Wideangle lenses are most commonly associated with landscapes, while telephotos are not the first choice for close-ups unless, of course, you use a little imagination
Wideangle for wildlife
Work on a local project
Stay close to home (or near your place of work) and turn your shoot into a long-term project. You’ll develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of both your subject and its environment, and staying local means you can more readily react to favourable weather conditions.
Include a point of reference
Where possible consider including a recognisable point of reference such as a building, monument or beauty spot to provide a strong sense of context. Whilst separation between subject and landmark is desirable, it is not always necessary for the landmark to be in sharp focus if its shape is recognisable.
Treat this approach to wildlife photography in a similar way to landscape photography, with the foreground interest being provided by the wildlife subject. Good light, use of shadows, and compositional aids such as strong lead-in lines can enhance your work. Inclusion of seasonal references such as fallen leaves, snow or mist/fog can really add to the story.
Explore urban environments
With bold colours, reflective materials and strong, geometric patterns, towns and cities are exciting places to photograph wildlife in. The wildlife is often more habituated to humans, making them easier to work with without causing distress, and there is also the opportunity to record how your subject interacts with human day-to-day life.
Wildlife is nearly always best photographed at eye level to provide a more intimate connection between the subject and viewer. This requires the camera to be placed on/near to the ground, a task made much easier with the latest cameras that usually have foldout screens.
Experiment with flash
A flash can be used to provide fill-in light, helping your subject to stand out against the backdrop. It can also be used to create a pleasing catchlight in the eye, preventing the subject from appearing lifeless. Although more tricky, it’s worth experimenting with off-camera flash to create enhanced lighting effects.
If there is a strong connection between your subject and its environment it’s not always necessary or desirable to fill the frame. Keeping the subject small in the frame will allow you to show its environment and will give the animal/bird space to breathe. It can also be used to enhance the suggestion of ‘remoteness’ and ‘solitude’.
As with telephoto wildlife photography, capturing a moment of unique behaviour can really elevate your images. There are benefits to working with wider focal lengths because interactions between animals often take up more space than a static pose. You can also seek to include interaction between your subject and its environment.
- Wideangle lens The foreshortening effect created by using ultra-wide focal lengths can add impact to your photography. What’s more, wideangle lenses are usually lightweight and compact.
- Flashgun A flashgun is useful in low-light conditions to complement natural light or to provide a little fill-in during the day. You’ll need to pair it with a trigger and receivers if you want to try off-camera flash.
- Beanbag When working low to the ground with a wideangle lens it’s often necessary to react quickly to changing conditions and moving subjects. I find that a beanbag provides excellent support and is easier to shuffle about than a tripod.
Matthew Cattell is an award-winning outdoor photographer with a passion for promoting the natural world through his photography, which covers everything from panoramic vistas to small details, and aspects of animal behaviour.
Please note: It’s never acceptable to cause distress to your subject whilst in pursuit of a photograph – this is particularly important when working with wildlife and wideangle lenses.
Telephoto for macro
The magnification of a telephoto is great for isolating detail. You can achieve frame-filling close-ups with oodles of impact. By cropping in tightly to a small sliver of your subject, you can remove context and create abstract- looking results. Study the world around you closely, and crop in tightly to highlight colour, shape and form.
Use a fast shutter speed
To eliminate shake when using a telephoto, select a suitably fast shutter. I would recommend using the ‘1/focal length’ shutter speed rule – for example, if using a 300mm lens, select a shutter speed upwards of 1/300sec. If you are using a cropped sensor, remember to first multiply your focal length by the crop factor to provide the focal length in 35mm terms. Also, switch on lens or camera stabilisation.
Work further away
While a macro lens is the obvious choice for shooting insects, a longer telephoto will allow you to work further away from the subject. This will minimise the risk of disturbing nervy subjects, and maximise your chances of success. Most modern telephotos have a useful short minimum focusing distance in the region of 1-2m and a reproduction ratio of 1:2 or 1:4 life-size, which is ideal. If your telephoto lens doesn’t focus close enough – or you wish to achieve a ‘true macro’ magnification of 1:1 – attach an auto extension tube.
Support will be needed
Longer lenses are harder to use handheld owing to their bulk and weight, and your movement will appear exaggerated at higher magnifications. Therefore, support your lens whenever possible. A tripod is the obvious aid, but for low-level work (when photographing wild flowers or reptiles, for example) use a beanbag (or crumpled up fleece/hoodie) to stabilise your set-up.
Use manual focus
When using a telephoto for close-ups, depth of field will be wafer-thin, meaning there is absolutely no leeway for error when focusing. Manual focus is often most precise. And with some lenses, the minimum focusing distance decreases slightly when you switch to manual, meaning you can get closer to your subject and increase magnification. If you are able to use a tripod, focus via live view for added accuracy.
Try a different shooting angle
Telephotos have a narrower field of view than short length lenses, and this is a big bonus when shooting close-ups. As the lens is ‘seeing’ less of the background, it is far easier to change or improve the look or colour of your subject’s backdrop by simply altering your shooting angle ever so slightly. Try for yourself.
Keep backgrounds simple
Telephotos don’t just provide a more generous camera- to-subject working distance, but they also provide better background blur – or bokeh. Longer focal lengths have more limited depth of field, so distracting background clutter will quickly be reduced to an attractive blur (at large and mid-range apertures). This will help keep your shots simple and help your subject ‘pop’ from its surroundings.
Consider increasing ISO
To help generate a suitably fast shutter speed, you may need to increase ISO. You could do this manually or consider auto ISO. In auto ISO, the camera will adjust sensitivity automatically to maintain the shutter speed you desire relative to the light. For example, if you don’t want your shutter to fall below, say, 1/500sec, select shutter priority mode and dial-in this speed – the camera will do the rest. When using auto ISO, I recommend selecting a maximum sensitivity to ensure ISO doesn’t rise too high and noticeably degrade image quality. For example, if you are comfortable with your camera’s ISO performance up to ISO 6400, enter this as your upper limit.
- Teleconverter Teleconverters are great accessories for close-ups, increasing the effective focal length, yet retaining the same minimum focusing distance. Image quality is reduced slightly, and they will reduce the maximum speed of your lens by up to two stops.
- Auto extension tubes Auto extension tubes are hollow rings that fit between the camera and lens. They reduce the lens’s minimum focusing distance, thereby increasing the lens’s maximum magnification.
- Beanbag For ground-level work, a beanbag is arguably the best accessory for supporting and stabilising longer lenses. They are quick and easy to position; will dampen any vibrations; and will help you to remain nice and steady.
Ross Hoddinott is one of the UK’s leading landscape and natural history photographers. He is the author of several books, and a multi-award winner. Ross lives in Cornwall, and is a popular and experienced tutor. He is also a Manfrotto Ambassador and Nikon Alumni.
Lensbaby for arty effects
Tilt the Spark
Although the Lensbaby lends itself to keeping your main subject in the centre of the frame and surrounding it with blur, you can also produce some great effects by tilting the Lensbaby Spark, so the ‘sweet spot’ is moved towards the edge of the frame. Be gentle though – it only takes a slight shift to move that point, so if you’re heavy-handed you’ll struggle to get the effect you want.
Practice makes perfect
The idea behind the Lensbaby is that it replaces your normal camera lens and allows you to experiment with creating artistic images where one part of the image is sharp while everything else is blurred and out of focus. They’re fairly easy to use, and great fun too, but like most things photographic, you do need to practise a bit to get the hang of things.
Keep it simple
Stick to simple, bold and colourful subjects – if the composition is too cluttered, the final image will be messy and confusing. In sunny weather, shoot from a low viewpoint to capture your subject against the sky. The Lensbaby effect also works well on backlit subjects.
Try different modes, including manual
There’s no electronic contact between the Lensbaby and your camera so it’s recommended that you set your camera to manual exposure mode. However, you can shoot in aperture priority, shutter priority and program mode as well. Just be aware that in contrasty conditions you may need to use a fair amount of exposure comp to gain an accurate exposure.
- Lensbaby Try the ‘Spark’, which has a fixed f/5.6 aperture plus a focal length of 50mm. Or the Creative Bokeh Spark, which has a fixed f/2.5 aperture and can be fitted with shaped discs to change the bokeh. See lensbaby.com.
- Toy camera lens A cheaper alternative to the Lensbaby is a toy camera lens for your DSLR. Holga lenses in common mounts such as Canon and Nikon cost around £20 (wexphotovideo.com). Diana lenses are pricier at £39 (lomography.com).
- Pinhole ‘lens’ Why not try your hand at digital pinhole photography by replacing your normal lens with a pinhole body cap that acts as both lens and aperture? See Pinhole Solutions pinholesolutions.co.uk.
Lee Frost is one of the UK’s best-known travel and landscape photographers, selling his images internationally through leading picture libraries. He’s also a prolific author on the art and craft of photography and leads photo workshops and tours around the world.