Why I Suck At Wildlife Photography, 4 Things to Improve Your Work

A White Crowned Sparrow I photographed at a local pond. This took a long time trying to get this shot.

Why do I suck at Wildlife Photography?

One of my goals for photography this year was to get into wildlife photography. I have a degree in Biology with an emphasis in Zoology. I have worked for 7 months walking around looking for birds. I have spent 2 years working with fish and now I spend my days looking for toads. I have hunted for a variety of game and thus I should have a good idea what to do to get great shots.

The fact is I still seem to come up short… a lot.

As I was thinking about why I sucked I started to formulate some reasons. They include 4 specific reasons: Gear, Patience, Time of Day/Year, and Specificity. Since I have been struggling I have decided to share what I could do to improve so that you can improve as well.

Gear

Let's start with gear. Like all photography, you can get away with a lot with a basic set up. Many photographers begin their career with a 18-55 kit lens.  With wildlife photography though gear becomes even more prominent. Have you ever looked at the works of Thomas Mangelson? If not do so. But you will realize that most professional wildlife photographers have some seriously hefty gear. What do I have? A 70-200 f4. It's not even image stabilized.

So reason 1 why I am sucking at wildlife photography is because I am lacking gear. This doesn't mean I am not getting shots, it just means I am missing opportunities. A 70-200 is only ok at wildlife photography. So what is the remedy? The most expensive option is to buy a new lens. Now what lens should I get?

Since this is a subject matter that I really look forward to getting into I have been talking with my buddy of mine who does a lot of wildlife photography. He has gone to Africa on safari and rubs shoulders with Mr. Mangleson himself. These were his suggested focal lengths.

Lenses

100-400mm, 500mm, and 800mm.

The 100-400 covers most animals like birds and safe animals to get close too. According to him, the most useful focal length is probably 400mm. That is why you see a lot of lenses end at that focal length. Canon has 5 Super Telephotos that end there. That is over 50% of all their Super Telephotos. That suggests that is a good focal length to work with.

500mm is great for close-ups on birds but is barely far enough reaching for many animals particularly like your dangerous animals like bears and wolves.

His next lens was the 800mm prime. It allows for even closer views on animals and frankly allows for the necessary reach to work with very dangerous animals. Since I don't have $13,000 dollars sitting on hand… or probably ever this will never be my option.

Once you leave native glass though, Tamron and Sigman offer some 150-600mm lenses that might do the trick for me, but I keep hearing mixed reviews.

Since I have talked about lenses and how that can help in the way of gear, there are some cheaper option I can work with to get a better quality image.

Mule Deer Zion National Park

Clothing

Some basic facts about vision. Many animals can't see orange or red (deer for example) so hunter orange camo works just fine. But camouflage can be a really great way of getting closer to wildlife. it is designed to break up your shape making it harder to see. I own some camouflage but it is all at my dad's house and all of it is for cold weather. I live in the desert. It hit 101 (F) last week. If I invested $150 dollars in camo gear I could probably get 20 feet closer  (like 6 meters for the rest of the world) to most of my subjects. But I have been cheap, so thus I am not getting better images.

Gimbal Heads 

Ball heads are not really designed for wildlife photography. I only have that. I could invest in a couple hundred dollars and get a Gimbal head which would allow the camera to rest looking forward but allow me to actually move the camera freely without shake. That would help a lot.

In wrap up I can do a couple things, spend $1500+ dollars plus on a new lens, or I can spend about $400 on smaller investments that can take advantage of what I have now. Newer lens sounds funner, but the latter is more practical.

Patience

In a recent video I watched, a photographer headed out to his local field early in the morning to photograph some birds. He was there for many hours waiting for the right moment. I simply do not do that. I usually wander around looking for birds, instead of waiting for the animals to come to me.

This is my biggest sin of wildlife photography. I know patience is necessary for getting the best shots, but more often than not, I just hang around for 15 minutes then head on. If you want to become a stellar wildlife photographer you have to be patient and wait for the right moment.

Time of Day/Year

Right now I spend my days looking for toads in the high mountains of Utah. They are working their way towards endangered due to a fungus devastating global amphibian populations. It seems early early morning we never see them. By midday, we find some. By late afternoon I have not seen any yet.

Animals have times of days where they are most active and times of the year as well. In hunting, you hear the most gunshots at sunrise and sunset, because that's when deer are moving. Birds are setting up territories at sunrise. Snails come out after rainstorms or at night. It's called partitioning resources. Sunlight is a resource and the lack of it is as well. All animals take advantage of different times of days to accomplish what they need to survive and reproduce. Use those times of days to become more accurate in your photographing specific species.

How am I failing? I usually just wander around when I have time and sometimes get close. Usually, it is in the evening. It seems that the birds are less active at this time of day in my area. I need to do a better job at going out at the right time of day.

Now that we have talked about the right time of day, there are right times of years as well. Have you ever downloaded a bird app that helps you identify birds? Usually, they have distribution maps and you can easily see that birds travel across the country or between continents based upon the time of year. I don't normally see bald eagles in spring/summer (I still do) but in the winter I can find dozens upon dozens. Bears disappear in the winter. Right now if I wanted to catch shots of birds on nests is a good time.

Want to know why I am sucking and wildlife photography its because I don't pay attention to this nearly enough. I just go when ever I feel like it.

Big Horn Sheep, Zion National Park

Specificity

If you have noticed in much of my ranting is that I am missing on specifics. Gear is a big point, but timing and choosing the right species is even more important. When you are looking for a specific shot, it is easier to come back with something great. This is true about much of photography. Rarely do I just stumble upon amazing landscape images. I usually have to do some scouting.

If I want to become a better wildlife photographer I really need to actually become choosy like I am with my landscapes. I need to go out and scout areas and see what I can see. When I find something, come back to the area and try to get the shot I envisioned. If you are not doing this with your wildlife photography, your images are probably like mine, occasionally good.

Closing Thoughts

Will I change my wicked wildlife ways?… eventually.

I generally know what I need to do to get great shots, I just need to begin investing a bit of time and money into the gear to get those shots. It will all come in due time. I am hoping by fall I have my wildlife lens so I can go into Grad School having some new gear to play with while I am back in the big city.

Where are your currently sitting on your wildlife photography goal?

Golden Eagle, Tracy Aviary

Some Additional Gear

Here is some gear that is useful as well.

  • Binoculars (or one of these will do)
  • GPS
  • TOPO Map
  • field pants
  • waiter boots (make sure they are rubber sole, not fiber ones)
  • Warm Clothing

4 thoughts on “Why I Suck At Wildlife Photography, 4 Things to Improve Your Work”

  1. William (Bill) S. Hart

    Nathan, your day job is about as good as you are going get for putting you in the right place at the right time or at lease scouting at area. I am; well lets just say pass my prime (70) so I have to make different approaches at my intended subject. Yes; that includes some long lenses; I have found that once I locate the subject(s) camo and blinds have worked better than me chasing them down.

  2. It was nice reading and quite useful. It emphasised to me that lesse costlier equipment can give results and is more practical in life.

  3. Dennis Pritchett

    I’m retired, age 72. I have always loved wildlife and nature, and in the mid to late ’60s I was a bush pilot in Newfoundland and Labrador, flying for the government doing various types of work, including wildlife surveys. I’ve benn doing wildlife photography as a hobby for 15+ years, and I’ve tried much of the gear you mentioned. This past winter I purchased all new kit; Canon 77D, Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro to give that a try again, a couple of wider angle lenses, and I have a new Canon 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS II to replace the Canon 300MM f4L IS because I needed more versatility than the prime gave me. I did the research and the reviews were mixed; I really wanted the Canon 100-400mm IS II, but at $2500 I would be stretching my budget; I paid $510 Canadian for the 70-300mm on sale on Amazon. So far I’m up to about 2000 wildlife images with this lens, and I’m glad I got it; it’s the quickest focusing telephoto I’ve ever used, with the Canon nano focusing system, and with the silent IS system, giving a reported 4.5 stop advantage, it’s like having a much faster lens. The 77D has Canon’s dual pixel focus as well, and it’s amazing. I sold the 300mm prime, and I’m very happy with what I have. I’ve shot bears, hawks, eagles, mountain bluebirds nest building, Brewer’s blackbirds courting, jackrabbits, deer, and various other wildlife with better results than I’ve gotten over the years with other more expensive kit. Learn all you can about your subjects, including their habits, which is the most important advice I can give you. Walking around looking for wildlife is very hit and miss; as you say you need to learn where and when your subjects will be in a place you can photograph them. I always have my ereader with lots of ebooks, including photography tutorial books, on the reader and spend many hours relaxing in many likely spots for wildlife. The combination I’m using for birds and animals gives me a reach of 485mm, and the lens is very sharp at that, unlike many other lenses of similar length that I’ve used. I use a hood all the time, for protection and shading. For a cheaper camera there’s the Canon 7ti I believe it is, and a more rugged body would be the 80D, $300 more expensive than the 77D, but the same in almost every way. For a prime the Canon 400mm f5.6 is a legendary lens that I have yet to use; great for birds in flight btw, for which the nano focus system on the 70-300mm I have is ideal.

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