Of all the things there are to photograph I find animals, birds and insects the most satisfying and the most difficult. They almost never do what you want them to and are most likely to do whatever you least expect. The best way to photograph animals is in the wild but I am also always up for a trip to the zoo. In the old days it was very difficult to get decent photos at the zoo because there was always wire netting or bars of a cage in the background. These days zoos have improved considerably and the habitats can look almost natural if you point your camera carefully.
The storks (top right), although not strictly 'in the wild' were, I suppose you could argue, in their natural habitat. The family has taken up residence on the church tower in a small village near Seville in southern Spain. The villagers have got quite used to them over the years and now consider that they bring luck to the village.
When photographing animals you need a lot of patience, they either do nothing for long periods of time or they are so hyperactive that you can't keep them in the viewfinder. What you need to do is study the animal for a while and try to predict their next move. Birds will often follow a definite flight path so, if you can work out what it is, you can just wait until they fly past a certain point. I usually switch to manual focus when photographing birds as the auto focus can often end up trying to focus on the empty sky.
Animals, especially in the wild do not let you get very close to them so an essential piece of kit for photographing animals is a long lens preferably a zoom. I use a 75-300mm zoom and, more often than not, I end up using it at the 300mm end. Ideally I would like a 500mm lens but good ones cost quite a lot of money and you really need to use it on a tripod. The general rule of thumb for hand holding without camera shake is to use a shutter speed greater than 1 divided by the focal length of the lens. So a 500mm lens should be used at shutter speeds greater than 1/500th of a second.
With this in mind it's also a good idea to choose clothing that will help you blend in with your surroundings. I found when photographing these turtles in the river that, as I approached, they would all dive into the water for cover but, if I stood still, the brave ones would be back sunbathing within five or ten minutes.
The penguins and the sea lion were shot at the zoo (still saving for that trip to the Antarctic) which gives you a better chance because it's more difficult for them to get away from you. If you're going on a photo session to the zoo get there as early as possible for three reasons. The light will be better than shooting in the middle of the day, the lower the sun is in the sky the kinder the shadows are and the color of the sunlight is warmer. There will be less people getting in your way, and finally the animals are usually more active. In the afternoons on a sunny day they tend to skulk in the shadows and take a nap, so do I if I get the chance.
One lens I did splash out on recently was a Tamron 90mm macro which I used for the photo below. I found this little guy in a friend's garden and he sat there for quite a while and let me take a few photos. Insects don't seem to be aware of you unless you make sudden movements, I remember reading somewhere that they only see moving objects with their honeycomb eyes. Still objects or slow moving (therefore not threatening) ones go undetected. It's interesting to see a wasp so close up, I knew they had hairy legs but who knew they had such hairy bodies?
The biggest problem when photographing something so small is getting it all in focus. As you can see here not everything is in focus. Depth of field is very shallow indeed so you need to use the smallest aperture you can. Set the camera to shutter priority and set the shutter speed to the slowest speed that will not show camera shake (with a 90mm lens this will be 1/100sec). This will ensure that the camera selects the smallest aperture possible for the lighting conditions. Also you need to pay attention where you focus, you don't want to focus on the nearest point as this will waste some of your precious depth of field, you can afford to assume that some of the object that is nearer to the lens than the point of focus will be sharp. However, things in the foreground that are out of focus look bad whereas things in the background that are out of focus are more acceptable. The answer, as always, is to take more than one shot and vary the point of focus. A chance to set the camera to manual focus and try your hand at the ancient art of focusing the camera yourself, frightening stuff!
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