Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point
I need to put this as succinctly as possible: It’s the person behind the camera that counts. Just as much as lens selection determines a photographer’s style, camera bodies must mold to the photographer’s logic, abilities, and passion to be great. There simply is no right or wrong answer in body selection. It doesn’t mean, though, for a moment that I don’t know what I prefer. Ever since the D3 hit my office, I’ve thought it was the best wildlife photography camera body for me. For the last year, I’ve been shooting almost exclusively with the Nikon D3X, which is about as opposite of the camera body I recommend for most photographers. What is the best body then?
A better question is: What are the main attributes you should look for in a camera body? There are three that I feel are very important and I’d like you to consider: The first is frames per second (fps); the next would be full frame; and last is a vertical firing button.
It really doesn’t matter how you get there, but you need to have at least 5 fps for photographing action. The mark, 5 fps, permits you to capture action photos without really having to think about it. Here’s the problem: by the time we see the action, tell our finger to depress the shutter release and the camera fires, quite often the action has come and gone. To make up for this lag, we hit the shutter release a tad before the action begins and let the fps take up the slack. To make this whole technique work, we need 5 fps or faster.
What if you’re shooting less than 5 fps, are you screwed? Nah, you just have to be a better photographer. You have to be better at seeing when the action is going to occur. Seeing might not be the right word; predicting might be a better choice. Then, with that ability, you need to know how to use “peak of action” for stopping the action. Peak of action is best described by a dribbling basketball. When you dribble a basketball, it travels down, bounces up, and then just before it travels back down again, it stops, if for just a heartbeat. When it stops, that’s peak of action, and at that point, you could photograph it with almost any shutter speed and get a sharp photograph. The thing is that you would have to push the button at just the right moment to make a sharp image of that moving basketball. That’s a skill set many photographers simply have not perfected.
Full frame to me is a biggie. Seeing everything in the viewfinder that’s going to be part of the final photograph is a must. Why? It’s that old-fashioned thing known as photography. Photographers have composed in the viewfinder since the dawn of photography. It’s part of the craft. What you see in a photo is what they saw in the viewfinder. To make that work, you’ve got to see everything at the time of the click. This requires a full-frame or 100% viewfinder. It also means you don’t depend on cropping in post to make the magic, but do it in the viewfinder. When you look at one of my wildlife images, what you see is what I saw in the viewfinder, it’s that simple.
When you put the camera to your eye, so much is going through your mind before and at the moment you make that click. The goal is to remove as many variables in creating an image as possible, so you concentrate on just one thing: the subject. When looking through the viewfinder, being able to see all the elements we need to exclude, and at the same time, those we need to include, can only be done with a full-frame viewfinder.
The last one on the list isn’t one you probably think of: a vertical firing button. Why is that important? We often work in low-light situations where good, solid handholding technique or long-lens technique is a must to get a sharp image. The vertical firing button makes it possible to do these things, but basically permits us to keep our right elbow down. Rather than having it flying up in the air, it’s tucked down and, while this may seem too trivial to be important, it’s on my top three list for a camera body.
What you’re not reading here as important is megapixels. It’s not important. Any photographer who knows their craft and practices it skillfully at the point of capture will make the most of every pixel, no matter the total. The quality resulting from that skill makes any megapixel count on today’s market more than ample to get the job done in stunning ways. If your skill set isn’t up to that standard, more megapixels won’t make up for it. Here’s the fun thing though: if your skill set is up to that challenge, then the more megapixels, the more you can show off those skills. But don’t fool yourself, more megapixels show off your lack of skill just as well.
One feature that I personally feel is important for me that I want to mention is GPS. I’ve been using GPS to make note of where I’ve been shooting since the days of film. I’m so glad the days of writing down UTMs (Universal Transverse Mercator coordinates) and later recording that info on the appropriate slide are long gone. That data is needed mainly for the projects I work on with biologists. I use it for myself mainly for return visits. Not to go back to the exact same place to shoot, because wildlife doesn’t sit in one place waiting for me to come back. Rather, it’s for my own trivia base of information, as I try to better understand how wildlife use a particular area. That information is vital in how I work an area on my return visit. It doesn’t make the photo any better or easier to obtain, so it’s not a must to your photography.
You might be looking for settings for your body. You’ll find the ones I prefer in Appendix 3. They, like everything else here, are just food for thought. While this is the gear that I depend on, and that I used to create the majority of the images in this book, they are not the only ones. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s what your gear—your bag of confidence—should permit you to do: stretch your imagination. If it doesn’t, then you’ve got the wrong gear. The good, or bad, part of wildlife photography is there is always something new to explore and possibly buy. What’s here just gives you some ideas. You’re going to find as you continue on with the book, I really have only scratched the surface here. Because, in all honesty, this is really just a starting point.