Saturday 16 September 2017

Wildlife Photography & Backpacking

Red deer stag. Sony NEX 7 with 16-50mm E lens, 1/125 @ f8, ISO 400. Cropped.

Encountering wildlife is one of the joys of backpacking and hiking. Often all we catch are glimpses – an eagle high in the sky, an otter slipping into the water, an owl skimming past the tent – but sometimes there are longer, clearer views – a herd of deer grazing on a hillside, a heron fishing, a snow bunting hopping round a summit in hope of crumbs from your lunch. Over the years I’ve seen all these, some many times, and many more creatures including bears, wolves, moose and bison on walks outside the UK. 

Bison in Yellowstone National Park. Canon EOS 350D with 80-200mm lens. 1/500 @ f8. ISO 200.
Whilst seeing wildlife is an integral part of backpacking it’s not easy to take successful photographs of animals and birds. Wildlife photography requires patience and staying in one place for long periods watching and waiting. Big heavy telephoto lenses and specialist equipment like hides and remote camera triggers are standard equipment. Backpackers only stay in one place for long overnight and don’t carry the big lenses or other equipment unless wildlife photography is the main aim of the trip.
The full picture from which the one at the head of this piece was cropped.

Now I’m not a wildlife photographer. But I do take wildlife photos when the opportunity arises and over the years I’ve learnt various ways to improve the quality of these that may be of use or at least of interest to others. These photos are all opportunistic in that I didn’t set out to find the animals and birds nor did I spend time stalking them. Indeed, I think it best not to approach or scare creatures. Many have a harsh enough life anyway. If I can’t take a decent photo from a distance then I don’t bother. That said, as I’ll show below, a photo that doesn’t appear that good as the subject is rather small can often be cropped with surprisingly good results. Also, showing an animal in its habitat rather than as a close-up is often interesting.

Heron in the River Annan. Canon EOS 450D with EF-S 55-250mm lens. 1/1000 @ f5.6. ISO 800
I think the best cameras for backpackers are lightweight ones with sensors smaller than full frame, which is a sensor the same size as a frame of 35mm film. The cameras I use have the next size below full frame, known as APS-C. These cameras also have a great advantage for wildlife photography because telephoto lenses can be much lighter for the same equivalent focal length than full frame ones due to what’s known as the crop factor, which means that less of the image is recorded on the sensor so it appears larger. (A good explanation of this can be found here). Now the focal length of a lens doesn’t change when it’s used on different cameras. However as full frame is often regarded as the norm (because 35mm film really was) the focal length is often given as the 35mm equivalent. Thus my Sony E 55-210mm lens when used on my APS-C sensor cameras is equivalent to an 82.5-315mm lens on a full frame camera. There are similar lightweight telephoto zoom lenses for other APS-C cameras. 

Pheasant in the snow. Sony NEX 6 with 55-210mm lens. 1/320 @ f8. ISO 800.
 An alternative I haven’t used could be a ‘bridge’ camera, which is a camera with a smaller sensor than APS-C and a fixed zoom lens with a huge range, up to 2000mm equivalent. The ones with the biggest range are quite heavy but you don’t need to carry different lenses.

The 55-210 weighs 379 grams, which is light enough to carry on most trips. On walks where I’ll be carrying many days food or water I don’t take it though and just use my 16-50mm (24-75 35mm equivalent), knowing I won’t get some shots and may have to crop some drastically.

Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm E lens & 1.7x tele conversion lens.
Recently I’ve bought a Sony 1.7x tele conversion lens (second-hand as it’s a discontinued model) which turns the long end of my 55-210mm lens into a 535.5mm 35mm equivalent telephoto lens. Although not designed for the 55-210 the tele conversion lens fits fine with a step-ring. Once in place I then use the lens as normal. It weighs 243 grams with the required step-up ring though so I probably won’t take it on more than overnight trips. From the shots I’ve taken so far the image quality looks about the same as crops from 210mm images but it has advantages for composition and focusing. 

Sparrowhawk. Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm lens & 1.7x tele conversion lens. 1/640 @ f6.3. ISO 400.
Wildlife photographers generally use heavy tripods to support their big lenses. The few backpackers who carry tripods, like me, use small lightweight ones. These will just support lightweight tele lenses like my 55-210mm. Most wildlife encounters take place whilst walking anyway and don’t allow time for setting up a tripod. There’s usually no time for getting camera gear out of the pack either. Having it to hand can make a difference between getting or missing a picture. Except in heavy rain I have my camera gear in accessible pouches slung across my body or in stretchy pack side pockets. If you use trekking poles there are various camera attachments that clip onto the handles that can make a difference, as shown in my picture of the bison. In camp shelters make good hides and I often have my camera on a tripod in the doorway.

Practising wildlife (and other photography) is always wise. I try out new lenses photographing wildlife in my garden, usually on the feeders. Red squirrels make subjects. They're rarely still for long and they're very entertaining! I can watch them for hours with the pretense that I'm practising photography.

Red squirrel. Sony NEX 7. 1/400 @ f6.3. ISO 400

Here are some more full size photos and crops with technical information. All were shot as raw files and processed in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. They were taken over quite a few years, hence the change from Canon to Sony cameras. All the cameras are APS-C. To find the 35mm equivalent focal length the Canon lens focal lengths should be multiplied by 1.6, the Sony by 1.5.

Mallard, River Spey. Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm lens. 1/250 @ f8.ISO 100
Crop from above

Great spotted woodpecker feeding young. Sony NEX 7 with 55-210mm lens. 1/320 @ f7.1. ISO 400

Crop from above

Red deer stag. Canon EOS 450D with 55-250mm lens. 1/320 @ f5.6. ISO 400.

Crop from above

Ptarmigan in winter plumage. Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens. 1/250 @ f8. ISO 100.

Cairngorm reindeer. Semi-domesticated these reindeer are relatively tame and quite easy to photograph. Canon EOS 450D with 18-55mm lens. 1/30 @ f5.6. ISO 400.

Cairngorm reindeer. Sony NEX 7 with Sony E 30mm lens. 1/160 @ f8. ISO 100.

Fire salamander. Sony a6000 with 16-50mm lens. 1/50 @ f5.6. ISO 800

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