Wildlife Photography—The Gear

It’s a marine circus out there! Common Dolphin in the Irish Sea.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of cruising is that it puts us in a position to encounter rare and attractive marine life in the wild in a way that is beyond the reach of shore bound observers. And that privilege gives you a great opportunity to make a photographic record for your wall at home, or to show your friends. But time and again, the results are a bitter disappointment—the colossal whale is just a distant blob, or the acrobatic dolphin a blurred splash—I should know. But there are many simple, practical ways in which you can really up the ‘aaaah!’ factor, and capture some truly memorable shots.

Go Large!

The first thing is to look at your camera. Compact cameras, no matter how good, are not designed for this type of use, and cannot compete with a good SLR or mirrorless camera with (at least) a couple of lenses. If that’s all you have, all is not lost, though, as some of the simple techniques that will be outlined in a coming chapter still apply. But for those of you who already have (or aspire to own) an interchangeable lens camera, let’s start with the kit.

Most of the big camera makers produce some really great gear. Canon and Nikon have control of most of the pro market, with a phenomenal range of lenses and other equipment to give you an edge, but at a price. Most of the other ‘name’ makers have their own ranges, and there are good quality lenses available to fit most makes from after-market firms like Sigma and Tokina, that can give big name lenses a run for their money at far less cost. The choice is yours, but remember that whichever make you choose it’s likely a long-term commitment, as changing from one maker to another will almost certainly mean changing your entire kit—at huge cost.

Choosing A Camera For The Job

Starting with the camera body, you’ll want one that allows you to manually override the Auto setting, where the camera makes all of the decisions for you. For much wildlife, especially fast moving animals like dolphins, you need to be able (at least) to set the camera up for shutter priority, to enable you to adjust the shutter speed to freeze the action. Most modern cameras can also be set up to take multiple frames per second, which can also be a way of getting ‘the shot’, although this is often more tricky than it looks.

Pro model cameras are generally very robust and have seals on all controls to keep moisture out, but even they are no more than splashproof. If you want to use the camera in all weathers you can improve moisture resistance with adhesive tape over joints, or even by putting the body and lens into a clear plastic bag with a hole cut in it for the lens to protrude through. Better yet, EWA Marine make some really nice rain capes to suit a variety of model and lens combinations. I’ve used these for years in all conditions, and have never damaged a camera as a result.

Lenses Are The Way To Go

A camera body is just a machine, though, and even the basic ones are pretty competent these days. If you have money to spend, then lenses offer more bangs per buck in terms of obtaining great images. For most purposes a couple of zooms that cover a moderate range of focal lengths are a good way to start. A really wide zoom (say 20-35mm) is a good lens for more than just wildlife work, being ideal for deck and crew shots, too. A longer zoom taking you from 70-200mm is an ideal lens for bringing the action closer to you, and is indispensable for capturing intimate detail with smaller creatures or birds. Many of the more recent lenses have Image Stabilisation (IS) that offers a huge benefit in terms of reducing the shakes with longer lenses, especially when there’s any sea running.

Will It Break The Bank?

It’s generally best to avoid budget zoom lenses with a huge range of focal lengths—many of them just cannot deliver at either end of their range. Ditto on spending a fortune on ultra fast pro lenses with front lens elements the size of soup plates; unless you’re built like King Kong the weight of these lenses makes it almost impossible to control the camera unless the sea is flat calm.

Finally, when considering what equipment to go for, it’s as well to realise that you don’t have to spend a fortune on new equipment, as there is a massive amount of great quality gear available second-hand at good prices. It’s true that image quality continues to improve, but many of the most recent benefits are only enjoyed in extreme conditions, such as very low light. Any relatively recent semi-pro model body with a couple of good quality zoom lenses is an excellent place to start. Time spent improving your technique with such a set-up will consistently deliver more great shots than just buying the latest and best pro model and trusting it to do the job for you—as we’ll see in a coming chapter.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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