Gear FAQ: wildlife photography

I wanted to take this opportunity to answer some of the frequently asked questions i get via social media relating to gear in the context of wildlife photography.

What camera or lenses should I buy if I want to photograph wildlife?

The simplest answer is, you buy what you can afford. But do keep in mind that investing in high quality lenses should be a priority over the camera. If you maintain your lenses they can easily last decades so investing in high quality prime lenses or zoom lenses could be a worthwhile effort. 

What camera or lenses you buy would also depend on what you want kind of wildlife you want to photograph. If you’re interested in photographing birds you would ideally need a lens with a focal length ranging between 400 to 800mm, perhaps with teleconverters. On the other hand if you are only interested in photographing mammals like big cats or elephants, then the ideal focal length would be between 200 and 400mm. 

An important consideration while buying a camera is the Frames Per Seconds (FPS) it can shoot at. Action photographers will want to get a camera that can shoot higher FPS compared to portrait photographers. It would be wrong to assume that all wildlife photographers need to shoot at a high FPS. I personally like slowing things down so i can think about composition and not get too trigger happy.

Gear can be expensive, so if you are travelling only once or twice a year, renting gear could be a good option. This way you can try different cameras and lenses before deciding to buy one. 

The brand of camera and lenses is irrelevant nowadays as most brands make excellent gear. I personally use Nikon and recommend their products however, feel free to explore other brands. 

Besides a camera or lens what other gear should i carry on safari?

Now that you have a camera and perhaps one or two good quality leses you might want to consider buying a backup camera. Imagine going on a trip to Africa and your camera gets damaged, it happens to the best of us. Having said that, there is an additional use for carrying two camera bodies. You can fix a different lens on your backup camera body. I personally carry 2 Nikon D850 bodies whenever i am out photographing wildlife. On one of cameras if i am using the Nikon 200mm f2, i would mount the 70-200 f2.8 or the Nikon 58mm f1.4 on the other camera body allowing me to move through different focal lengths with greater ease.

  • Dust covers – Most wildlife photographers including myself carry some sort of dust covers available at most camera stores online (B&H Photo, Adorama, Lenscoat or even Amazon). They are inexpensive but they keep your equipment safe and ensure you do not get any ugly dust spots on your images. Removing them in post production is a painstaking task which can easily be avoided. 
  • Tripod/ Monopod / Bean bag – This is an easy one. As a bird photographer you should own a high quality tripod or monopod. On the other hand if you are on safari in India or Africa, there is not much use of a tripod or monopod in a safari vehicle. Bean bags are cheap and are highly effective in keeping your camera stable even with a heavy lens mounted on it.
  • Laptop and external hard drives – This is again a no brainer. You need to carry a laptop so you can frequently back up your images. I propose you carry an external hard drive so you can make a second backup. Additionally, i advise backing up your images at the end of each day and avoid waiting for the trip to end before you make a backup. I highly recommend you get yourself a LaCie Rugged or G Tech portable hard drive. They are a tad bit more expensive compared to other brands but they are very reliable and designed for rough use, an ideal choice for wildlife photographers.
  • Memory cards – memory cards are cheap and you should carry a few extra just in case. When you’re out in the field, you will not have time to back up your images on your laptop.
  • Lens cleaning kit – This should again be a no brainer but you will be surprised how many wildlife photographers i meet who do not carry a lens cleaning kit. It might be tempting to simply use your tee shirt to clean your camera or lenses but do not take chances, especially with expensive gear. There are a number of brands that make these kits, you should be able to get one on Amazon. Watch this video to see how to best use these products to clean your lenses.

Do i need filters for my lenses?

I advise all lenses should have a UV filter on at all times, not so much to filter out ultraviolet rays but to protect the front element of your lenses.

The Polarising filter, not only will it protect the front element of your lenses it will help to cut out glare/ reflections, reduce haze, saturate colours etc. There are numerous brands that make polarising filters including Hoya, Tiffen, Amazon Basics, Lee Filters etc. Do keep in mind that using a polarising filter will cost you 1 or more stops of lights so one should use it wisely.

An ND filter is primarily used to cut out light. Ideal for landscape photographers who want to use long shutter speeds. ND filters are available based on how much light they block i.e. ND .3 reduces light by 1 stop, ND .6 reduces 2 stops of light etc. I do carry a few ND filters but i personally never end up using them.

Coloured filters like the red, orange, green or blue filter are an important part of a black and white photographers kit. Certain colours will look very similar when they are converted to greyscale leaving some objects in the image to blend with one another. Thats where coloured filters come in. Using a coloured filter will affect the way certain colours get recorded at the point of capture. I personally use the red and orange filter for my black and white photography. I highly recommend reading this article about the importance of coloured filters in black and white photography.

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