I bet that I'm not the only photographer to at least think about the idea of diving into wildlife photography while standing in the middle of wilderness. I couldn't be that much different, could it?
I've always had a real appreciation and love for the natural world. From microbes to plants to animals, it all held my attention from an early age, and it was the reason I was so drawn to landscape photography in the first place. But despite my natural interest in wildlife, wildlife photography always felt so elusive. The long lenses were out of my price range and I felt that I didn't have the patience to sit in one spot for hours waiting for an animal to come by at the right time of day, so I pretty much forgot about it. However, about two months ago I got a message from an acquaintance of mine who happened to be a conservation officer at a game reserve in South Africa. I write this article from said reserve.
I had barely finished reading the message when I started booking the flights in my head. The excitement built, but with that the anxiety that always follows me into a new adventure grew larger and larger. This felt a little different, though, as it felt like a logical step for me. I've wanted to go to Africa for a long time, and the chance to photograph large mammals, with a guide that I knew, seemed rather perfect.
But of course, life is not always that simple, and my anxiety-induced lack of preparation hit me when I landed in camp. It's not like I forgot to bring an SD card or a certain lens, but I could have made life a little easier for myself if I had just thought of a few things ahead of time. So, to spare you the stress, I've made a little list which could help you if you decide to switch to wildlife mode for a while, especially for a somewhat impromptu trip away.
Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail
- Long lens: Because I knew that I would be photographing big game, some of which are a little bit habituated to the reserve's vehicles, I knew that a very long lens wasn't compulsory equipment. I have a very dependable telephoto zoom in Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, and this is turning out to be the perfect focal length for these large animals but I would have liked a little more reach, so I think, if one doesn't want to shell out for a large telephoto, it might be a good option to either rent a lens or an extender. Looking back on it, I should have rented the Canon Extender 2X III, as it would have doubled my range without doubling my weight. I did try to rent one when I got here but because some stores need a day or two to process my details and the fact that I'm staying a six hour drive from the nearest city, in the African bush, it turned out to be too awkward.
- Second body: My main body is a Canon 6D, but it's always a good idea to have a spare. For my spare, I use a Canon 750D. This serves multiple functions. As well as being my backup, I use it as an extender because it has a 1.6x crop factor. My 70-200mm lens turns into 112-320mm (if had gotten an extender, I would have essentially had a 640mm lens), and because it has an articulated screen, I can get down very low without busting my neck or getting elephant poop all over me.
- Wide-angle lens: These animals can get pretty close and I've been lucky enough to get within a couple of meters of a small herd of white rhinos, so a wide-angle lens is very important. It's all well and good popping off a few shots from behind a tree but when these amazing creatures get close, one wants the viewer to feel how close the animal is to the camera — to almost feel like they're there. I'm using my trusty 'ol Canon 24-105mm. A 24mm or 35mm prime would be nice, but when you're confined to a vehicle (which is protecting you from being killed) the range is really important.
- Shutter speed: Make sure to look up minimum shutter speed for your preferred focal lengths, with and without image stabilization. Also, a high shutter speed is crucial in getting a sharp animal that's moving, and some of these bad boys can move at speed.
- Focus: Make sure you know what focus system you need to use and know how to change your focus points quickly and without having to look at your camera. Always remember: One Shot mode is for when both you and your subject is static while AI Servo is for when either you or your subject is moving. Don't bother with AI Focus... it will ruin you.
- Practice: If you're not used to shooting fast moving objects and changing your settings quickly, without looking at them, practice. Practice on cars by the side of the road, get you friends to run back and forth, whatever you do, make sure practice, because an animal will appear all of a sudden and then disappear, literally in the blink of an eye. I have been caught out a couple of times fumbling with the settings while the moment passed me by.
Wildlife photography is a different kettle of fish. I knew this coming out here, but I still wasn't quite as prepared as I would have liked. I've caught the bug, though. I get it. There is a thrill that comes with this that can come close to my usual work. Landscape photography is slow and meditative process, and I love it. I love the ritual. But going out and "hunting" for a shot or lying in wait for an animal to walk into your view is incredibly exhilarating.
Have any of our readers tried the transition? Any wildlife photographers care to give your two cents? I would really love to hear your take on this in the comments below.