This article outlines some of the essential equipment that you need to capture incredible images of animals and wildlife. However, it is also important to understand that equally important to the photographic equipment in wildlife photography, is patience. Wild animals are going to do what they’re going to do. Unfortunately, you can’t ask them to look this way, do something cute, or stand where the light is better. You have to be there, and ready, when they decide to look pretty or do something interesting. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait—it takes a long time to get good wildlife shots, even longer to make great ones. With that said, here is the essential equipment that you will be looking at should you want to get serious about wildlife photography.
Wild animals in general are cautious with people, and many are dangerous. Thus, in most cases you’ll need to photograph them from a distance. The effect is that you’ll need a telephoto lens that will enlarge the subject and bring it closer. A small, budget compact digital camera with a 3x zoom lens (approximately equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera) won’t do for wildlife photography as the zoom is simply not great enough. A digital single lens reflex camera body (Digital SLR) that allows you to change lenses, built-in with a fixed focal length telephoto lens (like a 300mm F/4 lens) or a tele zoom (like a 70-200mm or 100-400mm zoom lens) will be mandatory here.
Although zoom lens technology has improved greatly in recent years, it’s not disputed that “prime” lenses of fixed focal length produce top quality images. No wonder the world’s most successful wildlife photographers will have a range of prime telephoto lenses in their arsenal – typically a 300mm F2.8 and either a 500mm F4 or 600mm F4 – in addition to top-of-the-range zooms like the 70-200mm F2.8. (Something that is not easily affordable unless you are contracted by National Geographic!). A major advantage of digital SLRs for wildlife photography is that you can build your assembly of lenses and accessories over time. So taking the above scenario, you could upgrade the lenses to include one or two prime lenses or better quality zooms with wider maximum apertures. You have the additional option of buying lenses from other lens manufacturers like Sigma or Tamron.
Telephoto lenses are a must for wildlife photography—how long depends on how near you can get and on the size of your subject. Birds usually need really long lenses, as do animals that are shy or dangerous. For these, a 400mm or 600mm is recommended. Although these lenses are big, heavy, and not a lot of fun to carry around, it is not a big problem when shooting from a car. However, when on foot, it makes quite a difference. Sometimes using a teleconverter on a smaller zoom like the 300mm can do the trick. They’re small and light, come in diverse degrees of magnification, and significantly increase the extent of your lenses. The downside is that image resolution is not quite as good and you lose some stops of light—but your back and shoulders will be a lot happier.
Long lenses need support. When mountain climbing or traveling on foot, a tripod is the standard. Tripods sturdy enough to support a 600mm lens are big and heavy and sometimes one may prefer a boulder or fallen tree, for example. The longer the lens, the more susceptible you are to camera movement—with really long lenses, even the slightest motion can cause blur. Try to use as fast a shutter speed as possible, taking into account what kind of depth of field you want. (The larger the aperture, the smaller the depth of field. Really long telephotos have very little depth of field at any f-stop.)
Camera bean bag
Whilst in Africa, many wildlife photographers work exclusively from the back of game viewing vehicles. This is due to many wild animals having become habituated to these vehicles (allowing closer approach) and due to safety for the photographer. In this environment (often surrounded by other photographers) it is impossible to use a tripod to stabilize your camera and lens. A great solution is a small bean bag that can be rested onto parts of the vehicle with the camera on top. Such camera bean bags work very well as a stabilizer and allow tripod type stability in confined areas. In addition, you can easily make these yourself or buy for very little money.
Clare James. Following a passion for adventure sports and wildlife conservation, Clare took up photography to document her travels and soon became addicted to the power of images. She specializes in underwater, adventure and wildlife photography and her work has been exhibited in Cornwall, UK. Clare worked with Africa Media as an instructor in the Wildlife and Adventure Photography program.