THE WILD SIDE

Shooting Wildlife with Limited Resources

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Allan Pudlitzke, Photographer / Writer

Is it possible to take wildlife photography seriously while only equipped with a standard kit lens? From my recent experience, it works well for some things, but falls drastically short on others.

First off, wildlife is in fact that, wild. Being that this is the case, these animals have keen protective instincts and any sort of prey animal will be long gone before you can get close enough to have a shot with an identifiable creature in it. Unless you have world-class ninja feet that can step silently through twigs, gravel and grass, you are likely going to scare your subject off before you can get your itchy finger on the shutter button. So how can you make the best of limited-range equipment?

Just to immerse myself into the wild on a cold, wet and rainy Washington fall, I jumped at the opportunity to see what I could do with a kit lens (Canon EF 28-135), as well as a limited telephoto lens (Canon EF L f/4 70-200 non IS). With limited range on the kit lens, with no image stabilization on the telephoto, I am literally at the mercy of my surroundings with less than steady hands at a distance. I need to move close, and I need to keep my shutter speed fast.

Over the course of two days I visited a couple of locations to see what I could accomplish. On the first day I went out to shoot with the standard kit lens to see what I could capture. On the second day, I went strictly with the longer, less stabilized counterpart. To give you an idea of the experience I will dive into what I noticed about my surroundings as well as the equipment when attempting to take on the task.

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Photo by Allan Pudlitzke

Day One:

In the Northwest wildlife is very prevalent. We are mere hours from the ocean, valleys and mountains in all different directions. In some areas you may see bears, cougars, and other more ferocious wildlife, but for the most part you typically see lots of deer, birds and amphibians. Due to our first adventure being later in the day, outside of your prime deer spotting times (dawn and dusk), I was almost certain it was going to be a day filled with birds and bugs, and for the most part it was. My wife and I found a local wildlife refuge in Ridgefield, Washington, north of where we are located. There are several of these protected sites scattered across the Northwest, all of them seem to feature different animal life, and are large grass and wetland areas.

At the refuge the birds were incredibly active and bustling in the trees, chirping to one another and flying branch to branch. The trail was surrounded by long open meadows with chest high grass extending out for acres. We made our way down the path with the kit lens attached. Tons of great shots of birds were available, but frustratingly enough the limited range of the lens was a huge draw back for me. To get a decent shot of a blue jay or sparrow perched on a branch I needed to be within a few feet. As I would attempt to sneak closer and closer to the birds to get the shot, it was like they were playing a game of run and chase with me. It simply was not possible for me to keep up with the quick movements of the birds and at that point I began feeling a bit frustrated. However, because this was a test, I wanted to see what I could actually do before giving up on the idea completely.

We continued on our path and found a nice wetland. Just walking through the trail we found a small turtle hustling across our path to another location nearby. Frozen in fear, the turtle proceeded to play my model as I was excited to finally find something to shoot. As I got closer and closer the turtle began to tuck in its extremities more and more to the point it was just peeking out of the front of its shell.

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The kit lens was great for this as my subject was close and stationary. Clearly the turtle wasn’t going anywhere fast so I had the ability to get up close and comfortable. Nearby I also found a large frog that wasn’t so skeptical of me and stayed relatively still for a while. I was able to get a few shots before it decided it was done with my nonsense.

We continued on down the beaten path and I continued to struggle capturing any form of avian life whatsoever. At one point a huge hawk was perched on an old fence post in front of me but by the time I realized it was there, it was long gone in the tree line. We made our way back to the car but made great use of the kit lens shooting a few landscapes with the wildlife actively involved in the photo. I figured if all else failed, it would be possible to capture a flock of birds over the meadow with the widest angle of the kit lens.

Frog
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Frog

Photo by Allan Pudlitzke

Towards the end of the trail I was finally able to capture a blue jay perched on an old dead stump of a tree. I was probably 30 yards or so away from the bird on an elevated pathway. This was the closest I was able to get of any sort of bird photography for the day.

After the experience with the 28-135 lens we decided to call it a day. While it was a miserable failure for any sort of close up capture of birds or larger wildlife it worked great for getting creative by mixing the aspects of the wildlife and nature in a landscape. It was also beneficial for the close-ups of the less mobile animals. Becauwe the lens is more compact than most telephoto lenses, my back thanked me at the end of the day due to the limited weight of it attached to the camera. I was able to walk comfortably with the lens and still get satisfactory photos, keeping the trip from being a total waste of photography. That day, I decided I would go into our second trip a little more prepared in all aspects of the equipment and the surroundings to give myself to best opportunity to capture more exciting wildlife with the telephoto lens.

Bird

Photo by Allan Pudlitzke

Bird
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Day Two:

After doing a bit of research I decided getting up early would be the best bet for us to get in the action. We (the wife and I) started off down the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. If you are ever in the vicinity in the Pacific Northwest, a scenic drive down East Highway 14 in Washington will not disappoint… The drive is filled with wonderful scenic locations and you experience several variations in the geography as you clear the the mountainous pass into the plateaus and flatlands.

We continued out towards Stevenson and onto Old Highway 8, heading in a northerly direction towards Mount Adams. As we wound our way around Klickitat Canyon in the old Subaru, we got deeper and deeper into hunting area. Coming around a hairpin corner, my wife spotted a group of wild turkeys wandering out of a fenced-off hunting area out into the roadway. I figured this would be a great way to test out the capabilities of the telephoto in comparison to the kit lens used yesterday. The turkeys were actually pretty darn fast, but I caught a photo before they were out of sight.

We continued for another 20 miles or so through the canyon until hitting where the road turned gravel, so we decided it would be good to head back. After about 20 more minutes of driving we spotted our first black tail deer sleeping next to a fence line on the road. I parked the car about a hundred yards or so from the deer and grabbed my gear to see what kind of shots I could get. The focal length of the telephoto was a huge advantage with the timid doe. The lens allowed me to get much more personal with the animal without getting too close. I was able to shoot a few photos as I moved closer and closer before the deer became uncomfortable and bounded off.

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We made our way back down from the canyon road to Highway 14 once again. We arranged to stop off at one final refuge in Washougal (Stiegerwald Lake). The landscape of Stiegerwald Lake was very similar to that of the location in Ridgefield. With vast meadows of grass and large lakes it was just a bit larger than the Ridgefield location but seemed to be a better opportunity to see something.

One of our first encounters was with a group of mallard ducks floating downstream in a small creek about a mile up trail. I was able to ring off a few shots with the telephoto, capturing a female  mallard flapping its wings and cackling at me before continuing to float away with her group.

The trail took us over a small footbridge overpassing the previous stream. The bridge led us to another large lake running parallel with the stream. The lake was filled with mallard ducklings, turtles, and a large blue heron. Even though the subjects were at a bit of distance the lens began to pay dividends once again where the kit lens could not. I was able to get a bit closer to the subject with the lens, allowing me to be able to hang back at a comfortable distance for the animals.

Just around back and across the stream behind us, a doe and her fawn were nibbling on a blackberry bush. I snuck a bit off trail to get a shot but my bustling alerted them, and in no time I was spotted.

Continuing on our way back to the car I felt I needed to try and get some bird shots. I spotted a couple of Northern Flicker woodpeckers perched on the branches of an old tree. I was able to get a couple of decent shots at the maximum focal length of the lens and felt accomplished finally capturing a bird on a branch before finally heading back home.

While the kit lens and the telephoto lens in question are no where in the ballpark of similar quality and intended use I found that each had at least a strength and a weakness in the matter of wildlife photography. The EF 28-135mm worked really well for the wider shots such as the landscapes and was much easier to use in the lower light scenarios. The up-close shots were satisfactory when I could get close enough to the subject, however that was also its biggest drawback. I could not get close enough to anything interesting without scaring it. Maybe if I had camped out and intertwined myself with the surroundings for several hours or days I may have had an animal just happen to wander by.

The telephoto shined with the more active wildlife. I was able to stay just far enough away that I did not intrude the personal space of the deer or birds and got some close, high detail shots. The focal length was slightly problematic in low light, and the lack of image stabilization made shooting clear images on slower shutter speeds very difficult, although this could be mitigated with a monopod or bumping up the ISO.

All in all, getting out into nature and experiencing the wildlife was wonderful. I had not had much experience in wildlife photography prior to this so I took it as a challenge and ran with it. My advice on the matter is to be creative, think outside of the box, and do the best with the equipment you have until you can upgrade. Premium equipment will definitely make all the difference in this, but you can still learn while you progress to it and have a lot of fun along the way.

Get out, get shooting and get happy!

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