Want to get closer to wildlife with a wide-angle lens? Tom Mason has the answers...
Wildlife photography is often considered a game of long lenses, with big 500mm telephotos used to capture stunning close-ups and portraits. However, the most intriguing and interesting shots are often those taken with wide-angle lenses, placing the subject into context by adding habitat and a narrative to an image.
Master the basic approach
For wide-angle images, knowing when and where your subject is going to be is key. Working in a local patch is often the best way to get started, or with familiar subjects to aid in your attempts. Find out where they feed, perch and pass and this will help you to set up your images.
It's important to survey the scene - where is the animal going to appear in the frame and what’s the relationship between it and its background? Maybe it's a garden bird on a feeder or a seabird near a cliff. Look at the environmental features to work out the best viewpoint - think about whether the image would be a decent shot without the animal in it, making the subject the icing on the cake.
Just add remote triggers
In terms of kit, chances are you’ll already have most of it. A standard wide-angle like an 18-55mm is a solid option, as depth-of-field rather than faster apertures is what we’re after. For the best results, lenses with decent close focus are most well suited. I love my Nikon 20mm AF-S f/1.8, as its 20cm close focus makes it ideal for this type of shooting.
More specialist kit can be used when it comes to triggering the shot. Radio triggers are perfect for when you’re in position and watching, though if your subject is more elusive you might be better off with an infrared or laser trigger. This will allow you to remotely fire the camera when your subject passes through a specific location. However, this approach is far more involved and requires leaving gear unattended for long periods.
Radio triggers are available at a range of price points, from £15 to £300+. I use PocketWizards, simply because they’re reliable and built to last. Cheaper alternatives will, of course, do the job and are perfect for testing the water before investing heavily.
Set up and wait it out
Setting up a camera can take a bit of practice to perfect. Firstly, you need to work out your composition (based on where you think your subject will be) before setting the camera for the correct exposure. If lighting conditions are stable, manual mode is preferable, though when conditions are changeable, try working with auto ISO.
I find underexposing slightly works best to avoid clipped highlights, bringing them back up at the post-processing stage. Focus wise, you’ll be wanting to work manually, with a larger aperture of f/8 or more. Once focused, using a piece of gaffer tape to hold the zoom and focus rings in place can help them from slipping and ruining the shot.
Once you’ve set up your remote triggers, retreat from the camera and wait it out. This technique is great for the back garden, as from the comfort of your arm chair (and with a mug full of hot coffee) you can wait it out in style and still take some first-rate images of your local wildlife. Also, access to Wi-Fi means you could work with remote tethered shooting for even more of a tech happy approach.
So, get out there this month and work wide. Remote photography can be frustrating, but stick with it and in time you’ll get some unique shots.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.