It All Started with a 400mm

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I wanted to be a wildlife photographer in the worst way! Having been very fortunate to spend most of my youth in the great outdoors, watching such programs as Mutual of Omaha's 'Wild Kingdom' on TV, and being influenced by my older sister (who is an amazing artist), it just seemed that it was where I should be. But I was not even 20, with the limited funds and limited gear that comes with that age. My longest lens was a 200mm, and while I accomplished enough to get the “nice photo, you should become a photographer” comment from friends, it wasn’t good enough. More importantly, my photography wasn’t growing, and the fun was becoming frustration. The commitment had to be made—in for a penny, in for a pound!

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post from Moose Peterson

In the beginning, it was a Minolta SRT 202 that fueled my passion, but it was obvious it wasn’t going to cut it for wildlife photography. I started looking at the photos I admired, and what focal length seemed to be the most commonly used in creating them. It became obvious that 400mm was pretty much the focal length that most were taken with, so that’s what I set my mind on owning. With a lot of hard work, I was able to purchase a used Nikon F2 Photomic and a used Nikkor 400mm f/5.6 ED-IF, and for the next six years (and a few bodies later) that lens taught me the lessons that I still depend on today for photographing wildlife.

The first lesson I had to learn was that there were lessons to learn! This means that you have to admit you don’t know everything, and that failure is a major part of the process. Failure is only good when you learn from it, which requires sucking in your pride. At the time, I had no idea that this was a requirement to being a successful wildlife photographer. Life is pretty darn good at making you aware of things that otherwise go unnoticed. Here are the most important lessons that 400mm lens taught me in the beginning.

You Gotta Get Close

A common belief is that image size is directly proportional to focal length. That might be true in a camera store, but it doesn’t hold true out in the wilds. I learned very early on that my limited budget was going to hold me back only if I let it hold me back. If I wanted to get that image size I admired, I was going to have to get physically close. Now understand, because I didn’t know if the images I admired were straight out of the camera or cropped, I decided from the start that there would be no doubt with my own images. What you see is what I shot—for all my critters. I rely on that one magical trait in photography for image size and quality, craftsmanship.

So how do you get close to a critter? (Keep in mind that I wrote a 400-page book entitled Captured, to answer that question.) Let’s say you have a 70-300 or 80-400mm lens, which are both great lenses for starting out in wildlife photography these days. You see a photo of a subject the size of a tennis ball filling one quarter of the frame, taken with an 800mm lens. That would mean being about 22 feet away from the subject. To get the same image size with a 400mm lens, you would have to get about 11 feet away. Many would say it's impossible to get that close, but as we know from the photography out there, it's being done all the time. How do you get that close physically? With knowledge!

The first important lesson the 400mm taught me was that I had to combine biology with technology to be successful at wildlife photography! Critters have a basic biological script they depend on for their daily survival, from foraging to mating, breeding to migrating. While we truly don’t have all the answers to this biology, we have enough information to make really sound, educated guesses about behavior. That knowledge permits us on most occasions to “best guess” what a critter will do under certain stimulation, namely, our getting closer. 

It doesn't require PhD-level knowledge to get the image size we want. When approaching big game, for example, the ears will tell you so much. Where are they pointing? Are they twitching? Are they laying flat back against the head? Each position tells you a little about what is going through the critter’s mind. Is the bird hunched down? Did it just defecate? You see this, and it means the bird is feeling threatened—with a need to fly. All these are signs that tell you that you’re either doing things the right way, the wrong way, too fast or just right. How do you learn this? You read, you watch, and most importantly, you give yourself time to learn it all.

How can you learn more of these biological clues? The best is by simply getting out all the time, and watching. Most DSLR cameras have video. Shoot a video of the behavior you are seeing, and then come back home and research what it might mean. Watch nature programs on TV. Understand that many of them are nature fakes, but the critters still have a body language even under these conditions that can teach you a lot. Is there more? Yeah, remember that 400-page book I wrote? There is a lot more! Knowledge can add hundreds of millimeters to your lens while improving your photograph content. Expand the mind and it will expand your photos!

Make that Subject Pop!

It becomes obvious that unless you want to fill the frame with the eye of the subject (which is not my style of photography), getting on top of the subject is not a requirement. The subject doesn’t have to fill the frame for the viewer to see it. This is the next very important lesson that 400mm taught me, and one I still depend on to this day. This approach permits us to include more background, which tells the story about our subject. So if filling the frame with the subject isn’t mission critical, how do we smack the viewer right between the eyes with our subject? How is that seemingly impossible task accomplished?

To my good fortune, one of the important aspects of photography came to me in the beginning—color. And when it comes to critters—color contrast. Almost all photographers are familiar with exposure contrast, the play of lights and darks. We’re not talking about that here. We’re talking about the play of colors against each other. According to Wikipedia, “Contrast is the difference in luminance and/or color that makes an object (or its representation in an image or display) distinguishable.” Let me give you three examples of this, which you see every day.

There are three pairs of two-color combinations that the mind’s eye simply cannot ignore; it locks onto them like a heat seeking missile. They are used in everyday life, and you see them all the time. Give up? The first two-color combo is your corner stop sign—red and white. The next combo is found on the roadside caution signs you see all the time—yellow and black. The third combo is green and white, which is also used on road signs. The color contrast of these combinations makes them incredibly easy for our sight to lock onto, preventing us from missing them. This is color contrast at work, and it's a critical element to use in your critter photographs.

Here’s the rub to this: Critters in North America aren’t all that colorful. This makes this very important lesson of the 400mm even more difficult to use. I have a HUGE collection of lifelike stuffed animals that I started to gather when this lesson came to light. By taking these stuffed animals out and placing them on location in the great wilds and photographing them, I trained my eye to exploit the yellows against the greens, the browns against the blues, making the subject pop in the frame. At the same time, I learned how to make the subject blend into the frame for those “gotcha” moments which viewers so enjoy. I thought wildlife photography’s only requirement was simply to find the critters, yet that lens taught me there was so much more!

Backgrounds, Backgrounds, Backgrounds!

Probably the most important lesson I learned came the hardest. We use biology to get close, color contrast to make the subject pop, focal length and light to place the subject center stage. However, the background is what sets the stage. I think the most important role of a wildlife photographer is to be a storyteller, and the background tells the critter's story! That 400mm pounded that lesson into my head, and I am so grateful for that.

I call it "The Dance." Excluding elements that distract from the subject, and including those that point the eye to the subject. Another way I like to say this is...get close physically and isolate with optics. The narrow angle of view of our telephoto lenses permits us to make small moves vertically or horizontally which can totally change the story. It is true image manipulation, and the great storytellers use it all the time. Moving as little as an inch can completely change the background. It's a huge tool that all photographers should have in their bags!

As with all great lessons, there are many exceptions and possibilities, and that’s how we define our style. An example I like to use in talking about my own photography has to do with the mind’s eye. The number-one thing our mind’s eye goes to in a visual is light and bright. You place a golf ball on a football field and photograph the whole football field, and the eye will go zooming right to that golf ball, even though it's super small in the frame. That’s powerful knowledge, permitting you to make the most of your background, and not having to fill the frame with the subject.

When you combine biology, color contrast and strong background in you photograph, you can’t help but be successful. And when you do this over and over and over again, you just get better and better at it! You start to employ other techniques, like minimum or maximum DoF, flash fill, filters, shooting on the ground—just to mention a few. All these—and more—were lessons that the 400mm f/5.6 ED-IF lens helped me with, lessons that I still use today!

The Beauty Doesn’t End There!

Lessons are only as good as our employment of them! I recently added the new Nikon 800mm f/5.6 lens. The very sound of it makes some think that you can stand back a mile from the subject and see its eye. Such is not the case. Yes, it does produce a bigger image size than a 400mm at the same distance; however, the distance is up to you, not the lens! I added the 800mm so that I could manipulate the subject and background to a greater degree in camera; a lesson the 400mm taught me.

What lens did I get to replace the 400mm, after shooting with it for six years? The original Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 manual focus lens—which has always been my favorite focal length. How did I know that it was the right focal length for my style of wildlife photography? It all started with the 400mm.

If you own an iPad, you can pick up a free copy of Moose Peterson's book Photography FUNdamentals at this link.

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Moose,

Good comments.  My first " proper " big lens was a 400mm f3.5, and, after a while, I realised it was too short. The 600mm f4  manual focus was too heavy for motorsport, so, I ended up with a 500mm f4P ( the first Nikon 500mm lens with a chip). That lens was a nice weight, and easy to hand hold.

After a while, I realised the 500mm lens was too short, so, purchased an 800mm f5.6, which I still have.

I also purchased a 300mm f2.8 AF-S ( silent wave motor).

So, with 300mm f2.8 AF-S, 500mm F4 (now upgraded to AF-I model ), and 800mm f5.6, that's all I need. I would like the new 800mm f5.6 AF-S, but, as I am not shooting motor sport any more, I will pass on it.

Add the Nikon TC14E to the 300mm f2.8, and 500mm f4, I am covered for all focal lengths. I do have the TC17E ( its OK), and a TC20E ( that particular model wasn't any good). I understand the new TC20E MK xyz is OK. :-)

Amazing!

Your writing is interesting and informative. Your photos are just wonderful, and you are spurring me on to go for a 400mm lens. I have 2 zooms that go up to 300mm, and they are often not enough. What lens did you get?

Good Mornin',

I need some direction from experts like Y'all !

I have a 7 year old Canon EOS 30D with a bunch of different lenses and a camera housing for underwater photography.

What camera(s)  would you recommend with 16mpx or more that has the new technolgy for me ?

The new camera would need to be able to adapt to the underwater housing and I'm sure the lenses are interchangeable. If not could you please advise.

Thank you for lookin' into this for me. I have been to your store in NYC and drool everytime I walk in.  I definitely want your advice. Hopefully, I'll be able to upgrade through you and move into a newer and better product.

Anxiously awaiting your response.

Thanks,

Al 

What housing and lenses are you using? Chances are you'll need a new housing. If you could get one from the same company you should be able to use the same lens ports and accessories.