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In a similar vein to the
macro post, here’s some thoughts on wildlife photography.

Q1: What lenses do I need?

This is a tricky issue. If you are just going to have one lens, then a good telephoto zoom is probably ideal. If you’re prepared to have several lenses, than a mix of good telephoto zooms and primes makes more sense. The merit of a long telephoto prime is that it delivers optimal sharpness at the long end. Zooms have more compromises. Something has to give somewhere.

In the days of film, a lot of wildlife photographers had a 70-200/2.8 zoom and a 300mm or 400mm prime. Teleconverters were included as another way to increase focal length.

Surely having the longest telephoto I can get makes the most sense?

No, not always. The wildlife photographer Cal Singletary for instance, recommended "Buy the sharpest lens you can, that’s what makes your picture". His longest lens was a 400mm prime (on APS format, that gives the same angle-of-view as a 267mm lens).

This is roughly where I sit. The lens you get has to deliver images that are sharp at least at a 300mm focal length. More is better, but for wildlife shots, 300mm should be regarded as the minimum. If you’ve got the reach all the way to 500mm or more, but your images aren’t sharp enough, that extra reach isn’t worth it.

One of the issues you have to grapple with is that wildlife photography isn’t just about taking photos on safari. There can be a lot of instances where the line-of-sight is obstructed or shorter than African savannah. Photographing tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea doesn’t need a 600mm lens.

Q2: So how the heck did film wildlife-photographers get those excellent images?

By getting closer.

They understood the behaviour of the animals they were targeting. And they used tricks like blinds, lures and calls to get up close. Sadly, such techniques seem to be ebbing in popularity.

Now it’s not always possible to get up close. I don’t recommend getting up close to large carnivores. There a super telephoto makes a lot more sense.

Q3: Teleconverters- yes or no?

Yes, a good teleconverter is a light and compact way to add focal length. For that reason, wildlife photographers hauling gear around like to have them.

But, they should be the best teleconverters you can get. And note that the sharpness of the image will take a hit. As a rule of thumb, a 1.4x TC won’t have a serious impact on photos. But a 2x TC will start to noticeably degrade the image. So you will need the sharpest possible lens to begin with and the best TC you can get. Going above 2x isn’t a prudent way to capture sharp images…

Q4: I’ve got myself a super-telephoto (500/4 say) and I’m disappointed, is something wrong with the lens?

Probably not. The technique to get a good super-telephoto shot is different to other telephoto shots.
You’ve got a much narrower angle of view. That’s okay for large animals but makes searching for smaller animals trickier.

Also, that extra focal length will exacerbate any motion in the camera or lens. So plan on using a tripod. That means a good tripod and a good tripod-head.

And this means building up experience with this combination is important. Techniques that worked okay with a 200mm lens don’t extrapolate seamlessly to a 500mm lens.

Q5: Do you use super-telephotos?

No, not anymore. Having lighter gear means I can go deeper into wilderness areas and I usually work on ways to get closer. This is probably aided by the fact that my usual habitats have short lines-of-sight and lots of cover.

It also makes travel more convenient. By sticking to (sharp) long telephotos I escape the need for tripods and heavy lenses. It’s kind of funny going to spots in Asia and realising that everybody with the super-telephotos and tripods, aren’t found more than 100m away from the car-park.

I am however, waiting on Sony to see whether the new 500mm super telephoto will suit me.

So does that mean I shouldn’t get a super-telephoto?

Depends on you. There are some kinds of shots that you can only get with a super-telephoto. In which case, it will be the appropriate solution. But having a lot of gear (heavy lenses, tripods etc) to carry around may hinder you get other types of wildlife shots.

So if you understand the pros and cons, that the subjects you want to photograph do not suit a ‘blind’ technique or similar, then don’t let me stop you.

OTOH, if you think wildlife photography is just a matter of slapping on the longest lens you can find and wandering aimlessly in a wilderness area, then maybe it’s time to think about the issue a bit more.

Q6: What should I get for the Sony Alpha system?

Okay, if I was starting from scratch here would be my preferred kits.

First, for the single lens solution I would get the Sony 70-400 G SSM lens. Now, it is going to be a bit too slow for some action-type shots but you get the combination of IQ and focal length you need. You could dabble with the 70-300 G but it’s not going to be as versatile as you would need.

Second, for a mobile kit I’d get a 70-200/2.8 with an older Minolta 300/4 G and a 1.4x TC.

Third, my portable kit would be the 70-200/2.8 G with the 300/2.8 G and the 1.4x and 2x TC. This has a good combination of IQ, speed and reach.

Fourth- my heavy kit would be the 70-200/2.8 G with the 300/2.8 and ‘promised’ 500 G Sony super-telephoto. The 500 could be replaced with the older Minolta 600/4, but I think the SSM function of the 500 will provide a better tracking function. I’d keep the 1.4x TC with this also.

I’d only get the 500/8 reflex lens if I already had a G telephoto.

Q7: Any other tips?

First, be safe. Big carnivores may regard you as a soft, pink tasty-snack. And just because you don’t intend to harm a venomous snake or doe with her fawns, doesn’t mean they will leave you alone. If they see you as a threat, then you may be attacked. Don’t take your inspiration for wildlife interaction from the Disney channel.

Second, know when not to take a shot. Ideally, your behaviour should not disturb or threaten wildlife. Case in point, I avoided taking a shot of an endangered loris in Yunnan because I didn’t want to blast the nocturnal primate with my flash.

Third, try to get something interesting. I get totally uninspired by seeing ‘the crocodile on the riverbank’ shot. Often the best wildlife shots are those where the animal is exhibiting behaviour that is rarely captured by others.