The Right Tool for the Job: Nature Photography Camera Basics

Nature and wildlife photography require more than fancy gear. You’ll need basic technical knowledge and confident camera use.

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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by Andrew Weidman
Juvenile Bald Eagle In Sunset Rays

I get a lot of attention when I’m out shooting photos. Or rather, my gear gets a lot of attention. It’s not intentional; it’s just that I use a big lens. A mount-the-camera-on-the-lens big lens. People will say things like, “I’ll bet you get great pictures with that camera!” That’s true, in a sense, but it’s only part of the story. I doubt anyone ever looked at an artist’s brushes and said, “I’ll bet you can paint a real masterpiece with those!” The other part is in knowing how to use the tools at hand.

There are quality tools and poor tools, and improper tools. A pipe wrench makes a lousy hammer — but I guarantee we’ve all banged on a pipe or two with one. Because it’s what we had at the moment. But the best tool for any job is the one you know how to use.

There’s a saying: “The best camera for the occasion is the one you have with you.” That’s true, in two different directions. The first way, the obvious way, is you won’t be taking any pictures with the camera you don’t have. Yes, that’s obvious, but it’s true. I always travel with my camera bag, including on my daily commute, just in case. There are a lot of days it just goes along for the ride, especially this time of year. The surprise roadside shots I’ve gotten, like the juvenile bald eagle in the last sunset rays, have made it more than worth the effort of schlepping the bag around everywhere.

Entry-Level Cameras for Wildlife Photography

The other truth in that statement is, assuming you’ve spent any amount of time with your camera, you know how its features and controls work, at least on a fundamental level. Case in point: Two years ago, I upgraded from my Canon Rebel T2i — a solid entry-level Digital Single Lens Refractive (DSLR) camera, the modern version of the classic film camera with exchangeable lenses — to a more professional-grade Canon 7D Mark II, also a DSLR, but with more features and capabilities (like back-button focus, a feature I never knew I desperately needed until I had it).

For the next few weeks, I shot absolute trash. Why? The controls were different, in different locations or used differently. The light meter was in a different spot in the viewfinder, the exposure control was a different roller, and the autofocus sensors were completely alien. It was a bit like switching from an automatic transmission to a manual with Hi/Lo range. I had to relearn how to shoot, and this was still the same basic style of camera, from the same manufacturer!

I know photographers who have switched from Canon to Nikon, or vise versa, and that’s an even bigger headache! When the snow geese are flying, the last thing you want to do is fumble a setting. Like focus. Or exposure.

Camera Lens Basics in Nature Photography

Maybe more important than the camera, however, is the lens. For the most part, I use either a 50-mm prime lens for wide angle and portrait shots, or a 100- to 400-mm zoom lens for wildlife shots. The millimeter length tells you relatively how far you can “reach” with a lens. The prime lens is set at a specific focal length, which means you are the zoom feature. That sounds like a limitation, but in general, a prime lens has sharper focus and is “faster” glass, meaning it lets more light in, allowing shorter exposure times, improving focus even more.

I know wildlife photographers who shoot with monster prime lenses, like 400 or 600 mm, so they can always have the sharpest possible focus. There are two reasons why I shoot with a 100- to 400-mm zoom. The first is if a subject gets too close, I can always zoom out to catch it. The other is, well, primes that big are hugely expensive. As it is, my zoom would have cost more new than my camera — significantly more. I bought it used, at half price, and it still cost $750.00!

The important detail concerning lenses is the aperture rating, specifically, how wide the lens can open. That determines how much light it can let in to strike the sensor, and how “fast” it is. I used to think a fast lens acquired focus faster. That’s not the case at all. A fast lens means you can shoot clearer, sharper photos in lower light. The aperture rating tells you how fast the glass is or how wide it can open.

For instance, my 50-mm prime has an aperture, or f/stop, of 1.8, and my zoom has an f/stop range of 4.5 to 5.6. The weird part of aperture ratings is lower is better. A 1 is open a lot wider than 22. It seems backwards, but there it is.

DSLRs Versus Other Camera Types

Point-n-shoot. So far, I’ve only discussed DSLRs. That’s because that’s what I know. I haven’t shot a point-n-shoot in years, the same for a bridge camera (one with the zoom built in). Point-n-shoots are great for family events, but too limited for creative photography.

Bridge. When I was experimenting with a bridge camera, I found it too slow for wildlife shots. That was over 10 years ago, to be fair, and I’m sure the technology has solved that problem. It hasn’t solved the problem that I’m not familiar with their controls. That’s okay; I am familiar with a DSLR’s controls.

Mirrorless. I’m told that the new kid on the block, Mirrorless cameras are phenomenal for waterfowl and flight shots. The price tag for an entire new rig, will keep me from trying one any time soon.

Cell phone. And yes, cell phone cameras are incredible in their photo quality. I’ve actually shot “hanging-quality” photos with my cell phone, like the sunrise landscape here. I snapped that on the morning of the dawn eclipse last summer to send to my wife while I waited for the main event. Ironically, that was the best shot of the morning, thanks to a horizon hugging bank of clouds obscuring the eclipse. However, cell phone cameras are designed more for snapshots and portraits (especially selfies). They’re more limited in the creative department than a DSLR. Still, if that’s what you have at the moment, it’s the right camera for the job.

Next time we’ll discuss shooting trash. For now, let’s just say it’s okay to shoot some trash. What are you shooting with these days? I’d love to hear about it!

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Penn. Follow him on Instagram at Andrew Weidman Photography or on Facebook at Andrew Weidman.

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