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Tips & Tricks

Wildlife Photography: What Gear Do You Really Need? {Deer Hunter Series Part 1}

By Max Bridge on January 30th 2015

I have a little obsession with shooting the deer in my local park (Richmond Park, London). It’s one of the ways I started in photography and not to sound too cheesy, but it has a lot of meaning to me because of that. Sometimes when I go, I bump into other photographers with multiple cameras, mounted with huge expensive lenses. Then there’s me with my Canon 5d mk II and 70-200mm f2.8. That’s a pretty nice combination for portraits, which is what I mainly use it for, but definitely not ideal for shooting wildlife.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually one of those rare photographers who will tell you that gear is important. However, with this article I want to show you that you can push the boundaries a little so long as you plan things out. Of course, if you have the money, go and buy the longest, most expensive lens you can and couple it with an equally amazing camera body. Hey, if we’re going down that route, buy two bodies and a shorter lens for more environmental shots. Realistically though, most of us cannot afford to do that. 

[REWIND: TIPS ON HUNTING WILDLIFE WITH A CAMERA WITH CHARLES GLATZER]

Wildlife Photography Camera

If all you want to shoot is wildlife, get a camera with a cropped sensor. The crop factor will mean that lenses you mount will effectively reach further, or give you a more narrow field of view, than they would on full frame bodies. For instance, I used to shoot with a Canon 7D (not the new MK II version) coupled with a 200mm Pentax lens. When mounted on the 7D, that 200mm lens effectively became a 320mm lens due to the crop factor of the camera.

If anyone is interested, the lens in question was a Pentax Takumar 200mm f3.5 which I used with some annoying adaptor that was supposed to tell me when the shot was in focus. Needless to say, it never worked very well but I got by. In fact, with that setup I took what I still consider one of my best wildlife photographs.

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Lenses For Wildlife Photography

When shooting wildlife, the longer your lens the better. With a long lens, you can stay further away from your subject and therefore, have less chance of scaring them off (or getting hurt), which is why a cropped framed camera makes sense. The typical advice would be to go for something 300mm or above. I do not disagree with that advice, but depending on what you’re shooting, you can get away with a shorter lens.

I’ve used anything from that old Pentax lens (made in 1958) to a Sigma 70-200 and Canon 70-200mm f4. I think that depending on your subject, you can definitely get away with a 200mm. The great thing is it forces you to be creative and learn your subject.

Tripod

Tripods are very useful; I bring one on every single outing. That being said, I didn’t always and you can get away with not having one, although this will depend on what lens you’re using. The longer the lens, the faster your shutter speed will need to be, not to mention the stronger you will need to be to hold the thing.

I use a Giottos MTL 9361 B with a decent ball head attached. Again, this is not the conventional setup for nature photography, but I make it work. I need this kit for shooting my portraits and until I can afford a nice long lens etc. so I will continue to make it work.

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Wildlife Photography Gear Summary

You just read that correctly. I gave the most basic gear advice ever! You will need a camera, a long lens (200mm plus) and maybe a tripod. 

I value equipment and the benefits it can bring. Somebody with a nice long lens mounted on a crop frame camera, along with another camera with a shorter lens has a distinct advantage. Does that mean you can’t take wildlife photos with a shorter lens, or portraits because you’ve not got some ludicrously expensive medium format camera? No, it does not. In fact, it will force you to be more creative.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that, while gear is important, it’s not the be all and end all. You can get by and take amazing photographs with relatively inexpensive gear, or simply using what you’ve already got.   

Boring Stuff Done

As much as I love gear, I think most of us do, I find it very boring talking about it. So now the boring stuff is done, let’s get to the interesting bit. How on earth do I shoot wildlife without a £3000 lens, £2500 camera and £500 tripod? The key is to know the boundaries of your gear and know your subjects.

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Know Your Wildlife Photography Gear

If you saw an amazing bird in flight shot and  wanted to imitate it with your full frame camera and 70-200mm lens, you’re going to have a tough time. You will waste hours, maybe even weeks slowly approaching birds only to watch them fly away. You may never get your shot. So unless you have a very long lens or a lot of time to waste, you should probably stay away from birds.

By all means, go to a local pond where the birds are more accustomed to people and snap away. But imitating that amazing shot of a rare bird in its natural habitat is not gonna happen! Don’t put yourself through that pain. The local pond is not a bad idea though. Here’s one I got some time ago.

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Know Your Subjects

So your gear is aimed toward portraits. You bought it to catch photos of family and friends or maybe you’re like me and are setting up a portrait business, but cannot afford more lenses and cameras. If you still have the urge to go out and shoot wildlife, then my biggest tip for you is to know your subject!

Why do I shoot the deer in Richmond Park? Firstly, they’re big. Secondly, they’re not easily spooked as the park is often filled with people. Finally, I’ve lived around that park for 27 years and know them very well. I know where they will be, when they will be there, dangerous times of the year, when rutting season is, when they have their babies, when they can get defensive, etc. By using all of that knowledge, I’m able to get shots like these working within the limitations of my kit.

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The One That Got Away

There’s so much to consider with wildlife photography that it would of course be impossible for me to fit it all into this fairly short article. Well, at the moment, I’m on a mission to re-capture an old image and will be documenting my progress as well as giving some useful tips on photographing wildlife / deer in subsequent articles.

If you’ve been a photographer for some time, I don’t care what genre, you will have had a “one that got away moment.” Moments are fleeting and photography attempts to capture those moments. By its very nature we’re going to have lots of moments that slip through our fingers, but hopefully as you become more skilled, those moments will happen less and less.

For me, one of those moments was truly amazing, but due to my inexperience, the images I captured are not of the technical standard which I strive for. The image in question was 1 ½ – 2 stops underexposed and, worst of all, soft. I saved the image in the edit, but given that same opportunity today, I know I could do much better.

You’ve already seen the photo, but here it is again. A pretty rare moment, but something which hopefully I’ll be able to capture again, or at least get some nice photos along the way.

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I hope you enjoyed this article. If you’ve got any questions or examples of your own “one that got away” moments, pop them in the comments below.

About the Guest Contributor

Max Bridge began his career within the film industry, starting as a Runner and ending as a 2nd AC (assistant cameraman). Max worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, he left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

 You can find Max on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and his website.

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Orlin Nikolov

    Amazing images and quite interesting atricle

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  2. Tosh Cuellar

    Stunning images, the Stag crossing the river and the Doe with the bird on the nose are beautiful. Some good tips in their too, particularly the one about knowing your subject. Great Article.

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks Tosh! Sorry for the late reply to your comment. I think knowing your subject is probably THE most important thing, next to camera technique of course. No use knowing your subject if they’re always soft and underexposed.

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  3. Rafael Steffen

    For Wildlife Photography you need a 400mm lens or a 300mm f2.8 or a F4.

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  4. Ralph Hightower

    Great article. I live out in the country, so deer are also a danger to driving. Several years ago one July afternoon, our dogs were making a racket. I went outside to see what the ruckus was about and there was a buck running up and down the fence. Our Beagles were following that deer. At one point the buck stopped and faced the fence and our Beagles on the other side; I thought “You don’t want to jump the fence. I don’t want to you to jump the fence!” Fortunately, the buck didn’t. I didn’t think about getting my camera.
    Last month, I saw one deer cross the front yard to the neighbors, then another. I grabbed one of my cameras (the full-frame DSLR, the others are film) and went outside. Three deer were cavorting in the front yard before crossing the road. All I got was an out of focus of the rear end, the white tail.

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    • Max Bridge

      Hi Ralph. Thanks for sharing your story! Deer can certainly be dangerous, especially if they feel threatened. Even in the environment which I shoot, where the deer are more used to the presence of people, I am always conscious of the danger they can present. One of my follow up articles will be dedicated to safety. I’m glad that you and your Beagles were unharmed from that encounter and thanks again for sharing your story

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  5. Lauri Hytti

    I must say I didn’t go to bushy park too many times for photographs, just like you, Richmond Park was closer and hence morning laziness usually took me there instead of Bushy. In many ways it’s similar, maybe a bit more manageable as its smaller, plus it has some nice ponds and trees, but lacks the hills that traps that oh so lovely mist. But definitely worth checking out for morning photo excursions. Looking forward to reading next part of the series.

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    • Max Bridge

      It’s hard enough to get up early sometimes. If it’s a choice between one location and another the closer one almost always wins, especially given that Richmond Park is so good. Still, I’ll definitely give it a go one day.

      Thanks for the reply Lauri

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  6. Lauri Hytti

    Lovely photos with great mood Max. I must say Richmond park and bushy park are possibly the best places on earth to photograph deer. Miss living right close by to that place. People should really pop by there during their visit to London on an autumn misty morning.

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    • Max Bridge

      Thank you Lauri, I appreciate that.

      I’ve been to Bushy Park so many times but I’ve never gone to photograph the Deer. I suppose I’m a little lazy given that Richmond Park is that little bit closer to me. Do you have a preference or like them both for different reasons?

      If people are interested in heading to Richmond Park then this series will cover lots of info both generally about photographing larger animals with minimal gear but also specifically about the Deer of Richmond Park; where to find them, when is best to go, methods of approaching them etc.

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  7. Arnold Ziffel

    Awesome shots Max. Some really, really fine subjects too.

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  8. Brian Stalter

    I find that teleconverters on a 70-200 do a decent job of helping, even if they do reduce image quality a bit.

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    • Max Bridge

      I can’t say I’ve ever used them before Brian but I imagine, in the right circumstances, teleconverters would be a big help and wouldn’t break the bank.

      My trouble with them is that I’m usually up far before sunrise and can be shooting in very low light. Loosing one or two stops to the converter is just not possible in those conditions. I personally never go above ISO 1600 on my 5d mk II and don’t even like shooting at that. If you’ve got a camera that can handle high ISO better than they could be a great option. Although I cannot speak in terms of the IQ loss or effect on AF.

      Thanks for commenting

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  9. aaron febbo

    Ive seen that photo before but can’t remember where. I remember being just as impressed then as i am now! Cant put my finger on it but it just has so much character ! Very well done and same as you i still use a lot of old m42 mount lenses on my 5D one of which is the pentax takumar 200mm f4 !

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Aaron, Thanks for the compliment! If you watch Phlearn you may have seen the image there, it won one of their photo competitions. Other than that, you would have to be one of the few people who have actually visited my blog.

      I don’t use the m42 lenses any more but used to have quite a few. I used them mostly for video and they were great for that. From memory I think they’ve risen in price since I used them.

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  10. Greg Silver

    I’ll break the mold here a bit and say that I shoot wildlife with a mirrorless camera and a 18-105mm f/4 lens.

    Would a longer lens help? Yes at times but I do love the challenge of the shots. I also like the portability of a smaller lens/camera that usually doesn’t require a tripod.

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    • Max Bridge

      Wow Greg that must be challenging! Thanks so much for commenting though, you precisely demonstrate my point. Nature photography can be done with what would be technically considered unconventional gear, but you do need to get creative.

      I assume that you don’t shoot BIF (birds in flight) and generally go for larger animals?

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    • Greg Silver

      Right – not so much birds (just once and awhile). But yes mainly larger animals (although safety does become a concern with shorter lenses).

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  11. Basit Zargar

    awesome

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  12. Michael Old

    I recently went out to shoot some eagles with a D7100 and a Tamron 70-200 f/2.8, needless to say I was a little disappointed with most of my results as they just weren’t big enough in the frame.
    I am now seriously looking for a long focal length prime lens that doesn’t require me to sell a body part.

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    • Max Bridge

      Ha ha Micheal. I know exactly how you feel! That’s why I started off using that 200mm lens made in 1958, it cost about £70.

      If you have your heart set on birds then definitely the longer the better when it comes to lens choice. Although if you just wanna go out and shoot some wildlife your setup could work just fine for certain places.

      Find a nature reserve or national park where the animals are a little larger and more used to people and you’ll be fine. It will still be easier with a longer lens but you could get by. Research the animals though, especially if they could be dangerous, as you will still need to get pretty close.

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    • Rieshawn Williams

      How are you liking the D7100?

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    • Matthew Saville

      If the D7100 had the improved 24 MP DX sensor that the D3300 has, it’d be a wildlife photographer’s dream camera what with the added 1.2x crop mode and 12-bit lossy RAW compression for added buffer depth.

      With the D7200 on the horizon, I’m holding my breath.

      I’ll be reviewing the new Nikon 300mm f/4 soon, on a D750, to see how it fairs at hummingbird photography and other things. Should be interesting to compare it against, say, a more budget-friendly setup such as a D7100 and a Tamron 70-200!

      =Matt=

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    • Michael Old

      @Rieshawn – I am liking it very much.

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    • Michael Old

      @Matt – Any chance you could compare the old 300mm f/4 to the new one?
      From what I have heard the old 300mm f/4 is a very good lens, but the new version is supposed to be better, maybe enough that I will wait a bit to save up more that the new one.

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  13. John Cavan

    Okay, that shot of the stag crossing the creek/river there is gorgeous.

    Nice tips, have you consider the use of monopod instead of a tripod? Little less weight to cart and might be good option for a newcomer who can’t afford a better tripod (and I’ll never advise someone to go cheap there).

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey John,

      Thanks for commenting and for praising the Stag shot. I really do love that shot and I know photography is not about perfection but I find soft focus hard to forgive, unless intentional. As I mentioned in the article I saved that shot in post, embracing it’s lack of sharpness, but I would love a second go at it.

      Monopod is definitely not a bad idea but not necessarily needed if your only shooting with a 200mm lens. Go any longer (with a longer lens or cropped body) and depending on what shutter speed your using it begins to become a necessity.

      I like the tripod as it gives me the flexibility to shoot other things; long exposures, panoramas, HDR etc. However a monopod would definitely be nice for longer walks!

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