

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”.

The benefit of using library management software like either Photos or Lightroom is that you can perform non-destructive edits on all images. If you crop an image, it keeps the whole image but remembers which part of the image to display or export. Likewise, if you modify color or exposure, it will keep both the original and the changes, allowing you to make different decisions later on. Cropping or modifying an image externally to your library doesn’t do this, so I don’t recommend it.

The specific capabilities of your software will vary, so refer to appropriate tutorials, manuals or training materials (Lightroom comes with a vast suite of training material).

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.

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.

Photos has no built-in watermarking capabilities. Lightroom only supports vary basic textual watermarking. (Update: you can now add a graphical watermark in Lightroom, but I’ve not yet switched my workflow to use this). You also have a choice between manual watermarking with Photoshop or similar (which is slow), or batch watermarking with a specific tool. Numerous such tools exist, but I use one called PhotoBulk to apply a partially transparent image, as shown at the top of this article.

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

Most of my better wildlife photos from 2020 onward are available at my Flickr site at https://photography.parsingphase.com/. All images display their EXIF data which shows tags, lens and exposure data, which will help you see the technique and settings I’ve used for each image.

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

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