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Ian Andrews Backyard Safari Part 4

Ian Andrews Backyard Safari Part 4 - In part four of our beginners guide to nature photography Ian Andrews looks at what can be achieved using specialist lenses.

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Animals / Wildlife

In the three previous articles on local nature photography we have looked at the basic camera and lens types that can be used to good effect. If this has got your interest roused, you might have found a more specialized interest and want to get some more suitable gear. Here we look at dedicated lenses that fall into ultra telephoto and macro ranges.

This is the area where the compact cameras of the point & shoot variety that use film start to get left behind. Despite the claims of some to have super zoom ranges, the telephoto end is rarely longer than 140mm. Digital compacts do have a much wider range, but beware of ones where the super magnification is achieved by ‘digital’ zooming. This is better done in dedicated software on a computer than in the camera, so we will ignore that route here. The close-up facility on film compact cameras also show limitations, as they rarely go better than a 1:3 ratio and you need to get very close for that. So really, we are looking at SLR systems with interchangeable lenses or one of the new breed of digital compacts that also have superior macro features.


Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on Buddleia. 1/250sec at f/5.6 handheld 28-80mm Zoom Macro lens. The tips of the wings and feelers are out of focus. A change to f/8 and 1/125sec would have produced a better result.

Kingfisher on a perch.
Kingfisher on a perch. 1/90sec at f/8 Sigma SD9 on beanbag from a hide. 170-500mm lens at 500mm.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on Buddleia

Macro Lenses
True Macro lenses produce a 1:1 ratio or better. That is an image on the film/sensor the same size as the subject. For the practical uses we are discussing, we can also include lenses with a ratio of 1:2 or half life size, as something like a butterfly will not fit on the frame at 1:1 although a hoverfly or bee may well do.

As well as the reproduction ratio, the other consideration is focal length. The longer this is, the further you can be from the subject and still fill the frame. Macro lenses are available in focal lengths from 50mm through to about 200mm. Many are a fixed focal length or ‘Prime’ lenses although some manufacturers do make zoom macros. The biggest disadvantage of all these lenses is the restricted depth-of-field at close range, which means you need to stop down the aperture as much as possible to achieve sharp pictures on any subject more than a few millimeters deep.

The advantages are that they are normally very sharp and have a number of uses beyond that of pure close-up work. The most popular lengths, between 85mm and 105mm, are a handy size for portrait work and do well as a high quality short telephoto in other situations.

Cinnebar Moth Caterpillar
Cinnebar Moth Caterpillar. 105mm Macro. 1/90sec at f8. Handheld with one elbow on the ground. The background is out of focus cliff and sky and made it worth getting down on the ground for.

Long Telephoto Lenses
Variously known as ultra- telephoto lenses, superzooms, hyperzooms etc, these are lenses that have a focal length over 300mm. Ranging up to 800mm and, in some very specialized cases, even longer, these chunks of glass are the most useful pieces of kit to the dedicated wildlife photographer. If your main interest is in birds, they are almost essential.

Long telephotos enable you to work at a distance from the subject and still achieve frame filling pictures. They allow you to keep out of sight, such as in a hide, and still get close enough to get good quality photographs. Long lenses will also drive you nuts as you try to overcome their biggest disadvantage, camera shake! As they magnify the image, they also magnify the slightest shake or vibration so a high shutter speed is very desirable and is more easily achieved with a fast lens. (Wide aperture/low f number). Against this, the longer and faster they are, the bigger, heavier and more unwieldy they become!

American Bald Eagle (Alaska)
American Bald Eagle (Alaska). 1/750sec at f/5.6 handheld and manual focus allowing the bird to fly into the focus point. 500mm. Exposure set to +1/2 stop.

Bits in between
With both of the above extremes, it is possible to place similar looking attachments between the camera and the lens to achieve the desired results. Although superficially looking the same, the two attachments I am referring to do totally different jobs. Extension tubes, available in sets or individually, are fitted between the camera and lens to enable closer focusing distances. They are cheaper than a dedicated macro lens but can be fiddly to use and need to be taken off for general photography. At the other end of the scale are focal length (tele) converters. Normally available in 1.4x and 2x magnifications, although some 1.7x and 3x are available, they have advantages and disadvantages and people either love them or hate them. The main advantage being an increase in focal length without the large increase in weight, bulk and cost. Disadvantages include loss of light (typically 1 to 2 stops) and loss of optical quality.

Subjects at extremes
You may have found out more about your chosen subject matter during your experiments with the standard equipment discussed in the earlier parts of this series. The idea of upgrading your equipment to more specialized gear is to improve the quality of the pictures you are getting and perhaps to get photos that you could see, but not quite get with the standard stuff. This will present you with a new set of problems above those you have faced earlier.

Opportunist grab shot. 1/180sec at f/6.7. 28-80 zoom macro.

Practice with your new gear to find out any vagaries it may have. You will find that you need slower shutter speeds with macro lenses than you imagined to get the depth-of-field required, so make sure you have the ability to keep the camera still. Use a cable release, remote release or the self timer if the subject allows, because even the movement induced by pressing the shutter button can cause blur with these extreme lenses.

With the longer lenses, shutter speeds need to be as fast as possible. A good rule of thumb is to try and achieve a shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length of the lens in use. (i.e. 1/500sec for 500mm) Check out your camera’s ability at higher ISOs or load faster film to increase shutter speeds with subjects that are not static.

Always carry a tripod/monopod/beanbag. Big Glass will have a tripod bush on the lens itself, so make sure you have a spare quick release plate for that so you can fit it on your tripod without lots of fiddling.

Now is the time to do a little research. Look up the life cycle of your subject, be it flora or fauna. Check out any known behavior patterns and plan ahead. Visit sites on a regular basis to get specimens in their best possible condition. Try and give yourself the greatest chance of capturing the shot you have in mind. Watch out for distracting backgrounds and try to avoid them. Carry a piece of black cloth in your camera bag as this can be draped over a nearby bush as a backdrop. Also a bit of white card can be used as a small reflector.

Yellow Russula Fungus. ½sec at f/19 to get the whole cap in focus. 105mm Macro on tripod with a small reflector throwing light back under cap.

Yellow Russula Fungus

I started of this series suggesting ways of looking for wildlife on your doorstep. Now that you know where to find it, don’t stop looking. You next have to look for new and innovative ways of photographing it. You have the kit and know how to use it. The last bit should only take you the rest of your life! Have fun!!

The photographs here were all taken on a Sigma SD9 which has a 35mm equivalent conversion factor of 1.7x. Therefore 500mm equates to 850mm on a 35mm Camera.

Words & Pictures copyright
Ian Andrews

View other articles from this series here
Backyard Safari Part 1 - a brief introduction
Backyard Safari Part 2 - using standard lenses
Backyard Safari Part 3 - using telephoto lenses

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