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Affordable Wildlife Photography

Most of the time you'll need a long lens to get good wildlife pictures. A top quality telephoto lens is expensive, but a new breed of digital camera, fitted with 12x, 24x, and even 50x "superzoom" lenses, is making wildlife photography much more affordable.

Of course you might occasionally be lucky and find a pride of lions or a leopard close enough to the road to use a standard lens (50mm) or short telephoto (80mm).

Generally though, wild animals are not that obliging. Your subject, say a group of zebra, could be 500m away. Looking through a good pair of binoculars, you can focus on each animal and clearly see the difference in stripe patterns and other fascinating details.

You want a record of this, so you grab your camera and take a couple of shots.

In the African bush, under a blue sky, and with the binocular view still in your mind, you don't even notice that the zebra only fill part of the frame and are not well positioned.

Only later, when your photographs are processed, is it obvious that the group was too far away to make a good picture. It's a record, but not what you saw through the binoculars and what you remember, so you'll likely be disappointed.

Picture of zebra through binoculars Picture of zebra without tele lens

If, instead of using a 35mm - 80mm zoom lens, you'd had a tele lens of around 300mm, you could have captured a close-up of the zebra's head with the natural bush providing a pleasing, out-of-focus background.

But a good 300mm lens, with a maximum aperture of F/4, is not cheap. A Canon lens of these specs, with image stabilisation, costs around $1,200.

An alternative is a 70mm - 300mm zoom, but here you will usually have a maximum aperture of F/5.6. This means shooting at a slower shutter speed and a greater chance of blurred pictures from camera shake.

Bear in mind also that these lenses, combined with your 35mm camera body, are fairly heavy and bulky.

A very satisfactory but underrated alternative to this traditional set-up is a digital camera with a powerful zoom lens.

Before upgrading to Canon digital SLR equipment, I used an Olympus C-2100 UZ digital camera. It's only a 2.1 megapixel camera, but has an excellent x10 zoom lens. This equates to a 38 - 380mm lens, plus it is image-stabilised, so allows hand-holding at slower shutter speeds.

Below is a picture of a baboon taken in the Kruger National Park. It's been reduced from 1600 x 1200 pixels to 400 x 300, but otherwise unretouched. The shutter speed was 1/320, aperture F/3.2 and the lens was zoomed to 317mm.

Picture of baboon resized

Here's a crop of the same picture, shown actual size.

Cropped pictue of baboon

There are a number of digicams available today with 24x or more zoom lenses, which at their maximum zoom range will give you about the magnification you'd get with a 600mm (or more) lens on a normal 35mm camera.

The advantages of these cameras are:

  • Big zoom range, allowing wide-angle scenic pictures, yet powerful enough to zoom in on more distant subjects. The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, for example, has an extraordinary 50x zoom lens, giving you the 35mm equivalent of a 24 - 1200mm lens!
  • Wide maximum aperture - usually around F/3.5 - that allows shooting in lower light at a shutter speed that minimises camera shake.
  • Affordable - you don't need to hock your belongings to buy one, as might be the case if you bought a 400mm F/4 lens (Canon's 400mm F/4 image-stabilised lens with Diffractive Optics will set you back about $5,000!).

Although Olympus originally provided the widest choice in this category of digital camera, many other manufacturers now offer similar models, proving just how popular these cameras have become.

New models appear so frequently that it's difficult to keep up to date. See these articles for more info on superzoom cameras:
Wildlife Cameras - the Super-Zoom Option
Top Superzoom Cameras for Wildlife.

Return to Photo Info page for more photography articles.

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