Capturing wildlife with a telephoto lens is the technique of ‘traditional’ wildlife photography. It’s still commonplace and most certainly has its place, with many incredible photos taken using that approach. But put down your telephoto in exchange for a wide-angle lens and you’ll open the door to a whole new perspective with your wildlife photography.
It may seem challenging, and to some degree it is, but once you are used to the technique it is not necessarily more difficult than using a telephoto – the results, of course, are just different. My lens of choice for this was a Nikon 14mm f/2.8, although I have since sold it and replaced it with a Nikon 18-35mm lens. I preferred the flexibility of a zoom lens rather than a prime.
Equipment You’ll Need
Aside from your DSLR and a wide-angle lens, you’re going to need a few more pieces of equipment.
Joby Focus Gorillapod – This flexible tripod allows you to position your camera low to the ground in all sorts of terrains.
YongNuo Shutter Release – These wireless shutter releases are cheap and robust. They work over radio signals, meaning they don’t need line-of-sight to activate your camera’s trigger. They have a range of up to 100 meters too, allowing you to stand at a distance and remotely trigger your camera.
Setting Up Your Photo
Think about what you’re trying to achieve here. The advantage of the wide-angle lens is the ability to introduce the surroundings into your photo. You are able to document the animal and its environment simultaneously, something that isn’t always possible with a telephoto lens.
Positioning the camera as low to the ground as possible gives the unique perspective, and being below the eye-level of an subject makes the viewer feel smaller than the animal, turning our expectations of wildlife photography on its head.
You can see in the above image that I’ve chosen to include the woodland surroundings of this red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). To get the squirrel to come close to the camera, I placed some hazelnuts (one of their favorite foods) in front of the camera. You can do this for lots of different animals, but it is important to remain ethical with your photography and never use live bait. If you need to bait a carnivore, then you can collect road kill for scavengers.
Once you’ve found your position, it’s time to set your camera up for action. Connect the trigger and make sure it is working properly. Switch your camera to aperture priority mode, allowing the camera to adapt to changing light conditions – something you can’t do yourself once you’ve stepped away.
Make sure your focus is set to manual. You then can adjust the focus yourself, predicting where the animal will turn up. This is the tricky part, as any photo taken without the focus on the eyes will be headed for the bin. It’s really down to luck once you’ve set the focus, but fine-tuning this over time will help you get it right eventually.
Other Wide-angle Techniques
You don’t necessarily need to trigger your camera remotely. Some animals will let you get closer to them than others, particularly if they are used to human activity. Take a look at this image.
This was taken on a clifftop in a nature reserve frequented by people keen to catch a glimpse of puffins and the other species that live there. The birds were perfectly comfortable with me, allowing me to capture this. In hindsight, the lens I was using was a little too wide (14mm), so I cropped in a little to compose the shot properly.
You can also use a wide-angle lens during camera trapping. For this, you use flashes alongside an infrared beam to trip your camera (see here for more information on whether flash is harmful to wildlife). It’s a much more advanced technique but can bring great results with enough time and dedication.
Things to Consider
Naturally, a wide-angle lens is more intrusive on an animal whether you’re behind the camera directly or not. It’s important to consider the ethics of wildlife photography and make sure you are not disturbing an animal. You shouldn’t use a wide-angle lens at a nest as this is often stressful and can even result in an animal abandoning its young. With that in mind, forgo the telephoto next time and instead, get in close. You may find this is what you’ll need to separate your wildlife imagery from the rest.