The last deer I harvested fell to a well-placed arrow and traveled scant yards before falling.
As always, bringing home lean, wild meat was satisfying, although some of the satisfaction waned as I dragged the deer from the woodlot and across a large field to my truck. The doe seemed to grow exponentially as I toted it.
Thanks to a decision to swap camera gear for a treestand, I not only had a supply of tasty venison, but a sore back, too.
Nowadays, I probably spend more hours recording animal behaviors with my photography gear than I do hunting. Besides being a second source of income, it’s a hobby that has become a serious rival to my other outdoor passions. That’s because some of my photography takes place in wildlife refuge utopias where many undisturbed animals abound.
I’ve been at the photography game for a long time. Early on, I carried film cameras with standard, short lenses to record hunting and fishing action and trophies caught and killed. Some of these images were developed at home in a closet dark room.
The idea of seriously pursuing wildlife imagery wasn’t a hard consideration as the ultra-long lenses needed for admission into the craft were way beyond my meager purchasing power back then. The wildlife photography itch continued to nag me for years before I finally plunked down a heavy chunk of money for a Nikon 300/f2.8 professional lens and a 40 percent extender attachment, which transformed the 300mm lens into a viable 420mm/f4 wildlife lens.
Lenses are designated with f-stop numbers. The smaller the number, the greater the aperture and light gathering ability. Generally, f2.8 lenses are the fastest. Most serious wildlife shooters don’t consider buying glass slower than f5.6.
In 2007, I begrudgingly bought my first digital SLR camera, a Nikon D300. I was convinced that digital imagery was a fad but decided to jump into it on a test basis. In those days, grain-free films like ISO 64 produced richer and more detailed images than digital.
ISO is a measurement of film speed. Basically, the lower the film’s ISO number, the greater the image detail. The downside is that slow films need long shutter times or bright light and a solid tripod to record tack-sharp images. Conversely, the higher the number, like 800, undesirable grain will be apparent, but faster action can be recorded, a real boon for those capturing sports or animals.
It didn’t take me long to ascertain that my new digital beast could produce stellar pictures at a whopping ISO 640. Along with my new long glass, the camera opened a door to capturing fast-happening animal behaviors.
I’m frequently asked about getting started in wildlife capture. The first questions generally hover around requisite gear, and subsequent questions are almost always about technique and locations.
The most vital part of a set-up is not the camera. It’s the lens. If you’re gonna invest money in a wildlife/birding outfit, put most of it into your long lens. The camera is just a box with a sensor, and many entry-level camera bodies have more than adequate light-gathering sensors.
Thanks to head-spinning technological advances, lens producers now offer some darn sharp glass at reasonable prices. For wildlife capture, you’ll want at least a 400mm focal length.
Yes, you can crop an image to zoom in on a tiny bird, but the resulting image can end up grainy, like an old high-speed film shot. Better to use longer glass and crop little or get closer to your subject.
Also, get a tripod, the very best you can afford, because it will be your constant companion.
This brings us to technique. Getting close, but not too close as to unduly disturb your subject, is paramount to attaining full-frame, crisp shots. To that end, I advise getting suited up in head-to-toe camo, including a face mask, and/or situating yourself in a ground blind like turkey hunters use to hide themselves from wily gobblers’ sharp eyes.
Obviously, you’ll need critters to photograph. The best place to begin may be in your backyard, capturing local bird and squirrel life. City and national parks, and even zoos, are great places to see and capture animals. Most importantly, if you’re after a specific species, do as much research as possible on the animal’s biology and habits before venturing afield.
Speaking of research, make sure you read your camera’s manual — all of it — until the controls and menus are second nature.
In photography, quality of light is king. The first and last two hours of daylight are always the best for wildlife imagery as that light creates interesting shadows and warmth. If you decide to dive into wildlife photography, be careful. It can be just as addicting as hunting.
As one of my photog pals quips, it’s a lot easier to tote a camera full of deer images from of a woodlot than dragging a 200-pound buck. For many, the satisfaction can be the same.