A Basic Guide to Nature Photography
Q1: What's the best camera for nature photography?
A: There isn't just one best camera. In fact you can't even say that there is a best format. For scenic work,
everything from 35mm to 8x10 plate cameras can be used. Each format is
something of a trade off between cost, convenience and quality. Currently most nature work is probably being done with Digital SLRs, both small (APS-C) and full frame. Of course 35mm film SLRs are also excellent for those photographers still shooting film.
Q2: OK then, so what's the best 35mm DSLR camera
for nature and wildlife photography?
A: Again there's really no "best" here. Just about any DSLR is perfectly usable for nature work. However there are some features which most nature photographers
would agree are important.
While just about every brand of camera is probably
being used for professional nature work somewhere in the world, most of
the pros use Nikon or Canon. The reason for this is partly historical and partly because Nikon and Canon offer special services for pro users. I don't think there's necessarily anything greatly superior about Canon and Nikon cameras and lenses compared with those made by other manufacturers such as Sony, Pentax and Olympus.
Manual overide of automatic functions. A camera
which does not let you chose the exposure and focusing point you
want isn't very useful. The easier it is to overide the automatic functions,
the better. If it takes 3 hands to push all the buttons and turn all the
dials to perform some simple operation it's not very useful. If you can't
overide the automatic camera settings, forget it.
A complete camera system should be available
for when you want to expend. That means the camera line should have a good
choice of lenses and accesories. It doesn't matter how good the camera
is if you need a 500mm f4 or 20mm f2.8 lens and there isn't one to fit
the camera, or you need a wireless remote release and no-one makes one
for your camera body
It's nice to have things like depth-of-field
preview and some form of mirror lock up (or prefire). Not essential, but
Q3: Do you need autofocus and autoexposure modes?
A: No, you don't need them. However since just about every camera in production today has both, it's something of a moot point unless you're buying older equipment (probably pre-1980).
Q4: What's the best lens?
A: Again an impossible question to answer, since the answer depends on the application and how deep your pockets are. Nature photographers use everything from super wide
angle lenses to super telephoto lenses. A good all-round starting lens
would be a 28-70 or 28-105 zoom if you have a full frame camera. 28mm is wide enough to be a true wide
angle. Zooms which start at 35mm aren't so useful in my opinion. If you have an APS-C
format DSLR, due to the "1.6x multiplier" factor, you'd want something starting at 17 or 18mm and going out to somewhere around 55 to 85mm.
photographers can never get long enough lenses! 300mm is the shortest focal
length that is really useful for most wildlife work. A good starting lens
would be a 75-300 or 100-300mm zoom. When 300mm is too short (and if you
are a wildlife photographer, it will be!), think about a 400mm f5.6 lens.
You can get a decent 3rd party lens like the Sigma 400/5.6 APO, or you
can go with a more expensive lens from a camera manufacturer if you can
afford it. If you have an APS-C DSLR, the "1.6x" multiplier will actually be an asset for telephoto work.
Q5: What about teleconverters as a way to get
a longer lens?
A: On a really good prime lens a really good
teleconverter can give excellent results. On a "consumer" grade, inexpensive
zoom lens an inexpensive (or even an expensive) teleconverter can give
results that aren't worth wasting film on. In short there is no free lunch
here. All teleconverters degrade the image somewhat, but if you start out
with superb image quality and lose a little of that quality by using a
good teleconverter you can still end up with very good image quality. Putting
a 1.4x teleconverter on a 100-300/5.6 zoom will usually result in a marginal
quality image. However, it may be (indeed is) good enough to please some
people, and the cost is low.
"But Popular Photography magazine says you
can get good results. They even say you can stack a 2x with a 3x, then
add another 2x, put the resulting 12x on a 75-300 zoom and still
get results which are "sharper than (Herbert Keppler) would have imagined"
(PP, Feb 1996)"
Yes, they do say that. They printed contact
prints from 35mm negatives. If you make contact prints from your 35mm work,
then you probably can get away with all sorts of things. Most people find
1x1.5" prints a bit small though! Whether you can use a teleconverter and
get good results depends on (a) What you regard as "good" and (b)
What size prints you want to make. If you are happy with small prints or
you only view your slides by projection, you may well be happy with a 1.4x
or even a 2x teleconverter on an inexpensive zoom. Only you can
Q6: Can I use a telescope as a telephoto lens?
A: You can, but you will probably be dissappointed.
Most inexpensive telescopes make pretty poor lenses indeed. They are very
slow (f16 or slower isn't unusual) and their focal length is often too
long (>1000mm). Holding a 1000+mm lens steady enough for a sharp image
is hard enough with a real lens. When it's slow and not very sharp
to start with you really don't have much of a chance. There are a few telescopes
capable of good results. An example would be the TeleVue Genesis, a 500mm
f5 Apochromatic design, However, the cost is $2000+ and it weighs 10lbs.
Q7: What about mirror lenses like the 500/8 designs?
A: Mirror lenses are much smaller and lighter
than "regular" lenses. The 500/8 lenses are also relatively inexpensive
(less than $500). However, they are typically not really f8, more like
f9.5. They are not as sharp as a good 500mm lens (nor are they as big,
heavy and expensive). They produce odd effects in out of focus areas of
the image (backgrounds). Some people find this distracting. All in all,
unless you are looking for a small light lens (e.g. for backpacking), they
are not the best choice.
Q8: How good are 3rd party lenses?
A: Major 3rd party lenses (Sigma, Tokina, Tamron
etc.) can be quite good. Generally, they are not quite as good as the equivalent
lenses from the camera manufacturer, but often they are significantly cheaper.
Some of them are excellent value and some of them are excellent lenses!
However, if you were to chose the BEST lens of a given type (say
300/2.8 or 28/2.8 or 100/2.8) it would be very unusual to find that lens
was a 3rd party lens. With systems using a lot of electronic communication
between the camera body and lens (e.g. Canon EOS) it is possible that 3rd
party lenses which work just fine with current bodies might not
work with future bodies. As far as I know, the 3rd party lens makers "reverse
engineer" the camera/lens interface. They don't normally get the full engineering
specs from the camera makers (this applies to Canon at least). All this
doesn't mean you shouldn't buy 3rd party lenses (I own a few myself), just
that usually, low cost is their primary advantage over camera manufacturer's
lenses, not performance or quality. Many 3rd party lenses more than meet
the needs of many amateur (and even professional) photographers.
Q9: What's your favorite lens?
A: Tough question, but a 300/4 (with the option
of a 1.4x teleconverter to make it a 420/5.6) comes high on the list. A
lot of the pictures on these web pages were taken using a 300/4 lens (especially
the wildlife shots). An 80-200/2.8 zoom is also a great lens for general
work, but a bit short for wildlife. In wide angles, I like 20-24mm lenses,
but they can be tricky to use well.
I'm also impressed by the Canon EF70-300/4-5.6IS USM, especially when used on an APS-C DSLR. It's pretty sharp, even at 300mm and the Image Stabilization system is very effective. It's small, light and not too expensive. It's a lens that I often carry with me when hiking.
Q10: What's the most important accessory to buy?
A: Easy. The biggest, heaviest tripod you are
prepared to carry around with you! Normally that means something around
5lbs. The Bogen 3021/3221 tripods are very popular, quite sturdy and not
expensive. Most wildlife photographers like ball heads. The Arca Swiss
B1 has a great reputation (smooth, light) but costs $350. Landscape photographers might prefer a 3-way
head. The Bogen 3047 does a good job for under $60. Gitzo tripods (but
not tripod heads) are popular with many pros. They are very sturdy but
significantly more expensive than similar Bogen models. Carbon fiber tripods
are available form several manufacturers. They are stronger, lighter and
better damped than aluminum tripods, but cost 2 to 3 times as much. If
you can afford one, get one!
Q11: What's the best film to use?
A: There's that "best" question again! Film is
a tool and what's "best" for one application may not be best for another.
In general, the best results come from using the slowest speed film. Slower
films are usually sharper and have better color. Most serious nature photographers
shoot slides but if you just want prints, there's nothing wrong in shooting
print film. In slide film, Fujichrome Velvia is often chosen for it's highly
saturated colors and high sharpness. It's nominally an ISO 50 speed film,
but some people prefer to shoot it at ISO 40. There are no hard rules here
and the speed you shoot it at depends on your taste and yout metering system.
Experiment and see what you like best. ISO 40/50 can be a bit slow
for wildlife work, so many people use a faster ISO 100 film. I like Fujichrome
Sensia/Provia 100, but others prefer the Kodak Elite/Lumiere ISO 100 films.
At ISO 200 I like Kodachrome 200. It's very sharp for a fast slide film
and I've always been pleased with the results, though it's quite grainy
compared to the newer E6 ISO 200 films like Kodak E200. The quality of
fast slide films isn't all that great. Something like Fujichrome Sensia
400 is about the limit for me, and then only when there is no way to use
a slower film. Many people get good results pushing a film like Provia 100F
to ISO 200 or ISO 400. The downside is increased processing cost, slightly
higher grain and contrast and sometimes a small color shift. Nevertheless
excellent results can be obtained with a 1 or 2 stop push. Print films
of ISO 400 can be quite good, and even current ISO 800 films can give very
good results when the light is low.
Q12: Are there any nature photography "rules"?
A: There is really only one "rule" - do no
harm. That means not harming your subject. Harming covers a lot of
ground from picking flowers to harassing wildlife. It's easy to do harm
even when you don't mean to. If you step on an alpine flower it may take
10 years or more to grow back. If you disturb an animal you may harm it
by preventing it from getting food or exposing it to predators. Remember
that you may only disturb the animal for one minute, but if the next photographer
does the same, and the next, and the next, the cumulative effect can be
severe. If you feed an animal you may harm it by habituating it to humans.
"Begging" animals are frequently hit by cars and even the ones who aren't
may suffer from eating an unnatural diet. Feeding birds in your garden
at a feeder is generally taken as an exception to the "no feeding" rule
Q13: Are there any good books on nature and wildlife
A: Yes. Just about anything that John Shaw has
written for a start! Specifically his Close-ups
in Nature for macro work and his The
Nature Photographers Complete guide to Professional Field Techniques
for all aspects of nature photography (if you get only one book, get this
one!). Also, one of my favorite books is Galen Rowell's Mountain
Light. Though it's not really a "how-to" book, it's one of the
best insights into how a nature photographer works and thinks.
Q14: My pictures aren't very good. What should
I do to improve them?
A: Take more pictures! Take notes. Study what
works and what doesn't. Read books, maybe even take a workshop, but in
the end there is no substitute for taking pictures. If it's the technical
quality of the pictures, and you are working with prints, try a better
photofinisher or try shooting slides. Many low end "drug store" photofinishers
are truly awful and no-one could be happy with their work. Maybe you
aren't as bad as you think!
Also, consider the effects of lighting. Most
of the really great pictures are taken in great light, and that usually
means when the sun is low in the sky, i.e. dawn and dusk. One of the reasons
that nature pros spend large amounts of money on fast lenses is to give
them the ability to work in low light. If you can't afford the fast lenses,
you can at least try fast film (maybe Kodachrome 200) to catch the "good
Q15: Where should I buy my equipment?
A: If you can afford to, buy from a local store
where you can get good service and support. If you want to save money and
you know what you want, you can buy mail order. The first rule of mail
order is always pay by credit card. That way, if you have a problem
it's not just you vs. the store. The second rule is that if you buy from
the store with the absolute lowest price you stand a good chance of regretting
being so cheap! Lots of stores advertise in magazines like "Popular Photography",
but the general experience is that the "rock bottom price" stores aren't
much fun to deal with. Not that many of them will actually steal your money,
just that they may promise what they don't have, or take many weeks to
ship your order, or ship the wrong items, or post the wrong charges, or
add on $50 for shipping, or try to sell you things you don't need, or not
meet the prices in their ads - and so on. I've had good service from Amazon.com and they're usually the first place I look when I want to buy something.
Adorama. J&R and B&H photo also have a good reputation.
Anyone can make a mistake, so don't expect 100% perfection from anyone.
The good stores don't make you suffer for their errors, while the
bad stores just make you suffer regardless!
There are number of good online sources of
information about camera shops:
It depresses me to get questions like "I just
ordered from XYZ Photo - did I make a mistake". At that point it's a bit
late to ask!
Q16: What's the best way to photograph nesting
A: This needs great care so as not to
harm the birds. You can easily cause damage without ever knowing it. One
example is that of a photographer who returned to a nest site he had been
working at the previous day. It had been destroyed by a predator (Racoon??).
The probability was that his presence (food, disturbed vegetation,smell?)
had attracted a predator to the area who had discovered the nest. Moving
branches so a nest is more visible can have the same effect.
As far as equipment goes, the longer the lens,
the less disturbance you will cause. A 400mm lens is probably the absolute
minimum you should consider. Serious bird photographers usually
have at least a 500mm lens, sometimes even a 600mm or 800mm.
Q17: What's the best place for wildlife photography?
A: Well, the easiest place for wildlife photography
is an a place where the animals don't fear humans. This means somewhere
they don't get shot at several times a year! In the US, this means the
National Parks. The best park for wildlife is probably Yellowstone, and
the best time is anytime but summer (unless you want pictures of tourists
and traffic!). Many other parks are good too. I've had good luck in Rocky
Mountain NP several times and Yosemite can be interesting (even when there's
no wildlife around, Yosemite isn't at all bad for scenic and landscape
work!). For bird Photography, Ding Darling NWR and the Everglades in Florida
are hard to beat. The ultimate in approchable wildlife is probably found
on the Galapagos Islands where most of the wildlife has virtually no fear
of man at all.
Q18: Are there any good nature photography magazines?
Photographer", a small circulation magazine based in Massachusets.
Subscription is around $16/year for 6 issues (glossy, color). Also sometimes
available from a few large book/magazine stores. Not a bad magazine (I've
written for them a few times). General hints and tips, places to visit.
Some advertising. Not much in the way of equipment tests or reviews.Some
articles at the beginner level, some at a more advanced level.
"The Natural Image", a small
black and white magazine/newsletter published by George Lepp. Available
by subscription only for around $20/year for 4 issues. Lots of equipment
tests (mostly Nikon and Canon) and film tests. Some general articles, travel
tips etc. No advertising (except for George's workshops!). Probably of
more interest to serious nature photographers with some experience rather
than beginners. Most of the newsletter is written by George Lepp himself.
Contact Lepp and Associates, PO Box 6240, Los Osos, CA 93412 or call (805)
"Outdoor Photographer", major
magazine, available at many book/magazine stores. 10 issues/year. Very
glossy. Often has nice pictures. Some interesting columns (Rowell, Rue,
Lepp, Jones). Equipment reviews are very uncritical and read like
product endorsements. Tends to wander off into "yuppie" territory with clothing
and 4x4 advertisments. Lots of ads for workshops, photo tours etc.
"Popular Photography", major
magazine, available at most book/magazine stores. Quality varies from good
to bad, but subscription is cheap! (ca. $10/year for 12 issues). Good magazine
for advertisements. Best equipment tests of any of the major (high circulation)
US magazines (just don't believe everything they say!). Some nature
articles and a semi-regular nature column.
Q19: What is "depth of field"?
A:In any photograph there will be a range of
distances over which objects appear to be in sharp focus. This range of
distances is called the "depth of field". The important word is "appear".
Only points at one distance from the lens will truely be in focus (i.e.
as sharp as they could possibly be). Everywhere else the image will be
less sharp. The range over which the image looks sharp is the depth
of field - and obviously this is somewhat subjective since what looks sharp
to you may not look sharp to me! It also depends on how much the image
is enlarged, how closely you view it and so on.
Clearly then, "depth of field" is a slightly
arbitrary concept. In practice it is usually defined in terms of an acceptable
"circle of confusion" size. This is the size (on the slide or negative)
of an image of a point at the limits of the "depth of field" and for 35mm
its value is about 30 microns (0.03mm). For an 8x10 print, viewed from
about 1ft, the image will look sharp anywhere the circle of confusion is
less than this value.
There is a concept known as the hyperfocal
distance. For any given focal length lens at any given aperture, there
is a distance at which the lens can be focused where points from infinity
to 1/2 the hyperfocal distance will be "in focus" (i.e. have a circle of
confusion value less than some fixed value). Lenses once had hyperfocal
distance markings on them, but today (especially on zoom lenses) they are
Q20: How can I do macro work without buying a
There are two routes to macro work which don't
involve the expense of buying a real macro lens. The first is the use of
an extension tube. This allows you to get closer to the subject and thus
get a larger image. Just how much closer and how much larger depends on
the lens in use and the length of the extension tube. The second way is
by using a "closeup" lens which screws onto your lens just like a filter.
There are cheap closeup lenses which are not worth buying, and there are
better closeup lenses which are very good. The better ones are two element
lenses made by Nikon and Canon. They cost in the $60-$100+ region depending
on size. A table of magnifications given using Canon extension tubes and
close up lenses is given in the Canon
EOS FAQ v3.0.
Extension tubes can be used with any lens,
but the screw in closeup lenses will only fit lenses of a certain filter
size. Closeup lenses have the advantage of losing less light and you can
change magnification by zooming a zoom lens without refocusing. With an
extension tube, each time you change the zoom setting you may have to move
the camera to get focus back. Don't forget that you can increase magnification
by 1.4x or 2x using a teleconverter too.