Shooting Wildlife With a Camera

Bird and animal photography, especially in the wild, can be quite challenging.

Notice how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Notice the smooth bokeh and how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name of the game in wildlife photography—whether you’re trying to capture an exotic bird in a national wildlife refuge or a giraffe in a city zoo or wildlife park—is patience.

Wild birds and animals will do what they’re going to do and no amount of coaxing will make them turn their head, look your way, open their mouth, do something cute, or move to better light.

You have to be there—and ready—when the photo op occurs. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait some more—it takes a long time to get good wildlife photos, even longer for great ones.

The best time for travel photography is either during the early morning or late afternoons and the same applies for birds and animals. Early morning is typically the best for wildlife photography because birds and animals are actively searching for food.

Maintaining fast shutter speeds, especially for birds in flight and small birds that move very quickly is essential—you cannot fix motion blur in post production. You need to completely freeze the action of the bird. To achieve this, set your shutter speed in a range from 1/800 to 1/1600 or even faster for birds in flight.

Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A tripod or a monopod is highly recommended for early morning and late afternoon photography when slower shutter speeds are required due to less available light.

Always focus on the nearest (to the viewer) eye of the bird. It is acceptable to have a blurred tail or other parts of the bird, but at least one eye always needs to be in focus and sharp. For birds in flight, focus on the bird’s head or chest—whichever provides better contrast for the camera autofocus system.

Choose your background carefully to achieve a smooth bokeh (or boke, a Japanese word meaning blur). Photos with objects behind the bird are not as visually appealing as images with an out-of-focus or blurry background. This is achieved by a shallow depth of field when relatively close to the subject while using a large aperture.

Get up close. Use a photo blind whenever possible. One of the best blinds is your RV or car; you’re able to get relatively close to a bird or animal without departing your vehicle. Birds are generally not scared of cars and you can drive up fairly closely and take some amazing shots.

Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
You have to shoot a lot of photos to manage one or two keepers. Pictured above Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You need a good telephoto lens to get close enough to make the image interesting. Zoom in and focus on the head of the bird or animal.

In general, good photos result from careful attention to some basic elements of composition—the placement of the objects in the photo. Frame your subject carefully, try to put the main point of attraction at 1/3 or 2/3 of the image (remember the rule of thirds).

Shoot from the birds eye level, images from the same level with your subject will look more natural and attractive.

When visiting a bird sanctuary or zoo, you may get the chance for some stunning photographs of birds and animals at close range. With patience and practice, you can really do this nearly anywhere.

When you’re in the wild, and happen across birds or animals, you need to be ready to capture the image—even if it’s at a distance. Have your telephoto lens ready. Nothing shouts louder “boring photo” more than a tiny subject in the frame, so move in closer. With wild animals such as bear or moose be sure to maintain a safe distance.

This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photographing wildlife requires patience and skill. If you are a beginner, try easier subjects like robins or finches in your backyard or the park and birds in the zoo before heading out into the wild. Experiment with the shutter speed until you know what will give you the effect you want.

Be patient and let the birds come to you. You won’t get the perfect shot every time but with practice your photos will improve.

Worth Pondering…

A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture you need a camera, a photographer, and above all a subject. It is the subject that determines the interest of the photograph.

—Man Ray

Read More

More on D-SLR Lens

In the previous post I discussed the three basic categories of lenses—normal (or standard), wide angle, and telephoto—and the most common uses for each.

The more wide open the lens aperture is, the more light that gets in. (Source:

All lenses are described in two ways:

  • Focal length (as measured in millimeters)
  • Speed (maximum aperture size).

Here’s a rundown of what features to look for in a new lens, along with exactly why they matter.

Focal Lengths

The first thing a photographer learns about a lens is its focal length. Measured in millimeters, the focal length is an optical spec that indicates whether a lens will produce a wide, normal, or telephoto angle of view.

The smaller the number (e.g., 17mm), the greater the angle of view will be. The larger the number (e.g., 300mm), the more telephoto a lens will be.

The focal length of a lens is important because it gives you an idea of how its angle-of-view and perspective relate to our own vision of the world.

Lens Speed/Apertures

Aperture is the opening in a camera lens that allows light to reach the digital camera sensor. Just as the pupils in our eyes expand and contract depending on the amount of light around us, the aperture opening of a camera lens can be made wider or smaller to let in more or less light as needed.

Canon’s EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens. (Source:

Lens speed is described by its maximum aperture size (lens opening).

Lenses with larger maximum apertures can let in more light, allowing you to shoot in dimmer conditions without having to boost ISO.

The larger the aperture (the variable opening in the lens through which light passes), the more light can be let into the camera and, therefore, the faster the shutter speed that can be used.

Smaller ƒ-stops (like ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/2) indicate larger openings and faster lenses. These are desirable for several reasons, but especially for photographers who need to work at high shutter speeds (like wildlife photographers) and in low light (such as museum where flash is not permitted). Another reason a photographer may prefer a fast lens is to produce a very shallow depth of field (as in bird photography) because the larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.

Prime lenses tend to be faster than zooms because they’re optically simpler and, therefore, more easily capable of transmitting light efficiently.

Some zooms incorporate a variable maximum aperture (like ƒ/4-5.6) that changes based on the focal length selected. This creates smaller and lighter zooms that cover a broader range of focal lengths.

The faster lenses are generally in the pro lineups from the various manufacturers so they tend to have rugged construction, use larger elements, and more refined types of glass.

As a result, fast lenses usually cost more than slower models for a given focal length, and they’re usually bulkier and heavier. As a result, they’re difficult to handhold and to lug around.

Slower lenses are smaller, lighter, and much less costly than faster lenses of equal focal length.

The fast pro lenses cost a lot more than the midrange lenses.

Canon released its new line of 500mm and 600mm super telephoto top-end professional lenses in March 2012 with a list price of approximately $10,500 for the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, and $13,000 for the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM.

Understanding Lens Measurements

The num­bers and acronyms on a lens can be quite intimidating and confusing.

Cam­era manufacturers use this nomen­cla­ture to pack enough infor­ma­tion to assist us in under­stand the lens’s abil­i­ties.

Let’s look at my Canon telephoto lens as an example:

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5–5.6L IS USM

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM (Source:


EF — Auto Focus

100-400mm — The focal length of the lens in mil­lime­ters (since this is a zoom lens there will be two num­bers, the widest angle length and the nar­row­est angle length)

f/4.5–5.6 — Aperture indicates the amount of light the lens lets through (lenses with larger maximum apertures are typically heavier, larger, and more expensive)

L — Canon’s spe­cific code for their pro-grade glass

IS — Image Sta­bi­liza­tion — the lens can help min­i­mize cam­era shake

Please Note: This is the eleventh in a series of stories on Digital Photography and RVing

Worth Pondering…

It pays to get the best lens you can afford.

—Frank Jay Hanes

Read More

Which Lens Should I buy for my D-SLR?

The beauty of D-SLR is that you can attach a different lens to your camera depending on what and where you’re planning to photograph.

This photo was shot at Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas, with a zoom lens set at 50mm. The image roughly matches what the human eye sees. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some lenses are best suited for landscapes while others are better for birds and animals. There are no hard and fast rules and creative photography is all about breaking them.

Lenses have traditionally been grouped into three basic categories:

  • Normal (or standard)
  • Wide angle
  • Telephoto

Normal or Standard Lens

The 50mm prime lens is called “normal” or “standard” because it produces an image that roughly matches what the human eye sees, and which looks natural to the viewer.

It sits between the telephoto lens and the wide angle lens, which produce unnaturally zoomed-in and zoomed-out images respectively.

Most often in a zoom lens, the range of 35mm to 85mm is considered a normal or standard lens.

A standard lens is really a general purpose lens that works well for landscapes, group photos and other social occasions, portraits, and general use.

Telephoto lenses

This photo of a pair of Royal terns was taken at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas with a Canon 100-400 telephoto zoom lens set at 400mm. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Telephoto lenses make distant subjects appear closer; the longer the focal length the greater the magnification.

Telephoto lenses have focal lengths that range from about 85mm (great for portraits) to super-telephoto lenses of 300mm-600mm (lenses in this range are often used by sports and wildlife photographers).

The longer the focal length of a lens, the more difficult that lens will be to handhold.

This is true not only because longer lenses tend to be physically longer and heavier than wide-angle lenses, but also because subtle vibrations and camera shakes are amplified dramatically when using a telephoto lens.

A good rule of thumb is to use a minimum shutter speed equivalent to the focal length—for example, when handholding a 500mm telephoto lens, be sure to set the shutter speed no slower than 1/500th of a second.

Perhaps the most common use for a telephoto lens is to bring otherwise small and distant objects closer, such as wildlife.

Wide-angle lens

The wide-angle lens is the classic landscape lens because the short focal length allows you to capture a very wide angle of the scene in front of you. Wide-angle lenses reach out their wide-open arms to take in a sweeping view.

Think of wide-angle lenses as the opposite of telephoto lenses where you tend to back away from objects. Telephoto lenses tend to flatten depth of field, wide lenses exaggerate it.

This photo was taken “up-close and personal” at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona with a wide angle zoom set at 17mm. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wide-angle scenes can contain many objects at different distances, which helps draws the viewer into the scene.

Contrary to what you might expect, the most important element of your wide-angle landscapes is the foreground. The closer you are to your subject, the more dramatic your images will be. Yes, I mean move right up close and personal.

Include something of interest in the foreground otherwise you will get vast expanses of nothing. This can mean going low to include foreground wildflowers or cacti for example or getting really close to rocks so that you can see the rock grain.

As a result, if your foreground isn’t interesting, your photo won’t be interesting.

When you’re photographing wide, be sure to spend some time looking for the most interesting foreground available to combine with your grand vista.

Wide-angle lenses are good for a range of subjects, including landscapes (especially where you want to elongate spatial relationships), architecture (when you want to create dramatic or slightly distorted shots of exteriors), and in any situation where shooting space is tight.

Please Note: This is the tenth in a series of stories on Digital Photography and RVing

Worth Pondering…

It’s not the size of the lens. It’s how you use it.


Read More

Building a D-SLR System

The camera is only part of the equation when it comes to image quality.

The primary advantage of a zoom is that it is easier to achieve a variety of compositions or perspectives since a change of lens is not necessary. Photo above is Southern Okanagan landscape, British Columbia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameras get all the attention, especially from first time buyers. Your D-SLR is only as good as the lens you mount on it.

Many aspiring photographers spend large amounts of money on the latest camera, only to use the kit lenses that came boxed with the camera.

There can be a big difference between a high-end lens and a kit lens in terms of image quality. In many ways, the glass you place on the front of that super D-SLR is more important than the camera itself.

Most advanced photographers end up spending a lot more on lenses than they do on a camera body. It would be foolish to purchase a $2,000 D-SLR camera and then use a $150 kit zoom lens with it.

Since the best lenses make the best images you need to balance your budget between the camera and lenses you buy.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (Source:

I strongly advise D-SLR buyers to purchase the best quality lenses that they can afford.

The best camera in the world is only as good as the glass you hang on its front end.

So how do you select the perfect new lens for your D-SLR camera system?

There’s a lot to consider when weighing a lens purchase, not the least of which are those technical specifications. Even more, though, you’ve got to interpret those specs to figure out which ones are most important to you.

Lenses are the eyes through which your camera sees the world. You can change the way your camera sees simply by changing lenses or by changing your zoom setting.

The first consideration is whether the focal length is fixed or variable.

There are two general lens types:

  • Prime lenses
  • Zoom lenses

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length—the focal length is constant. Common primes are 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 80mm, and 105mm, though they can be literally any focal length.

In a zoom lens the variable focal length can be changed within a pre-defined range.

Which is better? A zoom lens will give you more versatility; it is also cheaper than buying many different prime lenses.

Why would one intentionally restrict their options by using a prime lens?

Prime lenses existed long before zoom lenses were available, and still offer many advantages over their more modern counterparts.

Why wouldn’t everyone always want zooms? Because fitting a wide-ranging zoom into a single-lens body is a feat of engineering. This sometimes means compromises must be made to maximum apertures, focusing speed, optical quality, and/or price. That’s not to say they’re not great lenses; there’s just always a trade-off.

Conversely, the trade-off for working with a usually faster prime lens is that you have to own more lenses, at more expense and weight, and take the time to change them while shooting if you want to cover a greater focal range.

The primary advantage of a zoom is that it is easier to achieve a variety of compositions or perspectives since a change of lens is not necessary.

Keep in mind that using a zoom lens does not necessarily mean that you no longer have to change lenses; zooms simply increase flexibility.

Generally speaking, prime lenses are superior to zoom lenses when it comes to clarity and speed, but not necessarily cost.

Zoom telephoto lenses conveniently cover multiple focal lengths and are very cost effective. However, they tend to sacrifice a bit in picture quality.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens is one of five and the most prominent lenses in the Canon’s telephoto zoom lens lineup and is suitable for portrait, travel, outdoor, general wildlife, and sports photography. (Source:

Deciding which lens to purchase becomes a complex trade-off between cost, size, weight, lens speed, and image quality.

The best advice anyone can give is to buy the best lens you can afford, you will change your camera more often than you will change a good lens, and to research the lens in question as thoroughly as possible.

Please Note: This is the ninth in a series of stories on Digital Photography and RVing

Worth Pondering…

I look at life outside of the lens and capture the world through it.

—Thomas Robinson

Read More