Let us suppose that you’ve moved beyond snapping pics of your garden, of the snails and the birds and even of your cat – that rapacious hunter!
Let’s say that, for the first time, you’re planning a holiday around your passion for wildlife photography; you’re ready for a whole new set of challenges – in terrain, in subject matter and weather conditions.
You’ve got your lenses and camera bodies, meters and your various supports... you just can’t wait to go!
Wait! Those things we mentioned a moment ago – the weather and terrain, matter greatly – not just to you but to your kit.
For instance, to photograph animals in the beautiful, unpredictable arctic wilderness, you would have to bring protective gear for your equipment as well as extra batteries because the cold will sap their energy much faster than you might be used to.
Conversely, if you’re photographing in the Serengeti or the Kalahari, your biggest worry, as far as your kit is concerned, is getting dust or sand in it.
In fact, there are so many variables to consider when planning such an excursion, not the least of which is what equipment and photography accessories you should take with you.
That is why your Superprof has compiled this list of essential, nice-to-have and optional kit that every wildlife photographer should have, no matter where the excursion takes place.
Go get your camera bag; we’ll wait. It is a good idea to compare notes; we might have something on our list that you had not considered putting on yours. And if you have something on your list we don’t have on ours, won’t you let us know?
If you are brand new to wildlife photography, maybe wondering where and how to get started, this article is for you. We aim to provide you with a bit of information about the gear you need before you head out on your first shoot.
Do you have your list ready? Here we go!
Essential Camera Equipment
You may have seen pictures of wildlife photographers on assignment, standing or squatting behind a tripod-mounted camera outfitted with a telephoto lens.
Of the three pieces of kit mentioned in that sentence, only one is absolutely vital: the camera.
Of course, a camera body would be worthless without a lens but it is understood that even a point and shoot camera comes with some sort of lens... we’ll talk more about lenses in a moment.
Equally important are the components that permit your DSLR cameras to record and preserve images: batteries and memory cards. Running out of either is the sure end to your photography session.
Making sure you have these two vital components in ample supply is the best way to not kick yourself for missing that perfect shot for want of them.
Depending on what your subject matter is, you may or may not need a long lens.
For instance, if macro photography is your speciality, a telephoto lens may hinder rather than help you achieve your best shot.
On the other hand, if you’re out to get the temperamental hippo on film, the further you are away from their environment, the safer you will be.
More than any other, this piece of kit underscores why it is a good idea to plan your shoots; that is the best way to not carry kit that you won’t need.
Nevertheless, you will need some sort of lens and, depending on the environment you’re working in, some sort of protection or camouflage for it. In all cases, it is advisable to have a rain cover for your lenses and camera.
If indeed you are after that hot-tempered hippo or maybe you’ve decided to head to Canada to snap off some shots of grizzly bears, having a teleconverter is an excellent idea.
Also called lens extenders, these devices fit between your camera body and your lens to give you a more focused, tight-in image that appears as though you had gotten close enough to your subject to touch it.
Teleconverters magnify the centre portion of your frame but do not affect your lens’s minimum focus distance.
There are arguments for and against using such extenders. Achieving tighter framing is definitely on the plus side, while the fact that they decrease the overall focus of your lens is certainly a drawback.
In shopping for a lens extender, be sure that the model you select is compatible with your kit!
Last word on lenses: you should have a bag that will accommodate all of your lenses including the longest ones.
Tell us, please: how did you get started photographing wild animals?
Supporting Your Camera
Needless to say, the idea of standing still for hours on end, in all weather conditions, while holding several pounds of gear to your eye and your finger on the shutter button is enough to deter even the hardiest of photographers.
To say nothing of the shots they would have to discard because of camera shake.
In spite of the romance accorded to wildlife photography, it really boils down to a bit of setting up and a whole lot of waiting around.
Even after all of your studying – of your subjects’ habits and habitat, and your planning (what kit to bring and when best to go), it is quite unfortunate that animals won’t perform on cue... and you shouldn’t try to make them.
That means that you end up setting up your shot and waiting for your target to make an appearance and/or do something picture-worthy.
To make setting up easier, there is a range of stabilising and propping equipment you should have with you.
As its name implies, a tripod has three height-adjustable legs that can securely support your camera.
Tripods are great if you intend to take panoramic shots – maybe of a herd in the distance or one of the bigger animals, perhaps an elephant or a giraffe.
As wildlife photography does involve a lot of waiting, you may choose to frame your shot, retreat (and sit down), and activate your camera remotely once your quarry appears in your field of focus.
If you are not after big game – if photographing birds punches your ticket, then you’ll surely want to be more mobile. In that case, a monopod is more suitable.
Just like the tripod implies three legs, monopods only have one. Their function is to keep your camera steady while you shoot with a standard-sized lens - it would be hard to balance with a telephoto lens.
The advantage of a monopod is speed; if you need to reposition yourself, it is much easier to do so using a monopod.
Both of these camera supports are well suited for photographing subjects that have a bit of height and will generally follow a slow and predictable trajectory. Adding a gimbal tripod head can be a game-changer.
A gimbal permits you to effortlessly move your camera both vertically and horizontally, as needed.
Thus, with a gimbal on your tripod, you could point your camera to the ground and photograph smaller animals, like a weasel or an iguana.
On the other hand, if you anticipate ground-level work, why not get a ground pod? You got it: these pods hold the camera steady at just above ground level.
The ultimate solution to camera support and photographer’s comfort is a bean bag.
Let’s say that you are of the intrepid sort; you don’t mind climbing a tree to get that perfect shot.
In those types of situations, tripods are decidedly inconvenient but a bean bag can straddle a branch and cradle your camera with ease, keeping it perfectly still while you squeeze off frame after frame.
Now, let’s imagine you at ground level, waiting for the squirrels or other urban wildlife to come out and play. You could use a ground pod but a bean bag will give you so much more flexibility in aiming your shots.
Finally, let us take the car door example. It is almost a shame that wildlife has grown accustomed to the smell and sound of cars but humans are still scented as predators.
Many wildlife photographers have clued into that reality and have taken some amazing shots while sitting in their car.
That is a nifty trick for capturing the best wildlife photos; there are a few more to add to your repertoire.
Extras You Should Have in Your Kit
Taking photographs of animals requires patience, good equipment and a willingness to meet them in their environment.
Doing so poses certain risks, especially the bigger the animal and the time or season you set out – say, just after birthing.
Images of animals with their young are particularly evocative and highly sought after. They are also particularly dangerous to capture; that is why many such nature photographers install a camera trap near their quarry’s den.
A camera trap is a device that is activated by motion sensors or by an infrared sensor. When the subject moves, the camera is activated; it takes the shot while you remain at a safe distance.
Camera traps come with a variety of features and a correspondingly wide range of prices; if your goal is making money from wildlife photos, investing in such a device would be a good idea.
Other good accessories to have in your kit are:
- extra batteries and memory cards
- a camera cleaning kit
- a maintenance kit
By no means are these few items all there is to have; camera shops are full of equipment made specifically for outdoor photography.
But, with these essential items in your kit, you’re at least ready to get started taking pictures. In time you will add to your kit those items you find helpful.
Perhaps one of them might be a guide to the most amazing places for wildlife photography...