When you start with wildlife photography, it’s understandable at first to look at the longest lens. It’s an absolutely logical step – the animals are often shy and fickle little buggers. Next, it’s usually good to have a more universal lens around 70-200mm for images with an animal within its environment. If you like macro, then your gear naturally consists of a lens most fit for your type of macros that you take. The gear is often not complete without some wide-angle lens for landscape or wildlife captured within an even wider environment. I reckon that images of wildlife with a wide-angle lens have a very unusual perspective and are often a very interesting contrast to typical wildlife shots that separate the animal from its surroundings. Since this area of photography is very close to my heart and I’ve been doing this for a very long time, I would love to share with you my practical insights. I have more than enough photographs to show you and each is included with EXIF data and a short narrative.
Green Toad, Croatia, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 12-100mm/4 IS, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/20s, composition of 8 focus-stacked images. I used the Focus Stacking mode for one practical reason – for the required depth of field, it was necessary to set the aperture to F/22, however, diffraction would cause a significant loss of details. Additionally, it would be necessary to set a fairly high ISO as the times were already around 1/20s. In order to set the Focus Stacking correctly so that I get it right when the time comes, I practised my settings on a nearby rock that had a similar size as the toad.
I LIKE VARIETY IN MY PORTFOLIO
Just as my passion for nature is fuelled by its endless variety, I try to vary my creative process with new methodologies or vantage points. I just love all the fine details in a perfect portrait where you can discover different layers of features. Similarly, I feel inspired by a landscape image where the animal forms a critical element of it, or a quiet composition, highly dynamic, day or night photo etc. This approach proved useful for composing my portfolio. || VISIT MY GALLERY || VIEW MY INSTAGRAM PROFILE || Personally, I’m trying not to be a rigid follower of any certain style. I love a good solid portrait, but sooner or later, if I do too much of the same thing, it bores me in the same way that taking repetitive landscape images would. Rather than a specific style, I actually like variety. I approach each new equipment as a new spice that may add flavour to my portfolio.
So, let’s spice up our day with some wide-angle lens wildlife images. Examples of photographs from a variety of biotopes taken by a different method than the one described in the article. Zooms are perfect for this type of images, which can perfectly frame only the necessary part of the scene.
WHAT I CONSIDER A WIDE-ANGLE IMAGE
The described type of photography is about a shot of the animal within its natural environment. It’s not only about the “wider” focal point, as in the photographs of terns or herons above. These are shots that, using a medium-long focal length or a longer focal length at a greater distance, help to reveal the environment in which the animals occur. But wide-angle lens shots have one completely different feature – you have to be close to the animal. And I mean very close. For larger animals (e.g. smaller and medium-sized mammal species up to the size of a monkey) it’s usually about 20-30 cm from the front of the lens. For small animals such as lizards and frogs, the ideal distance is about 5 cm; while for small insects you need to be almost touching them. It is therefore important to choose the right lens. If you are planning to take photos of larger species, then you can do so with virtually any lens around 12-16mm. When trying to photograph a tree frog or even a smaller frog similarly, you may be halted by a technical limit – you are still too far for the animal to be visible in the photo. One critical parameter of your wide lens for this purpose will be its minimum focus distance (the smaller, the better) and the resulting magnification ratio (the larger, the better). The king among wide-angle macro lenses, especially for smaller animals and plants, is the Laowa 15mm / 4 Macro 1: 1. Those who are attracted by similar types of photos will probably not find anything better. At least in terms of the possibility to capture an attractive combination of a large small animal within its habitat. However, shooting with this lens requires a lot of time and space, because it is fully manual. However, autofocus can help a lot. Admittedly, the closer you need to be, the lesser the number of animals that can be photographed in this way. Not every creature is patient enough to wait for you to set up your camera that’s about two centimetres away from its snout. I no longer have an up-to-date overview of all suitable lenses that have the specs to focus at such close range while maintaining a wide focus, but Sigma 15mm/ 2.8 Fisheye or Tokina 10-17 mm F/ 3.5-4.5 AT-X were a proven choice. If you use Olympus like me, then one of the options is a fisheye M.Zuiko 8mm/ 1.8 or a manual Laowa 7.5mm/ 2. Lenses with very good close focusing specs on a wide-angle are The M.Zuiko 12-40mm/ 2.8, M.Zuiko 12-100mm/ 4 IS and M.Zuiko 12-45mm/ 4. With their focal length of “24mm” (after FF conversion), these lenses are suitable for larger subjects, where you don’t have to be too close to them, enabling you to preserve enough environment. The list of lenses is far from complete. It’s more of a guide, really. The reason why I’m talking about them is that I have personal practical experience with all these lenses. For lenses where the minimum focal length is too large, it’s a good idea to try using an extension tube adapter ring. Unfortunately, if you have Olympus you are out of luck, respectively the focal distance of the mentioned lenses becomes irrelevant. Another option is a set with a CCTV lens with which I don’t have personal experience yet. Lastly, an interesting option might be using a GoPro camera. So there are many solutions, each with its pros and cons. There is probably no perfect solution and your work is by no means over just by choosing your gear. Gradually, I’ll try to mention the most important factors to consider when photographing animals with a wide-angle lens.
Black-and-white ruffed lemur, Madagascar, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 8mm/1.8, ISO 200, f/1.8, 1/500s. A fortunate happenstance is behind this photo during my departure from my hostel. Photo backpack on my back, a large travel bag in my hand and a camera with a fisheye lens around my neck to take a farewell photo of the hostel. The lemur was resting right by the road. I threw everything on the ground and took at least a few photos.
So we chose the equipment, here we go. First, we want to try taking a picture of something within the environment. You mount your wide-angle lens and approach the subject of our interest. Such motifs as orchids or mushrooms, for example, tend to be perfectly patient with us and are good at not running away. It’s far more challenging when it’s a bee on an orchid or a beetle on a mushroom that becomes the object of our interest. As I said before, the required working distance will be in the order of a few centimetres, which is exactly the moment when we find out that the bee is not at all interested in cooperating with us. Same with the beetle that will stubbornly hide to the other side of the mushroom, no matter where you stand. Even if we surprise it from up above (gotcha!), it will fly off (cheerio!). When it comes to animals, wide-angle photography can be used especially with such species and individuals that tend to have a similar perception of aesthetics as we do and understand our artistic intent. True, there are not many of them, so you might use your wide-angle lens only once in a blue moon. TIP! When photographing poisonous species, it is good to keep in mind that they can kill us in an instant.
Dragonfly, Czech Republic, Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 7.5mm/ 2, ISO 1250, f/2, 33s, Olympus FL-700WR flash, Peak Design Travel Tripod. The photo was taken during a full moon that illuminated the surroundings during a long exposure, while the flash was sufficient for the dragonfly.
Forest Butterflies, Thailand, Canon EOS 70D, Samyang, ISO 800, 1/ 800s. I no longer have the RAW original, so I don’t have full EXIF data. I planned the photo way before leaving for the trip, but the realisation of it was a real pain in the butt. Butterflies gather on the banks of a stream where they are attracted to by exuded minerals from the urine of the elephants that like to pee there. However, they are active only in strong sunlight and it was very difficult to negotiate with them. Either my presence bothered them and they flew to another puddle, or I managed to get fairly close to them, but they didn’t want to take off. In the end, it worked, but there was a lot of post-processing because the contrast and dynamic range of the scene were quite extreme.
Talamanca Hummingbird, Costa Rica, Olympus E-M1X, Laowa 7.5mm/ 2, ISO 800, f/2, 1/ 1000s. Hummingbirds are very tame in some places and seem to almost encourage you to play games with them. This is a handheld photo. It took a while for them to get used to my presence but soon they kept flying in and out to the flowers as if I wasn’t there.
Crested Macaque, Sulawesi. The right distance is critical for any good photo. So when you come across an animal that is willing to participate in a close-up photoshoot you are overjoyed. Sometimes it’s a little too much about that joy. If you are for example in Sulawesi, then the local macaques not only willingly pose to be photographed, but they want to take part in the photoshoot themselves. So instead of bringing home interesting wide-angle shots, one of the curious macaques slams his paw right on the lens. Thanks to the fact that before that it was digging for something in the ground with that paw and then licked it, my shoot was over. Even though I envisaged that it would be daily recurrence during my stay in the rainforest, I only got this close to the gang twice. The moment when the macaques literally surrounded me and took me among them happened only once. At least I’m left with some happy memories.
If we have an object patient enough to tolerate our fiddling, then the best way to shoot is from a tripod. This gives us the utmost control over the entire scene. We have the room and time to focus precisely using the best aperture for the desired depth of field, ideally with the help of live view and a magnify function. In many cases, I can’t rely on the possibility of shooting from a tripod, and at that moment, autofocus is a great helper. When shooting from hand, I prefer to use a flip-out display, which allows you to discover angles that I’d never even attempt by looking into the viewfinder due to physical limitations. Then I continuously press the focus button (in my case the back-button focus) and as soon as the right moment comes, I press the shutter. This is where manual lenses from Laowa or other manufactures reach their limit for this type of photography as you must have an idea of the most suitable distance in advance. Of course, you can focus by hand, but my experience says that animals respond relatively well to a neutral black camera. Whereas as soon as a hand (bright and warm) appears in front of the lens, they start to clear off. Your fingers can be hidden slightly behind the camera when using the AF. The idea of putting my hand in front of a rattlesnake is not pleasant to me, even though they are extremely placid animals. Another way to get closer to the animal is to place your camera on a stick (e.g. a selfie stick). This requires a slightly firmer grip on the rod, as the camera can fidget a bit. Lastly, you can use a GoPro, which is easier to handle and allows you to get a very interesting angle of view. Personally, for this type of photography, I am a keen supporter of AF and I just hope that the future will bring an m43-compatible lens that in terms of its angle of view and magnification will be similar to the legendary Laowa 15mm. My ideal would be a 7.5mm/ 4 lens with stabilisation and magnification ideally 1:2 – 1:1. That would be heaven! TIP! If the animals are very shy and your presence disturbs them, you can try placing your camera in the field with a time-lapse on. This is what I did in the photo below from the Pantanal.
Wood Stork, Pantanal, Olympus E-M1 II, Laowa 7.5mm / 2, ISO 500, f / 8, 1 / 1250s. Birds came to this place regularly, but the presence of people disturbed them. For three mornings in the row I left my camera under a bridge we used to cross. I set the time-lapse to take photos of every 30s and positioned the flashes. The most fruitful was the first morning when the lagoon was full of the largest flocks of birds. Unfortunately, I forgot one important thing – during the silent mode, synchronisation with the flash is only 1/ 50s. The result was about 700 photos, where the number of birds gradually increased, but as soon as the sun came into view, the photos were totally overexposed. In the end, I could barely use about 50 images when the batteries were all used up. Out of those 50, only three of them were usable, where the birds are somehow reasonably placed. Learning from my mistakes, the next day I set everything up correctly, but no birds came and the water was noticeably reduced. Then on the third day, nothing happened as the lagoon dried up.
Uroplatus, Madagascar, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 8mm / 1.8, ISO 64, f / 5.6, 1 / 40s, Olympus FL-700WR flash. The perfectly cryptically camouflaged leaf-tail geckos were definitely attractive for a wide-angle image. There was only one problem with them – finding them.
DYNAMIC RANGE AND LIGHT
Another concern to prepare for when shooting wide-angle shots is the considerable dynamic range of the scene. These shots often include the sky or the interior of the forest and if the weather is clear, then it is quite difficult to achieve the right results. Using a polarising filter works for me in these situations. This eliminates reflections on water or leaves and thus helps to at least partially alleviate complex conditions. Another great help is using the flash to illuminate the foreground and slightly underexpose the background. This, however, requires a bit of practical experience and some prior testing. Balancing flash-light and ambient light is quite a demanding discipline. What helped me was practice shooting with my models of lizards in the woods. It may seem funny, but believe me, it is usually too late to find out how everything works when you have the unique opportunity to take a close-up picture of the animal. In the pictures below you can see how I illuminated the scene with artificial lizards to be fully prepared for my trip to Madagascar. The reasoning was clear – when I meet an interesting chameleon, I don’t want to lose the photo due to my own incompetence. A few days by a pond with models of lizards gave me solid foundations for mastering the basics of close combat with flash. I learned how to adjust the flash intensity correctly so that the subject is not overexposed, how to position the diffuser correctly so that it is not constantly in the view of the wide-angle lens (and believe me, the fisheye lens from Olympus sees everything around it), and even how to determine the required working distance for this type of shot. Below, after some training shots, you can see the result of my learning when a beautiful Parson’s chameleon crossed my path in Madagascar.
On the left, you can see an image with no flash, on the right with a low-intensity flash. Aside from my models of lizards, I also have frogs that I chose in particular due to their glossy skin, which is ideal for testing diffusers. It’s easier to guesstimate how soft the light dispersion will be on their damp skin.
The Parson’s Chameleon, Madagaskar, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 8mm/1.8, ISO 200, f/4, 1/40s, Olympus FL-700WR flash. This was one of the biggest chameleons I encountered in Madagascar. I really appreciated my training with toy lizards back home as the entire set up of flash was over in a few seconds. The surroundings were not very attractive, and so with a low aperture, I accentuated its head. The bottom right side of the image doesn’t look too disturbed by the darker patch, but I know it’s my backpack. This is not so bad, but if you shoot with an extra-wide lens you need to think permanently to store things very far away, ideally into a different patch of the jungle as no fisheye knows mercy.
ENVIRONMENTAL ATTRACTIVENESS AND DEPTH OF FIELD
When shooting with a telephoto lens, it’s usually the low aperture that does the “dirty job” for us with detaching the subject from its surroundings that become one well-balanced area. When taking a photo of the natural biotope, the surrounding environment is a key factor. So it should not be just a necessary evil, but a fundamental expressive element of the scene. This can be a problem when the environment is very unappealing. At that moment, it’s best to photograph the animal at a low aperture or classically take pictures. It is also true that when taking close-ups the almost “infinite” depth of field of wide-angle lenses, especially fisheye, almost disappears. If we photograph locusts from two centimetres, we will need a relatively wide aperture to show what habitat it lives in. This will extend the required times and even increase ISO. If the object is stationary, one of the ways to deal with it is a stacked “macro” using the Focus Stacking mode (see the first photo of a green toad). The farther from the object, the more environment will be visible in the photo, but the smaller the object will be. Sometimes, this is actually desirable as not all photos are necessarily created by sticking your lens straight to the animal’s snuffer. Certain larger species, such as squirrels, ground-squirrels or anteaters, bypass these limitations as the distance to the subject will already be quite large and therefore the surrounding environment will be clearly visible. Depth of field will again help us in this case either to more or less eliminate the surroundings or, on the contrary, to accentuate it.
Giant Anteater, Pantanal, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 8mm / 1.8, ISO 6400, f / 1.8, 1 / 10s. When one day we were returning tired from a day trip, we found an anteater walking through our ranch where we stayed. With no time to spare I hurriedly mounted on a fisheye and tried to work along his seeming tameness. Unfortunately, it was already practically dark, so it was necessary to set relatively crazy exposure values. I wish I’d thought of using a flash. Arguably, it was too emotional a meeting for me and I was too tired. At least I have this memory.
Common squirrel, Czech Republic, Olympus E-M1 II, Laowa 7.5mm / 2, ISO 1600, f / 5.6, 1 / 60s. Squirrels are used by people in the Štěpánka forest park near Mlada Boleslav. But even so, they like to keep a safe distance and the easiest way to take photos was to place the camera on a makeshift tripod from sticks and cones (any other standard tripod would be still too high) and take photos using a connected mobile phone from the comfort of a nearby bench.
Dice snake, Croatia, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 8mm / 1.8, ISO 500, f / 6.3, 1 / 40s. This snake is no giant, but through a fisheye placed near its head, it suddenly has the appearance of an anaconda.
Pit-viper, Panama, Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 17-40mm / 4 M.Zuiko 8mm / 1.8, ISO 2500, f / 4, 1 / 60s. This must be one of my favourite photos, which shows the beauty of the mountain forest habitat. The dominant plants are bromeliads, tillandsia and orchids. The 17-40mm lens is not entirely suitable for this due to its longer minimum focal length on a wide-angle ‘macro’, but I’d say in this case it served me very well.
Dalmatian Pelican, Greece, Olympus E-M1X, M.Zuiko 8mm / 1.8, ISO 640, f / 5, 1 / 125p. When it comes to pelicans and a wide-angle lens, you can go wild. Here, I couldn’t resist capturing one of the pelicans that came begging for fish directly onto our boat.
Talamanca Hummingbird, Panama, Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 16-35mm / 4 IS, ISO 2500, f / 8, 1 / 15s. The highest concentration of hummingbirds can be found in the cloud forests up in the mountains. For me, it’s the most beautiful habitat I’ve ever seen, and those little flying gems make it just perfect.
During a night photoshoot, we have a slightly simpler situation regarding the environment, because the surroundings around the subject will be visible only if we illuminate them ourselves. You can work with several flashes or lights that illuminate the scene exactly where you need it. Such a photoshoot is already quite demanding and the help of an assistant is usually invaluable in achieving the best results. Live Time and Live Composite functions in Olympus are both a great help at these times, allowing you to continuously monitor the light development of the scene and, if necessary, illuminate those patches that are dark. In some situations, the full moon can also help the exposure, giving the images a special atmosphere. Below are some sample photos taken with a wide lens at night.
Dead-leaf Katydid, Costa Rica, Olympus E-M1X, M.Zuiko 8mm / 1.8, ISO 400, f / 8, 10s, flash Olympus FL-700WR. For night shots with a wide-angle lens, I like clear moon-lit nights. Moonlight helps to complete the scene either by illuminating the surroundings or by its presence in the shot.
Stick Insect exuviae, Borneo, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 8mm / 1.8, ISO 200, f / 13, 1 / 100s, Olympus FL-700WR flash. When I met this giant stick insect in the rainforest on one of my walks in its undressing phase (see a video on YouTube), I spent about an hour with it. I photographed it from several vantage points and I also tried a wide-angle shot. The whole scene took place about 20 cm above the ground, so I needed to put the camera under the phasmid adjusting the best angle of view. The right composition would probably be never achieved without a tilt-out display on my camera, where I could see my head in many photos. Ultimately, it was quite tricky to hold the flash with one hand while looking for the best angle of view with the other and ensuring my head is out of the picture at the same time. In the end, it somehow worked out.
Green crested lizard, Borneo, Olympus E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 12-100mm / 4 IS, ISO 100, f / 13, 1 / 100s, Olympus FL-700WR flash. For larger species such as snakes or larger lizards, the 12-100 lens works well as you can get very close to your subject and possibly combine a wide-angle shot with a classic portrait without having to change the lens.
Garden snail, Czech Republic, Olympus E-M1 III, Laowa 7.5mm / 2, ISO 640, f / 4, 38s, Olympus FL-700WR flash, Peak Design Travel Tripod. Another photo from the full-moon night, that was created while visiting my favourite windmill ruins. I originally wanted to take pictures of insects in the area, but due to the very cold weather at the beginning of autumn, there was nothing to take photos of until this snail sliding along the wall of the ruin kept me busy for an hour or so.
If you want to spice up your portfolio, I’d recommend using a wide-angle lens, every now and then. True, it’s a lot more work than with a telephoto lens (a lot more work), but the results are often seriously attractive adding a different view in your series. What’s the worst that could happen? The creation of such an image will be not only quite amusing but you will learn a lot as you will need to creatively solve a number of challenges that you wouldn’t come across during a normal photo shoot. And what is better for learning, that your own experience?
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