Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point
The Short of It
One of the greatest things about wildlife photography is you’re outside! When you look at what was on this continent when Europeans first landed on its shores and compare it with what we have today, it can be a little depressing for sure. When you look, though, at all the treasures we still have today to point our lenses at, it’s still pretty darn amazing. As my good friend (who lived in Yosemite) used to challenge his audiences at the closing of his shows: “If John Muir didn’t have the foresight to fight for the preservation of Yosemite, we wouldn’t we have it today to enjoy. The question is: Do we have the foresight to preserve what we have today for future generations?”
We are incredibly fortunate to be able to venture into the wilds with our cameras in pursuit of our passion: wildlife photography. Wildlife has to have a home to live in. Without it, they perish, and with them, our ability to photograph them. If for no other reason than this, we must take with us the lens(es) that permits us to capture not only the critters our hearts pursue, but also their homes—what most simply call landscapes.
Yeah, personally, my style of wildlife photography is to include their world in the photograph with them. I often take that a step further and turn the long lens on the landscape itself, removing the critter and just photographing the home. These can be incredibly dramatic and powerful images when all the elements come together in the narrow perspective of the telephoto. But when it comes to the photographs of the grand sweeping vistas that grab heartstrings and play that romantic ballad, short lenses are the main instruments creating that harmony.
When we venture into the realm of short lenses (less than 200mm), making such distinctions like the 600mm is for birds and 400mm for mammals just doesn’t happen. We can talk classes, like short telephotos, wide-angles, and ultra-wides or fisheyes, but the bottom line doesn’t change from any other focal length when it comes to your photography. You’ve gotta find the tool (lens) that brings your passion from your vision to your camera, and then to the viewer of your image.
As you’ve probably noticed, I have a combination of prime lenses and zooms in my bag. The reasoning for that has been spelled out. That same logic and reasoning carries through in my short lenses, as well. I will more than likely head out with just one of the lenses we’ll talk about in this section when I think I’ll be shooting with the long glass more than shooting landscapes. So, before I go into these lenses, here’s a little bit about what’s going on in my head:
In the very beginning, I wanted to be a landscape photographer and make my living traveling and shooting the land I was so blessed to be shown by my parents. Those long weekend drives, along with all the John Ford movies I inhaled as a kid, I have no doubt affected how I look at the land. Living in a cabin in the Sierra—“The Range of Light,” as John Muir so correctly named it—as a kid influenced me, as well. But it was real obvious when I started that there was no way I was going to make it as a landscape photographer, no way to support a family or business. Not that I was settling on wildlife photography instead (or that it is any more secure), it was just that I could focus one way or the other, so I went with wildlife.
The love of landscape photography didn’t go away, it just tends to play third or fourth fiddle (photographically, that is). It really wasn’t until the early 2000s that I became comfortable with how I tell the visual story of the landscape that I am so fortunate to venture through. And it’s only of late that I like my landscape photographs. It was when I started to get comfortable with my landscape work that I reinvested in the really good short lenses and added more lenses to the short end, where I had been eliminating them prior to that time. I still ponder the cause and effect of this on my photography, and I’m just throwing it out there to give you some thought about your own pursuits.
The short lenses in my bag must serve many masters. They are not there just for landscape photography. If I had to say what their main purpose is, it would be photographing people (biologists mostly) as they go about what it is they do. Then they serve as landscape lenses, and lastly micro lenses. The reasons for this are pretty simple: money, weight, and space—all the same reasons really as with the long glass (there are two lenses that don’t fit this mold, though, as you’ll see). All of this is just to say that I don’t see how you can go wrong with basically any lens you love, as long as it brings to life what you feel. Please don’t carry on with the myth that a 14mm at f/22 is the perfect landscape setup, though. Photographers spread and carry on with the horrible habit of pigeonholing lenses and focal lengths. That’s a guaranteed recipe for killing the growth of your photography. Push past the myths, and your photography will be successful!
Shooting the FX format (keeping in mind it’s the format in which I was trained) gives me the luxury to use lenses on the wide end to their fullest. I just love wide, really wide, ultra-wide, ultra-pano-wide images, so quite often that’s where my vision heads.
That’s why, when I head out, I always think of the AF-S 14–24mm first for my second lens. That 14mm end of the lens, the sweetest Nikon has produced, takes in a whole lot of the world with a single click. More than with most lenses, the dance between including and excluding elements is done the most at this focal length. One of the most “unwanted” elements that this lens often includes is bright sky—sky so bright it’s a blinkie (that discussion is coming soon). With this being the case, it leads us to how I like to use this lens the most, shooting over the top of a subject. What the heck does that mean?
One of the challenges I think we face as photographers is taking a very three-dimensional world and smashing it down flat onto our film plane and then onto a print, wall, page, attempting to bring it back to life in three-dimensional glory. Bringing visual depth to your images is what you worry about after you’re comfortable with the basics, and is one of those big steps in the evolution of your photography. One of the easiest ways to bring visual depth to a photograph is shooting over it. You take the camera and tilt it down so it’s about at a 45-degree angle to the earth, then move in physically over the subject with the camera. This is shooting over a subject.
When you do this—tilt the camera and get physically closer—you visually extend the horizon line at the top of the frame, while including more of the foreground. The relationship between the two is exaggerated and, by doing so, we are truly manipulating the image and the viewer into feeling like they are “falling” into the photograph. This brings visual depth and life to our otherwise paper-flat image. The ultra-wide lens, which is basically any lens between 14mm and 20mm, lends itself naturally to this technique, which is why I, most times, first think of grabbing the 14–24mm.
When grabbing the 14–24mm, I ask myself a couple of questions, the main one being: “Am I going to be shooting people or trees really close, and am I going to want to use filters?” The 14mm end of the 14–24mm can be not-so-kind to people, distorting features, making their nose or belly grow if you are too close to them. Since my style is often to get physically close, this can be a concern. You can zoom to 20–24mm and avoid this problem. When it comes to filters, they ain’t going to happen with the 14–24mm. The lens has a built-in scalloped lens shade. This style shade does not create a 360-degree “seal” between the lens and the filter. The gaps on the side permit light to come into the back of the filter itself. This creates ghosting and contrast issues negating any benefit of the filter. Why not just screw a filter in place, why try to hold it? There are no screw threads to attach a filter!
If the 14–24mm doesn’t work for the situation at hand, the next lens I consider taking is the AF-S 24–70mm f/2.8. This is a beautiful lens in that classic focal length territory we think of as the multi-purpose lens. I’ve had many different flavors in this general range over my 30 years: 35–70mm f/2.8, 28–85mm, 24–85mm, 17–55mm, and now the 24–70mm, which is my favorite of all. This range encompasses what was once considered the “normal” lens focal length, with a little extra on either side. I work this lens pretty darn hard for lots of reasons. Multi-purpose is describing what this lens can do mildly. There probably isn’t anything I’ve not pointed it at, folks—landscapes, birds, mammals, macro, planes, and trains, just to name a few—and it does them all exceedingly well, in part because the lens quality, zoom range, and f-stop throughout its range all contribute some amazing quality.
The physical size of the lens lends itself to easy transport on a second body hanging from the shoulder. Its filter size is 77mm, which means a polarizer and split neutral density gradient filter (0.6 screw-in) can be slipped into a shirt pocket and carried easily into the field. It has a really, really deep lens shade. Not that this is important when shooting the majority of the time, in fact it’s a pain when using a filter, but it provides immense front element protection as the lens bounces along on a strap hanging from your shoulder when walking through deep brush. All these attributes make the 24–70mm the go-to lens.
Getting close to wildlife is a skill you constantly strive to improve, because once you visually see all the benefits of it, you just can’t do it enough. There are times when you get close and, once there, it dawns on you that there are images to be had not so close. That’s when the lens on that second body becomes very important and where the 24–70mm really shines. My photography style is to use the perspective of a given focal length to its fullest by physically moving to get the subject size I desire, what I call “zooming with your feet.” But when you’ve approached a subject and you’re close, moving back and forth isn’t always advantageous. That’s when the flexible focal length of the 24–70mm once again makes it the go-to lens.
One other lens I take at times is the Nikkor AF-S 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6 VR. I grab this when I’m working birds in flight more than anything else. The AF-S speed of the lens permits quick acquisition of the subject and maintains focus as you pan. The typical scenario is we’re out shooting with the big glass and having a merry ’ol time, when all of a sudden a bird—a great subject—comes from the left or right, flying almost right overhead. Like an Old West gunslinger, the second body comes flying up with the 70–300mm attached, and a heartbeat later, that great bird is now pixels on a flash card. While a tad short for a flight lens on the FX frame, getting just a little closer makes up for not being at 400mm, and since the image quality is so sweet from this lens, it just works.
This brings up a common question, which is about shooting approach as much as gear. When I head out to a project, all the gear is in the truck ready to be used (batteries charged, cards wiped off, sensors clean). Once I arrive on-site, I take out of the MP-1 (see Appendix 1) only the gear I’m going to use in the field. For example, if that moment we’re off to photograph moose (a close cousin), I will take the D3X with the 200–400mm VR mounted to the Wimberley Head and attached to the Gitzo 5560S GT sticks that will be carried over my shoulder.
Often, a second body, a D3 with either the 12–24mm, the 24–70mm, or the 70–300mm VR attached goes along. It’s on a strap riding from my shoulder, turned so the lens goes behind the small of my back. If I feel I need a teleconverter, one is attached to the lens and its cap is in my pocket, so I can remove it if need be and place it in my pocket. Also I’ll have a card wallet with six Lexar 32-GB cards. That’s it!
The rest of these lenses are really ones that fill in the gap, you could say, for all the other types of photography I do and enjoy. It’s hard to keep in mind that WRP (Wildlife Research Photography) is a business, and we have to turn a dime. This means that capital spent has to bring capital in. So the lenses that follow are just as I described: those that fill in holes in my bag, permitting me to bring back those images that make me happy and bring in the bucks.
The Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8 VR and AF-S 60mm f/2.8 are micro lenses that focus from infinity to 1:1 (life-size). The primary difference between the two lenses, besides the focal length, is their minimum focusing distance (MFD) and angle of view. The 105mm VR has an MFD of 1 foot and angle of view of 23 degrees, and the AF-S 60mm has an MFD of 0.6 feet and angle of view of 39 degrees. This is important when you’re photographing little dudes, for many, many reasons. One example is when I’m doing what we call “existence” shots of species.
We’ve been called to come and photograph a little mammal because of its rarity. We’re there to take a photo documenting its existence. The critter was captured from the wild (and is returned there when we are done), and placed into a special photo tank we’ve had made. I then photograph it using the 60mm and flash. The MFD of the 60mm is important, because we have the lens basically right next to the tank, so we don’t see any reflection of the camera, flash, or us in the photograph. We couldn’t do this with the 105mm VR because of its greater MFD.
On the other hand, when photographing a small critter like a butterfly, you want the greater MFD for two reasons: to stay further away from the critter, so as to not scare it, and so it’s easier to bring in flash to light the subject. Yeah, you can use the Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System on the 60mm, but I personally don’t like that option most of the time. Using the 105mm VR, I can use the Nikon SB-900 Speedlight, which gives more power and therefore permits more DOF. I do not always have one or both of these lenses with me when I go shooting—they quite often stay back in the office because I’m not really a good macro photographer. It just isn’t something I do really well. So, I often don’t go out to do macro for the fun of it, but rather, when I get the call and the work needs to be done.
The next two lenses are so far out there, I’m including them only because I think they are really cool lenses and not because I think any other wildlife photographer on the planet should include them in their bags. The PC-E Nikkor 24mm f/3.5 and PC-E 45mm f/2.8 lenses are highly specialized, wickedly sharp, manual focus lenses that are truly designed for one thing: architecture photography. So, why then do I own these two very expensive lenses? Even more, why do I always have the 24mm PC-E with me (if not both of them)?
PC stands for perspective correction (keeping lines from merging at the top of the frame). The purpose of the PC lens is to permit the film plane to stay parallel with the subject, like a building or a tree. This prevents the lines of the subject from converging at the top of the frame. But at the same time, keeping the camera as such cuts off the top of the subject in the frame. The PC lens has a shifting front barrel. The shifting front barrel permits you to pull the top of the subject back into view without having to have to tilt the lens and converge the lines. While I use these lenses from time to time to photograph trees, their PC ability isn’t why I have them.
I have these two lenses specifically for my ultra-wide panos—what appears to be a single photograph is actually six images, two rows of three, combined in Photoshop. To produce a single finished image with the same perspective as if you were standing next to me when I took it, you need to use a nodal plate. This permits you to pan on your ball head and keep the perspective across the 180-degree pan in check, but prevents the camera body from tilting up or down.
That’s where the PC lens comes in with its shifting front barrel. You can shift the lens down and then up without moving the camera body and take two separate photos that, when combined in Photoshop, give you an image with the vertical perspective equal to your vertical binocular vision. Take three such panels and combine them, and you have a single image that equals your horizontal and vertical binocular vision. That’s an ultra-wide pano, and why I have these two lenses.
The other lens that travels with me most of the time is the old Nikkor 28mm f/1.4 AF. There are a few times it goes into the field for your “basic” type of photography, but that’s rare. I have this lens for one specific purpose: star trails. Doing star trails with digital is pretty darn simple. After taking a minimum of 40 images, one second apart, with the shutter open for four minutes, you combine all of them in Photoshop to create the classic star trail photograph. I try to take at least one star trail at every place I visit. The 28mm f/1.4, being killer sharp and so fast, makes them a snap to do.