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Author Topic: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics  (Read 14073 times)

Offline popeshawnpaul

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Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« on: March 30, 2010, 10:55:23 AM »
I thought I would revive this post as I've had a few people ask me questions about it lately.  It will serve as a good reference on questions.  I've updated it a bit.

First of all, I'm not a professional photographer.  I have shot for a living before in my past life but I shoot for fun these days.  Why do I shoot wildlife pictures?  I do it because I love to be in the outdoors, I love to stalk animals, and I love to create art.  Your intentions and goals regarding photography may be different.  That's ok.  The same principals will apply.  

I get asked numerous questions about equipment every day.  Photography can be very technical to those just starting to learn.  Budget can also be important.  It does not take a lot of money to get into photography but it can also be very expensive.  So let's start with the first and cheapest option out there, the point and shoot camera.

Point and Shoot Cameras

The point and shoot (P&S) camera is small, compact, lightweight, and has the ability to take decent pictures in the right light.  The problems associated with a point and shoot involves their use of a small digital sensor.  The P&S uses a sensor the size of your pinky finger nail.  All those megapixels are stuffed into that tiny area.  They do this because it is cheaper for them to make small sensors.  However, these small sensors are noisy and don't record as fine of detail as larger sensors.  They will take good photos at the slowest settings, namely ISO 100 or so.  If you are shooting at dawn or dusk, these cameras are extremely noisy and don't produce good quality images.  So these types of cameras will get you in the game, but they won't satisfy your needs if you are looking to take your photography to the next level.  One caveat about P&S cameras is that many of the newer ones will shoot in RAW format.  This can be a big advantage for those willing to figure out the easy RAW converting software that comes with your camera.  The best point and shoot camera out there right now is the Canon G11 and it shoots in RAW.  More about RAW later...

Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras

The DSLR is just a digital version of our old SLR film cameras.  There are some differences, however.  There are two types of DSLR cameras.  There are full frame cameras and crop sensor DSLR's.  Full frame DSLR's have sensors that are huge and are the size of a full size slide or film negative.  Because these sensors are so large they can shoot well in low light and have extremely good quality images.  The other type of DSLR is a crop sensor camera.  These cameras have a sensor that is somewhere in-between the full frame DSLR and the P&S camera.  These cameras have advantages for wildlife photography.

Full frame cameras are the very best quality, hands down.  However, there are drawbacks for those of you that want to strictly shoot wildlife.  These cameras shoot an image that is large and you don't get the focal range you can on a crop sensor camera.  These full frame sensor cameras are great for general photography and landscape images where you aren't worried about trying to get close to your subject.  Some of the full frame cameras include the canon 1Ds series, Canon 5d I&II, Nikon D3, and the Nikon D700.  

Crop sensor cameras have a sensor smaller than the full frame.  Because the sensor is smaller, it essentially magnifies your lenses by a 1.5x or 1.6x factor depending on if you use Nikon or Canon respectively.  The best way to illustrate this is with a real world example.  I have a 200mm lens.  You can convert a focal length to real world binocular terms by dividing any focal length by 50mm.  A 50mm lens is the equivalent to your human eye.  It is 1x.  2x would be 100mm, 3x would be 150mm, and 4x would be 200mm.  200mm on a full frame sensor camera would look like a 4x binocular.  However, what would the crop sensor equivalent be?  If you are using a crop sensor camera (Canon Rebel or xxD series), it has a 1.6x crop factor.  With my 200mm lens the crop factor of the lens will make that 200mm lens look cropped or closer.  You take the 200mm and multiply it by 1.6x to get an effective focal length of 320mm.  So the same lens on two different cameras can look very different depending on whether you have a crop sensor camera or not.

The tradeoff for using a crop sensor camera is the same as that with a P&S.  The smaller sensor will not be as good of quality as a full frame sensor camera, but it is really a lot better than that of a P&S.  The benefit I get is the crop sensor, meaning my 200mm lens essentially becomes a 320mm lens giving me much more reach when I go and take a picture of that deer or sheep.  The 320mm lens is about the equivalent of a 6x binocular.  If you have a Nikon camera you multiply your lens focal length by 1.5x, not 1.6x like you do with Canons.  This is because the sensor on a Nikon is slightly different in size than that of a Canon.

So now you understand there are 3 types of cameras, the P&S, the full frame DSLR, and the crop sensor DSLR.  I prefer the crop sensor DSLR so I own a camera in what we call the xxD line (10D, 20D, 30D, 40D, and 50D & 7D).  I currently own a 7D and I owned a 40D recently.  The 40D is a really good deal for the money.  I've seen them new and used for about 500-700 dollars.  It is 10 megapixel.  Nikon makes good crop sensor cameras like the D200 and D300.  For those on a budget you can get a used 20D for about $200 these days, a great value.

Lenses

So now you have selected a camera, what lens should you have?  Well, even if you are using a P&S you can select one that has a lens on it in the focal range you need.  Wildlife photography really demands lenses with a focal length starting at 200mm and going up to 800mm.  I personally like a 400mm lens as my personal choice.  P&S cameras will give you a film equivalent on their lenses.  Many of the P&S cameras go into 400mm plus range so they work nice for wildlife photography provided you have enough light.

How about DSLR lenses?  Well, you may have some laying around.  Many of your film camera lenses will work on the newer DSLR cameras.  I use to own an old 400mm film camera lens on my new DSLR.  There are 4 things you look for in a lens: focal length, quality optics, image stabilization, and aperture/speed.  Cameras are rated in focal length and speed.  That old 400mm lens I had was an f5.6 lens.  There are various F-stops and they range from f1, 1.2, 1.4, 1.8, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, etc...  F5.6 is the slowest you should ever go in a lens.  This is one thing that people just don't understand so I'll illustrate this point with a picture.  The lower the f-stop number the faster the lens is.  When I say fast that means it collects light better than a higher f-stop lens and can shoot in lower light.  I own an f1.2 lens and that's extremely fast.  I can shoot this lens in a dark room or at night and get useable images with it.  You could never so that with a f5.6 lens unless you wanted to use a flash, and who wants to do that?  

An f-stop does 2 things...it controls the speed of the lens and also the depth of field.  When I say depth of field I am talking out how much of the photo is in focus.  Faster lenses have a shorter depth of field.  My f1.2 lens has such a short depth of field that I can shoot someone's eyes and the end of their nose in out of focus.  I'll illustrate this with a photo...



Notice how the S in Swarovski is in focus but by the A it is blurred?  So why would you want a short depth of field?  Imagine that buck standing there and you are taking photos of him and he has distracting grass or branches behind him.  If they were sharp and in focus the deer wouldn't stand out.  If they were blurred but the buck was sharp he would pop out of the image.  This is the key that many pro photographers use to make images pop and stand out.  That is why they use those huge lenses that are fast with small f-stops.  So let's illustrate this with a few photos:

F4

F5.6


F8


F11


F16


F22


F32


Notice how the deer pops out on the first f4 photo?  There is even a noticeable difference bewteen f4 and f5.6.  They have cheap f11 mirror lenses available.  F11 has too much background clutter in focus to look top notch.  I personally don't like to use lenses that are slower than f4 for wildlife.  F5.6 lenses are affordable and can produce nice images so don't be too afraid to use them.  Obviously, buy the fastest lens you can afford.  Some of these lenses are expensive.  I justify this because I like to go and photograph wildlife all year round.  When you think of your hunting rifle that you spent 1k on, plus a good scope for $500, you'll see that it comes down to priorities and what you want to spend your money on.  It's like anything in life.

Wildlife lens choices are numerous.  There is a thread I did on "Lens Selection" that can help with selecting the right lens for you.  For a more detailed look at all the lenses out there, their strengths and weaknesses, I encourage you to visit http://www.fredmiranda.com/reviews/ and read the reviews about each lens.  The ratings given to these lenses are usually spot on and a higher rated lens will provide better quality and tell you a lot about the value you are getting.  

A couple last tidbits.  A fixed focal length lens is usually produces better image quality than a zoom.  This is the reason I prefer to use prime or fixed focal length lenses.  Additionally, there are 3rd party manufacturers that make lenses.  While I don't prefer 3rd party lenses, sometimes they can be a good choice for those that simply don't have the funds to drop on a name brand lens.  For example, the Tokina 400mm f5.6 lens for a Canon camera can be found used for about $100 used.  You don't have to break the bank to start photographing wildlife.  Sometimes the autofocus on these older lenses doesn't work or is not fast, but it's ok to manually focus a lens.  We didn't use to have autofocus and somehow we took good photos in the old days.  

Teleconverters

A teleconverter is a small device that connects between your camera and lens.  They are used to increase your focal length.  They have tradeoffs and generally degrade your image quality.  There are two kinds, a 1.4x and a 2x.  What do those numbers mean?  A 1.4x will multiply your focal length by 1.4.  For example, if you are using a 400mm f4 lens and put on a 1.4x converter, you are now shooting a 560mm lens. (400x1.4=560)  With a 1.4x you lose one stop of light and with a 2x you lose 2 stops.  So your 400mm f4 lens with a converter on it becomes a 560mm f5.6 lens.  If you put a 2x on that lens it becomes an 800mm f8 lens.  I don't ever use 2x converters as the quality is bad with a 2x converter on about any lens.  I'll use a 1.4x sometimes when there is enough light to compensate for me losing that extra stop of light.

Tripod/Monopod

I use to always use a tripod, period.  It was the only way to get tack sharp images.  Nowadays the new lenses have IS or VR on them or image stabilization.  There are many types of IS and VR.  The older IS lenses in the canon lens lineup are 2 stop and the newest lenses help you by up to 5 stops.  What this means is that the IS will take out vibrations from hand holding a lens up to the equivalent of 2-5 stops from what you should traditionally shoot.  I could go into this in detail but just know that not all IS/VR is the same.  Some works better than others.  With the advent of IS, I personally will rarely shoot with a tripod for wildlife much anymore.  A lot of times I can get away with just usuing a monopod or hand hold the lens.  The only reason I use a monopod is that my hands and arms get tired of holding my camera up all day so it helps to support it.  

RAW

They say RAW is like a digital negative.  I'm not sure about this because I couldn't ever do much with my negatives in the old days like you can with a RAW shot.  RAW can fix serious exposure problems, color issues, etc.  The nice thing is that when you buy a camera with RAW it comes with software to convert that RAW image into something you are more adept at viewing like a jpg or a tif.  If you have a camera that shoots RAW, there is very little reason why I could think of that you wouldn't use it.  Here is a great example of why you use RAW:

When I shot these two photos I had the grizzly coming at me.  The griz got close so I turned and ran back to the car.  In my haste, the camera got turned to manual mode and the exposure was off by about 4 stops.  The griz came walking by giving me a once in a lifetime opportunity but to my horror all the photos were white and washed out.  With RAW I was able to pull down the exposure and get a perfectly exposed photo.  It's really amazing what technology and RAW can do.  Exposure is one one of many things you can do to help out your photography.  I can't understand why anyone would not shoot raw for 99% of what you shoot on a daily basis.





Software

Software to use is a hot topic.  Many types are free like Picasa.  Others can cost lots of money like Adobe Photoshop ($700).  I really like Adobe Lightroom as it is better suited to photographers and really provides a nice interface to save your photos and rate them and keep them organized.  It costs about $300.  Also, your camera should come with RAW software as well as a lighter version of Photoshop like Elements or another type of program.  Try the free ones that come with your camera and decide what you need beyond that.  

Getting the Shot

I hear too often (in fact, this morning in a PM), I saw a big deer and took some photos and the deer looks small and if I blow it up it looks bad.  There are many things going on here.  First of all, was it taken with a low quality P&S?  Was it taken with a high quality lens?  What was the focal length?  Beyond equipment, you need to get close.  You are hunting with a camera.  I shoot most of my shots between 30 and 80 yards.  Beyond 100 yards, no lens is going to get you a great shot.  You need to get out and stalk that animal.  Get close, hopefully undetected, and get some shots.  This is part of the fun.  Last year I spotted a big sheep way high up on a ridge.  It was 500 yards from where I was so I came up with a plan.  I circled around to the ridge and moved in on the sheep.  I got within 30 yards or so from them and was able to get a few shots before he took off.  If I wanted more shots I would have to go after him and sneak close again.  If I had just taken out my camera when I first saw him at 500 yards he would look small in the photo and I would have nothing to show for my efforts.  I must stress that wildlife photography is like bowhunting with a camera.  You have an effective range no matter what lens you use.  Even animals in parks can be afraid and not like you close.  I get shots in protected areas like parks and in hunted areas.  It can be done in either place with some time and effort.  

I'll leave you with a photo of me taking wildlife shots 15 years ago.  I had some $50 binoculars, a $100 camera, and a $100 lens.  I had the time of my life and I still have photos of that 190" ram in this shot to remember it by.  

« Last Edit: October 31, 2010, 02:56:17 PM by popeshawnpaul »

Brute

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2010, 08:25:54 PM »

Thank You Pope
For taking the time to post up all this info.
This is a photo of you taking the quail photos at the Malhuer. How did they turn out?

I have a question about editing Raw. I got a D90 and was doing my editing in Elements for  Jpeg. Then I switched it over to Raw. The Raw photos went straight to NX.
I tried to open it up in elements and it says NOT A PHOTO SHOP FILE. What the heck do I need to do?
I don't want to seem like a dummy, but this stuff is all new to me.  And I'm not to computer literate.
Thanks Brute

Offline popeshawnpaul

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2010, 12:05:05 AM »
Make your adjustments to the RAW image in DX, then save or output it as a jpg or tif and make any final adjustments in elements to the jpg or tif file.  DX is just your RAW editor.  If you try and open RAW images in Elements, it can't read them.  Advanced versions of Photoshop will read the RAW files, however.

I got a few quail pics out of that.  I'll post one when I get a chance.  I can't wait to get back there.
« Last Edit: March 31, 2010, 12:06:49 AM by popeshawnpaul »

Offline Ricochet

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2010, 08:55:03 AM »
Brute-
I think you should give Capture NX a try.  Its all I use to edit my pics.  I'm no computer whiz either but I figured NX out (mostly).  All the edits are nondestructive so you can experiment without worrying about ruining anything.  You can save your edits as jpegs, tifs, or Nef files.  I like the program and you already own it, so if you'd like I'll email you the steps I go through to edit a pic and you can give it a try. 

Pope-
Those two pics of you show the classic evolution of a wildlife photographer.  From shooting with cheap equipment, wearing whatever you have, to packing several high dollar cameras and lenses and wearing fancy camo.  Life is good, isn't it.  :grin:

I'm looking forward to getting together again at the Malheur.  This time Brute will have a "real" camera to shoot with.  :laugh:

Offline popeshawnpaul

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2010, 10:57:40 AM »
Pope-
Those two pics of you show the classic evolution of a wildlife photographer.  From shooting with cheap equipment, wearing whatever you have, to packing several high dollar cameras and lenses and wearing fancy camo.  Life is good, isn't it.  :grin:

That's funny.  I know what you mean.  Back in the day I used my dad's Olympus OM-2 and a 150mm f4 lens.  I bought a 2x for it and that was my setup.  Eventually I upgraded to a Canon film camera and a Tokina 400mm f5.6 lens.  That setup created quite a few good images.  I remember going out, getting in front of a herd of sheep and not knowing what to do.  What settings will I use?  What film speed?  Eventually we figure it out and we realize it's not as hard as we make it out to be. 

Offline wapiti hunter2

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #5 on: March 31, 2010, 01:52:53 PM »
Pope,  I love how the camo you wear hides that HUGE WHITE LENS... :grin: :grin:  Just jealous  :tup:  :tup:

Offline popeshawnpaul

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #6 on: March 31, 2010, 05:34:56 PM »

Thank You Pope
For taking the time to post up all this info.
This is a photo of you taking the quail photos at the Malhuer. How did they turn out?


I grabbed one of the images I like that I got of those quail.  This one was a female but I caught her with an ant in her mouth.  She missed when she grabbed it and didn't realize it was hanging out of her mouth.  I got about 4 images of her with it hanging out of her mouth struggling.  Not sure whether the ant made it or not but it made for a funny image.  This is one of those things you don't see while you are shooting a picture, but notice later.  Notice how close she was the depth of field with a 600mm lens with a 1.4x on it made it an 840mm lens, then you figure a 1.6x crop factor and this is about a 1300mm lens or about 26x in a spotting scope and she was only 20 feet away.  The eye is in perfect focus while the breast is out.  Amazing how shallow the depth of field can be and a great reason why big lenses can be hard and frustrating to use for beginners as getting focus takes a lot of practice.

« Last Edit: March 31, 2010, 05:37:18 PM by popeshawnpaul »

Offline Austrian Hunter

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #7 on: May 22, 2010, 02:46:16 PM »
Wow, that's about all I can say!  Thanks that was an excellent lesson!  The only bad thing is I sit in my office and now I want to go out in the hills and shoot some pictures,  :cheesy:

Offline Phantom 309

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #8 on: October 31, 2010, 01:40:53 PM »
Great arcticle! That really helped me alot. Anyway to get the pics in it back up again?

Offline JBar

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #9 on: October 31, 2010, 02:20:40 PM »
Great explanatin of Cameras Pope, this helps out big time.

Offline popeshawnpaul

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #10 on: October 31, 2010, 02:56:39 PM »
Thanks guys.  I got the images back up now.

Offline Finalshot

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #11 on: November 02, 2010, 06:59:49 PM »
Man, you were a skinny little bastage back then . . .  :hello:

Offline popeshawnpaul

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #12 on: November 03, 2010, 07:48:49 AM »
Man, you were a skinny little bastage back then . . .  :hello:

I have put on a couple...80 extra pounds.   :cue: :popcorn: :g-beer:

washmuleyhunter

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #13 on: January 19, 2011, 11:17:26 PM »
Unbelievable Pics.  :tup: :tup:

luv2huntgal

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Re: Wildlife Photography, Part 1 - Equipment & Basics
« Reply #14 on: January 20, 2011, 09:22:22 AM »
WOW that RAW thing is awesome I'm going to have to look into that!! Thanks for sharing!  :clap: :kiss:

 


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