People regularly ask me what is my favourite lens, and what lens do I use for this or that subject? The answer may not be a simple one. While the ‘best’ lens for a close-up or macro photo would undoubtedly be my Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8. Yet, it’s entirely the wrong lens if it’s sitting at home in the equipment cupboard when I suddenly come across a macro-type subject.
This is precisely what happened a couple of days ago when I went for a hike up in the Sierra de San Juan Cosala above my home in Jalisco Mexico. At this time of year the region is beginning to see the return of the migratory bird species. So there I am, out with my 500mm AF-S ED VR f4, a tripod, and a couple of converters in my pocket and not much else .
Setting up to photograph an Ash-throated Flycatcher I was standing in some small acacia trees when I noticed a large bug at the top of the bush that I had never seen before. So suddenly the ‘best’ lens to get a shot turned out to be the only lens I had with me.
Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-14 converter, (effective 700mm), 1/1000th at f8 ISO 800
Solving the problem
The minimum focussing distance of this lens is 4m not ideal for the subject but, what many don’t realize is, that by adding a converter you will increase the size of the subject (by the magnification factor of the converter) but the minimum focussing distance does not alter. You do however suffer a bit of light loss, 1 full stop with the TC-14 and 1 and a third with the TC-17. In this case I added the TC-17, increasing the focal length of the 500mm to 850mm. This gave me a plenty of a large enough view of the bugs which were around 1.5in in length.
Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-17 converter, (effective 850mm), 1/500th at f8 ISO 800
Isubsequently found a pair of the bugs, which I identified later as Giant Mesquite Bugs mating at the top of another acacia bush.
Nikon D4s, 500mm AF-S ED VR f4 +TC-17 converter, (effective 850mm), 1/500th at f8 ISO 800
I would have also been well served to have had a set of extension tubes with me which would have allowed me to substantially decrease the minimum focussing distance but they too were in the equipment cupboard.
So – the lesson is the best lens for a shot is the one you have with you, just find a way to make it work.
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Several times I have been asked how it is that my long-time career as a sports photographer gels with the wildlife and nature work I now mostly shoot. The fact is that there are a great many similarities.
First let’s look at the equipment… Pretty much identical, rapid-focus cameras using large telephoto lenses.
Second… similar techniques, long periods of waiting around with not much happening while trying to maintain a high level of concentration so you don’t miss the decisive moment!
Nikon D2x, 600mm f4 lens, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head, 1/3200th sec ISO 200 @ f5.6. You can certainly shoot low slowly flying birds from a tripod but it’s much harder to acquire focus and stay locked on than with hand holding. Here, as I was still shooting with a D2 series camera that does not handle high ISO settings as well as more modern cameras, I have opted for a larger aperture than I would choose today.
One area of wildlife photography where all the above is particularly true is in capturing images of birds in flight. Often fast moving, unpredictable, with difficult lighting, much the same as with so many sports events.
My preferred lens for in-flight photography is the Nikon 500mm f4, either with or without the TC-14 1.4x converter, and occasionally the 200-400 f4, more often than not hand held with image stabilization turned on, depending on the size of bird I am working with and the distances involved. I never use the converter on the 200-400, which slows down autofocus to an unacceptable level. This technique results in more ‘keepers’ than using the 600mm f4 on a tripod with a gimbal head. The 600mm is just way too heavy to hand hold, at least for me, not being a muscle-bound body builder!
Just like photographing high-speed sport it’s essential to set your camera effectively to freeze the action (unless of course you are going for intentional blur, but that’s a whole other subject – coming soon!) I never let my shutter speed drop below 1/2000th sec, adjusting my ISO settings to ensure that I stay at this speed or above. Remember, birds can be very high-speed subjects, often cruising at 30 mph, and can reach enormous speeds of 60 mph or more when diving or hunting. I will generally stop my lens down to around f8 to give a good depth of field and also because this is the ‘sweet spot’ on my 500mm producing the sharpest corner to corner images. Unlike sport and ground-based wildlife subjects – where I will often use my telephotos wide open (largest aperture) to limit depth of field and isolate my subject from the background – this is rarely necessary with in-flight photography as, in the majority of cases, your subject is against the sky or is already distanced from any discernible background.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens hand held, 1/2500th @ f8, ISO 800. Look for the unusual bit of action such as when this bird dips his toes into the lake..
With my Nikon bodies I use continuous autofocus, AF/C (AI Servo on Canon) and select 9-point autofocus when photographing single birds, or 51-point 3D-tracking when shooting more than a single bird. I always use the highest frame-per-second rate possible and, like capturing sporting action, will often shoot in short bursts.
Shooting birds in flight I almost always use manual exposure, unlike sport where my preferred method is aperture priority. Primarily, in sport, I generally aim to keep my subject isolated from the backgrounds which, most of the time, are fairly constantly lit. With in-flight photography, backgrounds can constantly change as you continue to shoot; i.e. the birds move from blue sky to white cloud, or from a dark vegetation background to a more open area, and it’s really important that the exposure is based on the bird and not on the background. To set my exposure I get in position and shoot a few test shots ensuring my minimum 1/2000th sec is achieved, checking my histogram, and adjusting my shutter speed and ISO to move the histogram to the right without it actually touching the right-hand edge and blowing out highlights. It is essential to keep detail in the brightest, often white, part of your subjects.
For white balance I invariably just leave the setting at auto. As I shoot 100% in RAW format, I can always change the white balance in post production, if I need to – which is rarely. I find it all too easy when manually setting a white balance to forget I’ve done so and end up with extra work on a whole bunch of photos.
Technique for birds in flight
Even though my Nikon lenses autofocus extremely rapidly, you often have little time to acquire sharp focus as a subject might suddenly appear. To ensure the most rapid focus I will, if at all possible, find a subject that is at approximately the same distance as I predict my subjects might appear and pre-focus on that. This means that when a bird appears in the right zone my lenses have little work to do in locking on to the bird and I find I am shooting sharp images way earlier. I always use the rear focus button on the camera and not the half-depressed shutter button, as I like to decide when the cameras actually focus on the subject… Another throwback to how I shoot sport.
If you can, keep your selected autofocus points on the eye of the bird, which is easier with large birds than with rapidly moving, smaller subjects. When photographing more than one in-flight bird, ensure that your focus points are on the leading bird, because if the leader is ‘soft’ and the following bird(s) is sharp, it produces a very strange look.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens handheld, 1/2000th @f8, ISO 320. When shooting more than one bird ensure you focus on the leading subject. Also remember that many birds have large areas of white colour so it is essential that you don’t blow out your highlights.
Just like shooting sports, with birds in flight it is essential to develop good panning technique. You MUST keep the lens moving, locking your subject in the same position in the viewfinder as far as you can, and keep shooting. A common error is to shoot every image with the bird dead centre in the frame. I often shift my focus selection points slightly to one side of the frame or the other depending on the flight direction, to allow space for the bird to move into. This generally gives a much more pleasing composition. The best bird images, particularly with larger species, tend to be when the wing is at the highest or lowest position during the flapping motion, aim to hit this spot consistently.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2000th sec @ f8, ISO 1200. Try and time your shots so the wings are either fully elevated or fully down, relatively easy with soaring birds like this vulture
Perhaps more-so than with other forms of wildlife photography, it is practically essential to shoot with the sun at your back with a useable arc of around 30°. Backlit and sidelit subjects rarely work well as you will invariably end up with very harsh shadows. The angle of the sun is also a huge factor. Photographers talk about the golden hours, around two-and-a-half hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset, when the light has a soft even feel and has a golden glow that lends itself well to all wildlife subjects. A further advantage of a low sun angle is that it will often result in a great catchlight in a subject’s eye. In general, high sun angles during the middle part of the day are not workable if the sun is out, but you can extend the shooting day with more overcast conditions.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2500th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Give a little more space on the side of the image that your subject is facing to allow room for it to ‘move into’
Another weather condition to keep in mind is wind direction. Birds, like aircraft, will tend to take-off and land into the wind. Absolutely the best conditions for in-flight bird photography is when both the sun and the wind are at your back.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/1600th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Birds take-off and land into the wind, try and have both sun and wind at your back
Remember, like all photography, the foregoing suggestions are guidelines and not set-in-stone rules! I still experiment with different shutter speeds, camera movement, lighting angles etc. but, my experience has been, that using the above guidelines will generally produce the most pleasing images.
The 2017 Nature Conservancy Council photography competition attracted over 33,000 entries from 141 countries.
I am honoured to announce that my entry below has been awarded a place in the top 100 entries to go forward for final judging. This includes a peoples’ choice award which you can vote for online. Please visit The Nature Conservancy Council Photo Contest to see the top 100 entries and vote for your favourite images.
This image was taken with a Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400 f4 lens (set to 380mm), 1/1250th @ f4.5, ISO 200
Pronghorns can run at speeds up to 53mph (85 kph) leaving potential predators far behind making them the second fastest land animal in the world after the African cheetah and by far the fastest animal in N. America. Not only sprinters but long distance runners they raise the white hairs on their rumps when startled which can be seen for miles.
The Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year, run through the auspices of the Natural History Museum in London, is probably the most prestigious competition in the field of wildlife and nature, attracting in excess of 30,000 entries each year. Past winners read like a who’s who of the world of top nature photographers with names like Thomas Mangelsen, Jim Brandenburg and Frans Lanting to name but a few. This years overall winner is Canadian Paul Nicklen with an amazing underwater shot of Emperor Penguins launching themselves onto the ice as Nicklin photographed from below. The image was taken in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, an area Nicklin knows well as he specialises in photography from polar regions.
If you want to be inspired to get out in the wilds (and in some case not so wild) with a camera take at look at some of the amazing winning and runner-up images on the Natural History Museum web site – click here
This week I am going to return temporarily to a bit of wildlife photography with a visit to The Isle of Sheppey Â RSPB reserve at Elmley Marshes, with my friend David. There is a 2 mile drive into the reserve proper that is managed by the Elmley Conservation Trust so the photo opportunities regularly start long before you get to the reserve proper, and this was exactly the case on this trip. If ever you go here on a photography trip make sure the camera is right beside you before you enter the reserve road.
Only a few hundred yards into the reserve I got some great shots of a kestrel perched on a post, just a few yards from the road. Unfortunately David was not quite as ready as I was and missed a golden opportunity as the bird took off just as he got the lens out of the window!
Nikon D3, AF-S VR Nikkor 500mm f4G ED lens, 1/1000 at f6.7, ISO 500, aperture priority automatic, lens supported on window ledge of car.
Birds are unpredictable, particularly in their sudden and very rapid movements so even though a bird is perched on a fence post and is relatively still I will still try and keep the shutter speed high enough to accommodate these sudden bursts of energy. With today’s cameras capable of producing such high quality images I am not afraid of pushing the ISO a little higher Â to ensure the shutter speed is at least 500th/sec and preferably 1000th or better. This doesn’t mean you simply push the ISO to the highest value your camera goes to, it’s still a balancing act between quality of file and the settings you need.
Nikon D3, AF-S VR Nikkor 500mm f4G ED lens + TC14 converter, 1/800th at f8, ISO 500, aperture priority automatic, lens supported on window ledge of car.
You cannot get out of your car on the entrance road but this really does not present an issue. The birdlife is so used to seeing vehicles that your car makes an ideal mobile hide. Make sure that on stopping you turn off the car engine. The vibrations from an idling car are still enough to affect your images.
I always recommend that you use a sturdy tripod and proper tripod head when shooting wildlife images, but here in London I don’t have my tripod with me.Â As I am shooting predominantly sport and tripods are usually banned (in fact throughout the Olympics tripods are not allowed due to the extremely limited space in the photo positions), and there is only so much I have been able to bring to London, I am mostly using a monopod. However, if you ensure you keep the shutter speed high enough, and use good technique, it is possible to handhold for short periods of time, which I do often with the 500mm f4 for flight images. (I wouldn’t attempt this with the 600mm, just too heavy!)
Â Nikon D3, AF-S VR Nikkor 500mm f4G ED lens + TC14 converter, 1/2000th at f8, ISO 500, aperture priority automatic set to -2/3 stop to retain detail in white feathers, hand held.
Finally a word on the ethics of photo manipulation. I am often asked what I think it is reasonable to do to a photo in our digital world and what it is not. The answer is not entirely straightforward as it depends so much on what the subject material is and what you are trying to portray. For example in my sports photography it is essential that I do not materially alter the content of an image. In other words I am restricted to simple colour correction, cropping and removing any sensor dust – and that is about it. I cannot for example, clone out a distracting spectator from the background of an image as I would be materially altering reality, even though the image would be more pleasing if I did so. However in the natural history photo it is perfectly acceptable, in my opinion, to remove a distracting branch, for example, as I have not altered the reality of that particular image.
So long as I am not attempting to fool the viewer of an image into believing that something happened that was not really there – for example combining an image of a sparrow and a parrot sitting on the same branch and then portraying it as reality. If I do it as an exercise in digital manipulation and inform everyone that that is what I am doing it is fine. The classic example is when National Geographic Magazine moved the Pyramids to make an image fit the front cover – not cool!
Nikon D3, AF-S VR Nikkor 500mm f4G ED lens, 1/2000th at f6.3, ISO 500, aperture priority automatic, lens supported on window ledge of car.
The second image above has the distracting branch removed and some additional exposure and contrast work, which I regard as perfectly acceptable. Here I have used the Quick Mask technique in Photoshop, one of the few tasks I still use Photoshop for. For details of how to do this see the e-book, Photographers Workflow available from the site. The book will soon be updated to account for some major changes in the way I handle my images. Anyone purchasing the book now will get the update free when it comes out.