Once it was a privileged genre occupied by wealthy hobbyists and paid professionals with science degrees. Now, wildlife photography is more accessible and inexpensive than ever.
Inexpensive Telephoto Lenses
They’re not the fastest nor the sharpest nor the most rugged, but they get people in the door to experience wildlife photography firsthand. It creates the spark. Seeing an animal that you don’t normally get to see close up through the viewfinder of a camera, and then capturing that moment can quite literally be a life-changing event for some. After that first time, you just want to go out and do it again and again.
Many of the super-telephoto lenses that exist today — the 100-400s, 150-600s, and now even some primes — are finally economical and can feed that feeling without breaking the bank. Down the line, perhaps years later and after a great deal of saving up, these photographers will advance to something top of the line. Before, that kind of dedication towards ownership of a $5,000–$12,000 lens may have never been tested without this bridge in between.
Within the past few years especially, better and better camera specs for wildlife photography are making their way to non-flagship models. Image sensors are growing in megapixels while also getting better at handling high ISOs and low light shooting. The new dynamic range capabilities means less clipping and greater depth for the extreme exposure difference often seen with white feathers or fur against dark body parts or backgrounds. Continuous shooting is faster than ever with deeper buffers to capture all the fleeting action. Even animal detection for autofocus is becoming a more popular feature to ensure more accurate focus and more creative compositions. You don’t need the best gear in the world to make high-quality wildlife images anymore.
Yesterday’s Pro Gear for Affordable Prices
The above sections talk about new advancements in the camera industry for budget-conscious photographers, but that’s not the only route. You actually can buy flagship gear on a budget. It’s just not this year’s flagship gear.
The difference between yesterday’s flagship cameras and today’s brand new budget cameras is a little bit of a mixed bag. On one side, the image quality is usually the same or better with the newer cameras. On the other hand, the core principals and needs in which each were developed are completely different, and I personally feel that yesterday’s pro cameras are almost always going to be a better photography experience than today’s non-flagship cameras. For that reason, consider buying older pro cameras if you can find them at the right price in good condition (I highly recommend the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV which can be found for around $600-$800).
The same idea goes for lenses, however note that good lenses will retain their value for far longer than cameras. For example, the Canon 500mm f/4 IS USM is an awesome lens that came out in 1999 and still costs around $3,000 on the used market. It’s going to be more expensive than the new lenses I talked about above, but it’s also a flagship lens of days past and has the sharpness, build quality, and speed to back that up even today.
YouTube University and Instagram
Even if you did own the latest and greatest wildlife photography gear, it won’t mean a thing if you don’t have the field skills to use it. So as fun as it is to talk about the inclusiveness that today’s camera gear market offers, we also need to talk about these other serious advancements for wildlife photography.
First, YouTube has changed the way we learn photography skills. We can now search out and watch free tutorials on just about everything, photography related or not. The trial-and-error process has been squashed, and beginners accepting this assistance can become nearly experts in no time if there’s the desire.
Second, there’s the Instagram push. Whether you like it or not, Instagram is the one place that almost every photographer shares images. With that, there’s direct access to so many incredible photos being shared every single day, not to mention many professionals that share their behind-the-scenes methods that go into a shot. It’s overwhelming, but to a point it’s also helpful in both learning how to shoot as well as fueling improvement of your own work just to be able to hang with it all. That feeling of wanting to prove yourself can push you to work harder with what you have, learning a lot in the process.
If the idea of being a wildlife photographer took a backseat years ago for more practical endeaveours, I highly suggest taking another look at the gear and resources available today.