Shooting Wildlife in the Head

Marine Corps Scout Sniper, Carlos Hathcock, Photographed in Vietnam

Marine Corps Scout Sniper, Carlos Hathcock, Photographed in Vietnam

This article was originally written exclusively for Northrup Photo and accepted for publication. Unfortunately, if you’ve followed my recent posts, you know they recently dropped their blog format. I am now able to publish this article on my platform for the benefit of my 400+ personal followers. Hopefully you will find it entertaining and maybe even helpful. I had fun writing it as it comes from kind of a quirky perspective. Feel free to comment, ask questions, and/or share if you’re so inclined. Note: all photos are of “wild” critters shot in their natural habitat (these are not captive animals). SFD

Shooting Wildlife in the Head. Not what you think. I am not a cold-blooded slayer of critters. However I do love the hunt if not the kill. What the heck am I talking about anyway? Wildlife photography is great because it gets you out into nature, and in that sense it’s healthy as well as fun. Being a good wildlife photographer is like being a good Marine sniper, in fact many of the same skills are involved.

Northern-crested Caracara photographed in Yucatan, Mexico

Northern-crested Caracara photographed in Yucatan, Mexico

To be a competent Marine sniper requires about 20% shooting ability, and about 80% fieldcraft. The sneak & creep is an essential part of the wildlife photography equation, if you can’t sneak up on it you can’t shoot it. The following tips assume a certain level of competency with your camera and lenses.

Brown Capuchin Monkey Photographed in the northern Amazon river basin (Cuyabeno, Ecuador)

Brown-faced Capuchin Monkey Photographed in the northern Amazon river basin (Cuyabeno, Ecuador)

The Weapon. Euphemistically this would be your camera choice. This is a controversial subject revolving around a full-frame versus crop-sensor. I like the full-frame option because of its low light performance, and I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Yeah, I know the autofocus is limited and 3 fps sucks. However, shooting at ISO 3200 with little digital noise really opens up some possibilities.

The Scope. My scope or lens is usually the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super-telephoto. It’s a prime lens. It’s “tack-sharp” even wide-open. It’s relatively lightweight with its modest f/5.6 aperture and lack of image stabilization. It’s affordable at $1,250 USD. I don’t think Nikon has an equivalent. My backup lens is a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM telephoto zoom lens. I’ve used third-party lenses in the past, and the Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Di VC AF telephoto zoom lens at $450 USD is exceptional (especially on a crop-sensor).

The Uniform. Camo or no camo. I’ve worn plenty of camo in my time. I’ll leave it up to you. I don’t wear it now and don’t seem to suffer any ill effects. I still don’t know if the critters really see color or not, but I tend to wear earth colors most of the time. Khaki and olive are big favorites, and they mix & match well if you’re trying to make a fashion statement. Footwear should be sturdy and comfortable, I opt for boots and not athletic shoes. A good hat is a must. In inclement weather dress accordingly.

The Equipment. Another controversial topic of discussion. Tripod versus handheld. I’ve done both. The big lenses like 500mm, 600mm and 800mm almost demand a tripod. They’re big and they’re heavy. I shoot handheld with my 400mm. I’m travelling the world and packing a tripod is almost impossible. I’m also shooting in jungles, rainforests and from unstable river pangas. I like the flexibility of shooting handheld. I will usually shoot at higher shutter speeds eliminating both motion blur and camera shake. For shooting in low light situations I will pack a Speedlight, usually the Canon 430 EX II. I pack it, I don’t often use it.

The Sneak & Creep. Fieldcraft. This is the fun part. No lens is long enough, and every wildlife photographer wants more reach. The solution is to get closer. Your two feet are your best zoom. The only time my 400mm was too much lens was in the Galapagos, and I was often forced back to my 70-200mm. That is rare. Most critters hear and see really good, better than we do. Slow is the operative word here. Critters see motion even if they don’t recognize colors, and they hear those twigs, leaves and branches crunching beneath your feet. A slow quiet creep is required. They may see you, but if you’re not posing an obvious threat they will often let you approach. This takes practice. Take a shot, take a few slow steps, take another shot—repeat as necessary. Avoid a direct approach and avoid eye contact. Canon’s big L-lenses are white, some speculate that’s to keep them cooler. The problem is they present high contrast, and telegraph movement. If you’re going to use camo at all use it on your lens. The added benefit to your lens is protection from the elements. The Amazon and other jungle environments are wet and full of tangle roots. How close can you get? Sometimes you can get really close, and at other times not so close. It’s a skill that needs to be developed and practiced. I love getting frame filling animal portraits that give the viewer a level of detail rarely seen.

The Shot. Back to the Marine sniper. Slowly raise your camera and brace your shot if shooting handheld. Take a full breath and then release half of it. Slowly squeeze the shutter button, don’t jerk it. If done properly you will be surprised when the shot is fired. My Marine Corps marksmanship instructor had a rather colorful term for it that I won’t share here, but gentleness is the key. I am often shooting in low light situations in the jungles and rainforests and the critters love to roost out of the sun. I almost always shoot in shutter priority mode which forces my lens to stay wide-open. With a handheld 400mm lens I’m usually shooting at 1/1000s or faster depending on the animal’s movement. I use auto-ISO and my camera can easily handle ISOs up to 3200 without objectionable digital noise. I use a single center focus point, and aim for the eyes. Autofocus can be difficult in the jungle because there are usually a lot of branches and leaves getting in the way, but my old eyes just can’t handle manual focus anymore. Maybe yours can. Unless I’m photographing birds-in-flight I usually shoot single shot focusing at a continuous 3 fps. Yeah, I know its slow, and the 7D Mark II, 5D Mark III and 1Dx Mark II are all faster.

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot photographed in the northern Amazon river basin (Cuyabeno, Ecuador)

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot photographed in the northern Amazon river basin (Cuyabeno, Ecuador)

Wildlife photography is a lot of fun. You get the excitement of the hunt without the kill, unless you consider the image capture of your favorite critter to be a kill. It gets you out into nature and is a solitary activity. For an introvert like me that’s nirvana. The game is to see how close you can get. Sometimes that’s too close for comfort. I’ve been chased by moose in Alaska, had a large male howler monkey in Belize whack me in the head with a tree branch and I’ve been bitten twice by rattlesnakes. It’s all part of the fun and excitement.


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, World Traveller

Cusco, Peru


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.