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A Guide to Nature Photography

by Bob Atkins, 1998

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 photography?

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 important.

  • 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 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.

See also the photo.net Canon v. Nikon comparison chart.

Q3: Do you need autofocus and autoexposure modes?

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 it.

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) photographers.

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 autofocus.

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).

See also the photo.net tripod section.

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 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?

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 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 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 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 at all.

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 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 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!

You can get more information on the technical side of nature photography (depth of field etc.) and optics in general by visiting Bob Atkins' Basic Optics Guide and Hyperfocal Distance Chart and by reading David Jacobson's Lens FAQ ftp://butler.hpl.hp.com/jacobson/photo/lensFAQ will and lens tutorial ftp://butler.hpl.hp.com/jacobson/photo/lensTutorial 

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Copyright © 1996, Robert M. Atkins - All Rights Reserved. Written permission from the copyright holder must be obtained before this work may be copied or used for any private or commercial purpose either as it stands or in a derivative form 

Readers' Comments

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Bob Atkins , February 06, 1997; 01:26 P.M.

Just a test of the comment server. This comment will be removed shortly

Lawrence -- , September 08, 1997; 04:58 P.M.

I thought I ought to warn those who are going to buy John Shaw "Close-ups In Nature." This book is an excellent book for Macro Photography, but the "craftmanship" of the book's manufacturer isn't that great. I have had to return the book for a replacement a few weeks before because everything felt apart after only a day of reading. The replacement also felt apart after a few days of reading. I have given up sending the book in for replacement because I think that the next one would have the same problem. I have all the pages put into clear plastic sheets, which go into a 3-ring binder. It should take you approximately 80 plastic sheets to store the entire book. I like this better since all the pages are protected from dirty fingers, etc.

Bob Atkins , April 22, 1998; 05:11 P.M.

My copy of John Shaw's Closeup book is just fine. I do have the harback version though. It shows no signs of "coming apart" despite quite a lot of use! Even if it fell apart after a few weeks, it would still be worth the price though, just for the information. It's an invaluable book.

jody davis , July 09, 2002; 06:45 P.M.

Q17: What's the best place for wildlife photography? I am in the U.S Army National Guard temporarily activated after 9/11. I have found that one of the best places to find a huge array of animals in extremely wild places is on U.S bases. I am currently at Dugway, Utah, which is so far away from anything, most people have never heard of this place. However, there is tons of wild life in their natural environment. Why military installations? All Military installations are also protected land for the animals that live there. They never ever get shot at and in fact, an installation will close down areas and training for just one deer, or a moose that may wonder into close. Now, unless you have an uncle who is in the military, it is pretty hard to just walk onto a base these days, but I am sure the larger installation have to let the general public into certain areas. If you can get a tour of the White House, I am sure you can go onto a base a photograph the animals that live there. I am in my barracks and as I write this I can look out my door and not more then 50 feet away is an Antelope feeding on the grass in the yard. We are very used to the wild life wondering all around. However, 50 feet is about as close as you could ever get, as they don’t really like us, they only tolerate us on their land. I was here in the winter when it was 9 degrees below zero. Being from Southern California, that was way too extreme for me. On the upside, that is the only time of the year that many animals come around. For example, we had several coyotes wondering out in the fields. But, there was a female that would come fairly close, (she wanted food). It seemed that she was camera shy though. Every time I brought my camera with me she was nowhere to be seen. Luckily I was able to get a few shots of her one day before they all left for the hills as summer approached. I haven’t seen any of them in a few months.

luis subias , July 19, 2009; 04:40 P.M.

Has anybody visited www.footearth.com Is an amazing way to photograph the world. I would like to have your opinion

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