I have enjoyed doing both landscape and wildlife photography extensively and wanted to offer my thoughts as to some important differences for anyone that might be trying to decide which one to do.
Way back on family trips, I would somehow wind up taking us to areas where we might see bears, deer, moose or just about anything else that was out there. It was always fun seeing who could spot what in the distance. I’m not a hunter, but I really did enjoy the “hunt” for wildlife and the next logical step was wildlife photography.
I was aware of landscape photography, but had just become laser focused on wildlife and only dabbled in taking an occasional landscape photograph.
Good wildlife photography is going to require a large lens. I traveled to many places carrying a Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens. A sturdy tripod equipped with a Wimberly (or similar) head was required. The use of a 1.4x teleconverter came in handy. It is a heavy setup to carry around, but necessary. Trying to do wildlife photography with just a 100-400mm zoom lens will severely limit your options.
For landscape photography, there is much less weight to carry. If you have lenses from the super wide 14mm to telephoto 200mm, you are pretty much good to go. These lenses also cost significantly less than the big glass for wildlife.
A Difference in Planning
I cover much of the planning for landscape photography in the Planning A Photography Trip article. Wildlife does have some differences.
The first priority is to determine the best locations to photograph whatever critter you are interested in. There are many resources both online and in print. National Geographic has a great Field Guide for Birds of North America, for example.
I quickly learned that I needed to go to places where the wildlife is more habituated to people and doesn’t run off when they see you. I also quickly figured out that I didn’t want to go hiking through the woods with a heavy setup for hours hoping to find an animal. I could see this wasn’t going to be productive and probably not very safe.
Some of the National Parks are a great place to get started with wildlife photography. Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Denali and Great Smoky Mountains are four that come to mind. After a little research for top spots, it can just be a matter of lots of driving around all day.
Photo workshops can be a great way to get to some special locations. To get to locations in Alaska to photograph grizzly bears, for example, I joined a workshop that had chartered a boat for the group. I could not have gotten there on my own otherwise.
Thoughts On Shooting Wildlife
If I was driving around on the “hunt”, I always kept my camera as ready as possible. If it wasn’t in the seat next to me to shoot out the window, it would be attached to the tripod with legs extended in the back of the SUV. It would be set on ISO 400 at the lowest f-stop for the lens. The time you might have to get the shot can sometimes be measured in seconds.
If the wildlife is stationary, I would immediately begin thinking about where I should stand to have the best background coupled with where I should stand to obtain the best composition, hopefully with it looking at me. It is a delicate balance.
If the wildlife is moving, as in the moose is walking, you need to resist the urge to shoot where it presently is and instead figure out where it is going to be. If you stop and shoot where it presently is, you are probably going to be shooting it’s tail end by the time you get out and set up.
Set your focus point in your camera where it will be on the animal’s eye, which can vary depending on what the animal is doing. I generally try to have the animal left-center or right-center, walking into the frame.
Pay attention to the feet, particularly with bears. It looks better to have the front foot closest to you in the air in mid-step. Adjust your camera height to the wildlife to try to be at their eye level. This may mean crawling on your belly for a bird at the beach, but it makes a huge difference.
Thoughts on Shooting Landscapes
The “hunt” for images is just as involved as it is for wildlife. When you are scouting, you just have to be willing to stop the car, get out, walk around and survey the scene. I never found an interesting composition from the car. I often carry a camera just to take some handheld test shots that I can look at later and decide if I want to go back.
About the only fixed rule that I have is that I need to have a really good idea of where the tripod is going to go when I head out in the pre-dawn darkness. That is generally not a good time to search for compositions. The sun comes up quick and it’s over.
Everyone has a different style and is looking to shoot different types of scenes. Maybe it is a big scene or one with a strong foreground element or a small abstract scene. Shoot it all as much as you can and learn what you like and what you would want to put on your own walls at home.
It’s really about what you have fun doing, makes you happy and makes you want to get out of bed two hours before sunrise. I have loved every minute of it, whether shooting or scouting.
I had a great deal of fun with wildlife photography and have tremendous memories from it. Although I am doing mostly landscape photography now, I love the larger range of locations to shoot.