Wildlife travel: Getting sharp photos from long lenses

Great Egret landing, photo by NSL Photography

More travelers are interested in conservation, sustainability, and the environment than ever before, and are choosing destinations primarily to see wildlife and the natural world. As travelers bring back stories of the Arctic and Antarctic, of glaciers quickly receding, of ice and snow disappearing, travelers are filling cruise ships to Alaska, and smaller expedition ships to Svalbard, Greenland and Antarctica.

Travelers are filling ships plying the waters of the Galapagos. They’re filling river cruise cabins on the Amazon, and flocking to the African savanna to see animals in the wild they have seen previously only in zoos.

Travelers are going great distances to view and photograph all kinds of wildlife, from small birds to elephants, to enormous whales in their natural habitat.

At some destinations, a high powered point-and-shoot camera can capture nice wildlife photos, at least of larger animals which aren’t too far away. Some of the new lightweight interchangeable lens cameras, such as the Nikon 1, with lenses having an equivalent focal length of almost 300mm, can capture midsize wildlife with quality detail.

That being said, wildlife enthusiast photographers are purchasing and traveling more often with high powered DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras formerly only purchased by professional and semi-professional photographers, and coupling them with super-telephoto lenses.

For larger animals, if you can get somewhat close, a 200mm lens will likely suffice, but generally those opportunities aren’t frequent. A fast 300mm lens would be better, but lenses of 400mm or longer will actually enable travelers to begin to capture the type of images they’ve seen in magazines.

Even in the Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin made famous, where many of the birds and other wildlife have a small “circle of fear,” you often need a lens with a 400mm focal length or greater to make great photographs.

The “Circle of Fear” is the distance from an animal inside of which the animal has discomfort or distress from the photographer’s or observer’s presence, which may cause the animal to flee.

In other locations, such as an African safari, or a hike in Denali, a super-telephoto focal length of 400–500mm or more is a “must.”

Most of the “fast” super-telephoto lenses can cost $7,000 or more, which can break the bank of most travelers who aren’t die-hard amateur wildlife photography enthusiasts. But for that “once in a lifetime” wildlife excursion, travelers can rent long lenses for great trips, and save “thousands.” (“Fast” lenses have apertures which can open very wide to permit higher shutter speeds, which are often needed for wildlife photography.)

Using one of those “big guns” for wildlife photography for the first time can be very exciting and rewarding, but unfortunately, images made the first time out are too often disappointing, as even the slightest movement of the camera/lens is significantly magnified by long lenses.

Camera/lens motion and vibration will blur wildlife photographs which are otherwise well exposed.

The first line of defense to keep one’s camera/lens motionless is a tripod. While monopods work for sports photography, they’re rarely as good for wildlife photography unless you’re solely photographing large animals with good light.

In a safari vehicle, a roof mounted beanbag will work great to keep one’s camera/lens still.

The tripod must be suitable for your camera/lens combination, so it can hold them still. I’ve spelled out the many parameters to be considered when choosing a tripod in the article, “How to Choose a Tripod.”

For most photography, I recommend a ball head atop tripod legs, but for wildlife photography, I generally recommend a gimbal mount. Ball heads can carry the heavy weight of DSLR’s with super-telephoto lenses, but they’re not maneuverable enough for wildlife photography. Gimbal mounts permit you to smoothly and rapidly pan to follow moving wildlife.

Once set with your camera, lens, tripod and mount, there are some concepts and techniques to use to get great, sharp wildlife images.

• When focused on a stationary subject, tighten all tripod mount knobs to hold the camera/lens steady. When focused on a moving subject, set the knobs with a small amount of drag.

• When handholding your camera/lens, or when panning while on a tripod, rest your eyebrow on the camera at the back of the viewfinder or use an eyecup.

• Gently rest your left hand on the top of the lens barrel to reduce vibration.

• Don’t sharply press down, or jab the shutter release, but gently press down on it in a rolling motion to take the photo.

• For stationary subjects, use a remote shutter release, and consider locking your “mirror up,” to reduce vibration.

• Don’t extend any of your tripod leg sections more than necessary.

• In windy conditions, add weight to your tripod by hanging weight from a hook underneath the tripod head. Don’t let the weight sway in the wind.

• Ensure your tripod legs won’t slip. On soft ground, use spiked feet.

• Never, repeat never, extend your tripod’s center column, as it adds instability to your tripod.

Ned Levi is a long time professional photographer with a passion for wildlife and travel photography. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.