Bald Eagle - Kachemak Bay, Alaska
The Perfect Wildlife Setup
by Weldon Lee (photos and text) 

            There has never been, and more than likely will never be, the perfect all-around combination of lens and camera body. However, when one’s priority is wildlife photography, there are a couple of combinations on today’s market that come pretty darn close. One that fits the bill is Nikon’s 80-400mm VR lens coupled to one of their fine, pro-level digital bodies. The other contender comes from Canon. It’s their 100-400mm IS lens along with one of their equally fine digital bodies.

            Looking for something to photograph hummingbirds in Arizona, Costa Rica, or Ecuador? Then look no further. Perhaps your quarry is lions and elephants in Botswana’s bushveld. Nothing could be more suitable. The low weight and portability of these setups is ideal for those wet landings in the Galapagos Islands.

            Judging from some of the equipment I see other photographers using in the field, I’m not alone in my beliefs. There are, however, a few items to consider.

Orca - Johnstone Straight
British Columbia
Spirit Bear - Princess Royal Island
British Columbia

The Perfect Setup - Important Considerations

            My setup consists of a Nikon D2xs body and a Nikkor 80-400mm VR lens. The only additional lenses found in my Lowepro Micro Trekker are a wide angle and a macro lens. A couple of polarizers (52mm, 70mm), plus an assortment of flash equipment complete my equipment needs.

            What, no tripod? Thanks to the vibration reduction feature of this lens and the camera’s ability of allowing me to change ISOs on a frame-by-frame basis (if and when necessary, which in turn gives me faster shutter speeds), I’m now able to hand hold my camera when photographing wildlife.

            For years I’ve preached on the evils encountered when one fails to use a tripod; I now find myself eating those very words. There’s no question that an occasional composition pays the price. Nevertheless, the increased mobility afforded me through hand holding my camera allows me to capture images that I only dreamed about prior to digital photography; and fortunately, only a very small percentage of my images suffer as a result of this newly acquired technique.

            Today’s digital cameras feature bells and whistles out the kazoo. Some are very important while others fall into the nice-to-have category. Unfortunately, a few individuals whose passion is wildlife photography fail to consider a couple of the more important features when selecting digital equipment for the first time.

Magnification factor. This should be first and foremost on every wildlife photographer's list of considerations. A picture angle producing the 35mm equivalent of 1.5x, or better, is preferred; anything less and you’re being cheated out of addition working power.

            My Nikon D2x features a 2x magnification factor. Wow! Talk about reaching out and touching someone. That transforms my little 3–pound VR lens into an 800mm bazooka.

            Having said that, if you're eyes are set on one of Nikon's recently introduced D800 bodies, featuring a 36.3 mp sensor, you're in an entirely new ball game. You can do a heck of a lot of cropping on images produced with this setup and still have quality images large enough to fill a bill board.

Buffer. Next in importance is the camera’s buffer. Once the shutter has been depressed, it takes a certain amount of time for an image to be transferred to the CompactFlash card. My D2xs has a 32 frame capacity when shooting in JPEG Fine prior to them being transferred to the CompactFlash card. This temporary storage capacity is known as buffer.

            Once the buffer is full, I must wait until my camera has cleared enough space before taking another image. In practical terms, I can hold the shutter down and fire off a 32-frame burst before having to wait. Unfortunately, some camera bodies are limited to a 5 or 6 frame buffer. Although this “wait time” is measured in seconds, when photographing wildlife, a couple of seconds can often mean the difference between getting that great shot and going home empty handed.

Frames per second. Last but not least, the more frames-per-second your camera can capture, the better are your chances of capturing those small nuances that can make the difference between a throwaway and a winner. This is where my older D1x body with 3 frames-per-second fell short. A camera featuring 8 to 10 frames-per-second would be much better. My D2xs comes in at 8 frames per second.

Megapixels.  The quest for more megapixels is blown way out of proportion and is, for the most part, created by the manufacturers.

            The primary reason behind wanting more megapixels is to produce huge prints. So, what’s the largest print that can be produced from today’s pro-level digital cameras? The best answer to this question I ever heard was “Bigger that you can afford!”

            I’ve had 20”x30” prints made from an image shot at ISO 800 look better than anything I’ve ever seen produced from a 35mm transparency. How can this be? It’s the result of digital interpolation features found in today’s printers and camera bodies.

            If you’re planning on doing major image cropping, then more pixels makes sense. However, we never did a lot of cropping when shooting 35mm slides. Our goal back then was to produce the final image in the viewfinder. Nowadays, it seems like everyone wants digital images to equal those produced by large format cameras. If that’s the case, why were they not shooting 4x5 field cameras, or even 8x10s for that matter? Digital images produced by today’s pro-level digital cameras far exceed anything made with 35mm film cameras.

JPEG or Raw.  Much to the surprise of many, I shoot in JPEG Fine format. Sure, there are those out there that shoot in Raw. Their reasoning: it gives them more control over their images. I can produce practically the same results in Photoshop that they achieve with their Raw files. Sure, it takes me a little longer, but I do not have to make those changes on every image. In fact, I seldom have to make any changes to my images. Unfortunately, those who shoot in Raw cannot say this.

            My reasons for shooting in JPEG Fine are quite simple: Smaller images files do not fill up my camera's buffer as fast and this is a major advantage when photographing wildlife. Full buffers equal no shooting. No shooting means lost photo opportunities.

            So why does anyone shoot in Raw? It’s my belief many do it because they believe that JPEG is for beginners.

Ideal for travel.  If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know by now that lighter is better. My entire setup barely tips the scales at 10-pounds.

            Airport security checkpoints are a breeze. Everything goes through the x-ray machines. Finding room in overhead bins is never a problem, even on the smaller commuter airlines.

Booted Racket-tail - Tandayapa Valley
Ecuador

Conclusion

            My Nikon setup is without equal in Alaska or off the coast in British Columbia where subjects range from brown bears and bald eagles, to puffins, orcas, or even Spirit Bears, for that matter. Below zero temperatures has never been a problem during Yellowstone’s frigid winters when my viewfinder is filled with snow-encrusted bison.

            Did I mention Florida’s wading birds, elephant seals along the California coast, or wild horses roaming the American west? Nothing could be better suited when it comes to photographing Nature's crown jewels in Ecuador's cloud forest.

            The only drawback that one could possibly experience is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in their shutter release finger as a result of taking thousands of images.

            Once you try Nikon’s 80-400mm VR lens or Canon’s 100-400mm IS lens combined with one of their digital bodies, you too will be convinced that this combination comes closest to being The Perfect Wildlife Setup.

Brown - Lake Clark National Park
Alaska
Wild Horse - Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation
South Dakota
You have to EXPERIENCE IT . . .
to BELIEVE IT!