I don’t do the typical wildlife shot and nor should you and here’s why.
Wildlife photography Facebook groups and forums are full of people asking about the best lens for wildlife photography. Most answers come back with more zeros on the end of the focal length than most bank balances can afford, but wildlife photography doesn’t need a telephoto lens all the time. I sold my 600mm because I wasn’t using it enough, and get far more reactions to my shots taken on wide angle lenses than anything else.
Take a look at some of the best photographers working in the wildlife photography genre today. David Yarrow, Nick Brandt, Frans Lanting and Brent Stirton to name just a few all take their best work, in my opinion, using wide angle lenses.
Wide angles mean you have to get close to a subject, or put the subject within its landscape in an interpretative way, otherwise the pictures are just tiny animals in a substandard landscape.
There are several techniques to capturing amazing wildlife images with a wide angle lens. The easiest and the way I urge people to learn is to find a shyish creature, such as a sand lizard and try and get so close you can photograph them with a traditional standard wide angle such as a 28mm on a full frame camera or perhaps a 20mm on a micro 3/4s. You need a lens that can focus closely and you’ll need patience, soft movements and to not be bothered when mosquitoes drain you dry.
Mallards are a good subject to start as they are fairly tolerant of humans (as long as you remain non-threatening), and are of a size that comfortably fits into the frame of a 28mm.
This technique involves you holding the camera and pressing the shutter button directly. It also involves lying in more mud and horse droppings than most people are prepared to tolerate.
There are, these days, more ways to avoid the disapproving looks of whoever in your house-hold does the laundry. Cameras can be controlled by remote controls and even phone apps giving photographers much greater opportunities than ever before.
Not so many years ago, to take a remote picture I had to buy a device called a Zigview, which was a cabled video screen that screwed into my viewfinder and had an option adapter lead to depress the shutter and another optional 10m cable. These days I simply turn my iphone on and ask it to connect to my camera. You people don’t know how easy you have it and still you pick up a 600m.
Wide angle wildlife photography is best done looking up at the subject so place the camera on the ground or better still a beanbag. Set it to where you believe your subject will approach, move back and wait. That’s the thing about wide angle wildlife photography, you still have to wait. You also get less images simply because you can’t move the camera and as any wildlife photographer will tell you an animal will often do what you least expect. However, what success you do get will look infinitely better than anything taken with a telephoto.
These days when images are so easy to capture the art of taking a few really good images has almost caved in to taking hundreds of mediocre ones, so have faith and be patient. I’d rather take six great images in a year than thousands of OK ones.
Once you have your camera in the right position, you’ll need to consider which focus mode to select. I tend to opt for the wide area just to give myself the best chance of focusing on the animal. I also set continuous autofocus. Generally it works, but there are always times when your subject is outside the focus area. Those times are when you learn a new set of swear words.
Rather than getting up close to your subject you can create context about their environment with a wide angle lens. Where an animal lives is a part of wildlife photography, not just tight in portraits. Imagine if every elephant picture was just a close up, viewers would never know where and how an elephant lived and you’d be better off saving money on a safari and just going to a zoo.
All the same principles of landscape photography apply when taking pictures this way. You need dramatic light and a pleasing composition. And do not place the animal in the centre of the frame if you can help it. A very powerful technique is to get the animal’s head or better still eye, on a rule of thirds intersection, where the third dividing lines cross. If you have a grid facility on your camera use it, you’ll be glad that you did.
So if you find yourself reaching for a lens with a focal length with more zeros than one, or wishing you had such a lens to be a great wildlife photographer, think again. Wildlife photography is about using the landscape and animals that live within it to create jaw dropping imagers for the people who were not there to enjoy the moment. There is no rule to say how long your lens should be.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.