Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
Q1: What's the best camera for nature photography?
A: There isn't one, or better, there isn't one. 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. For wildlife work, most people chose 35mm, though some
photographers do use medium format even for wildlife!
Q2: OK then, so what's the best 35mm SLR camera for nature and wildlife
A: There isn't one, or better, there isn't one (sound familiar?).
However there are some features which most nature photographers would agree are
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,
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 nice.
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 cameras, and most
of the rest use Canon. I've heard it claimed that about 70% of working 35mm
photographers use either Nikon or Canon equipment. Of the remaining 30%, Minolta
is probably the next most popular. My choice is Canon, but sometimes I wish for
some feature only available to Nikon users. If I were a Nikon user I know that
sometimes I would wish for features available to only Canon users. There is no
perfect system or one best choice for everyone.
A: No, you don't need them. Superb photographs have been taken for the
last 100 years without autofocus or autoexposure. However, both features are very
nice to have available and may get you shots you would otherwise miss. This is
probably much more important to wildlife photographers than to landscape
photographers. If you have time to work, you don't need automation.
However, if you are buying a new camera today, there is really no good reason
not to buy an autofocus model. Just about every camera has autoexposure
modes. Just be sure you can overide both AF and AE when you want to!
Q4: What's the best lens?
A: There isn't one, or better, there isn't one (sound familiar?).
Landscape 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.
28mm is wide enough to be a true wide angle. Zooms which start at 35mm aren't so
useful in my opinion. Wildlife 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
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 decide.
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
reallens. 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. A good 400mm f5.6 APO lens will be much more useful
and cost about the same (especially if you look for a used one).
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 sytems 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 a few professional)
Another advantage of some manufacturers' lenses is the use of special motor
technology (USM - Ultrasonic motors - for Canon and "Silent Wave" motors for
Nikon), which gives faster autofocusing and allows easy manual overide of
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 20mm lenses, but they can be tricky to use well.
An ideal lens would be a 20-600/4 APO. I don't think anyone is likely to make one
very soon though - and even if they did, I wouldn't be able to afford one! The
closest thing is the Canon EF35-350/3.5-5.6L. It's $2000, a bit slow at 350mm and
could be sharper at the long end, but it's still tough to beat if you want
one all round high quality lens.
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. The Bogen 3038 is a very sturdy head that will hold the biggest
lenses. It's heavier than a B1 and not so smooth, but costs less than $150 (I use
one). The Bogen 3055 is cheap (under $40) and OK for lenses up to about a 300/4
or 400/5.6. It will take a 300/2.8 at a push, but I wouldn't really recommend it
for use with a lens that large and heavy. 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. They have a strong but light carbon
fiber leg set (model 1228 - $500).
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
nominaly 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. 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. Print
films of ISO 400 can be quite good, and I hear that the ISO 800 Fujicolor is very
good indeed for an ISO 800 film.
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 though!
Q13: Are there any good books on nature and wildlife photography?
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 truely aweful 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 light".
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 regreting 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 they will 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 try to sell you
things you don't need, or not meet the prices in their ads - and so on. I don't
want to single out any stores as good and bad, but I've had good service from
B&H Photo, and Adorama and Camera World of Oregon also have a decent
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 birds?
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
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 somwhere 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
Q18: Are there any good nature photography magazines?
A: "Nature Photographer", a small circulation magazine based in
Florida. 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 advertizing. Not much in the way of equipment tests or reviews.Some articles
at the beginner level, some at a more advanced level. Contact Nature
Photographer, P.O.Box 2037, West Palm Beach, FL 33402-2037
"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) 528 7385.
"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 rewiews are very
uncritical and read like product endorsements. Tends to wander off into "yuppie"
teritory with clothing and 4x4 advertisments. Lots of ads for wokshops, photo
"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
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 often missing.
Q20: How can I do macro work without buying a macro lens?
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 larget 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 cange 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!