Preparing for a Wildlife Shoot

It dawned on me today that I have never written a blog entry on what equipment I have in my bag, how I pack, and how I prepare for a shoot. So, I guess there is no better time than now.
Location Preparation
I believe the most important component to preparing for the trip is in location preparation. For my trip to Florida, I first checked out the internet, via our friend "Google", for information regarding birding in Florida. This would include topics such as "winter birding locations", temperature and what kinds of species I might encounter.  After the basic searching, I will then narrow my search by looking for hot spots already discovered by fellow birders and photographers.  For example, searching on "Florida Birds Arthur Morris" turns up a myriad of locations since Art is a well known and published bird photographer.
Once I find a location where I think I will have the best chances of cranking out some great images, I will then use mapping software to see how long it will take to drive it or fly it and what kind of obstacles I might encounter.  For example, in Florida there are both toll roads and costs to get into parks.  I wouldn't want to get caught without the cash to even get into the national or local park.  If I am going to a national park I will often go onto YouTube and see if anyone has shot video of the area so I can get a better feel for how  the terrain and lighting will look.
As I get closer to the trip I will do one more check of the weather.  I am specifically looking for sun direction, wind speed and wind direction.  Why do I do this?  First, the direction of the sun is crucial to better wildlife images.  When the sun is low and coming in over your shoulder it produces a soft, golden light, directly onto your subject. Next, wind speed and specifically direction is important to determine which way a bird will take off and land.  Birds always take off and land into the wind and often they will stand into the wind as well to avoid getting their feathers ruffled.
Packing my Gear
Ah this is the fun part.  Every photographer likes his gear. This is an area where you will get as many opinions as there are photographers but this is what I pack:
  • Canon EOS 7D Body (Primary body)
  • Canon EOS 1D Mark II (old body but great for backup and birds in flight)
  • Tamron 70-300mm SP VC (A light, sharp lens when the super telephoto is just too much. Also serves as a backup lens)
  • Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary - This is a light, sharp, super telephoto zoom.  This thing is the real deal, and very important for staying out of the fight or flight zone of wildlife and creating better bokeh.
  • Canon 50mm 1.8 II (sharp, cheap and versatile) - I use this with extension tubes for macro work.
  • Canon 10-18mm IS - I use this as my primary landscape lens.  I am NOT in love with this lens but it does the job with some decent post production work.  If you can afford something better don't buy it.
  • Kenko PRO 300 DG 1.4x TC - This teleconverter, when attached to my 600 gives me an effective length of 1300mm !!  Beware you will get some image degradation.  This is normal with TCs.
  • Cheap wireless shutter release - you can pick this Chinese made shutter releases on Amazon all day long but it works quite well.
  • Tiffen Polarizer Filter and Step Rings - I use the polarizer when I am shooting waterfalls to remove the glare on the rocks.  I consider this filter essential.
  • Opteka Autofocus Extension Tube Set - A cheap extension tube set, but they get the job done when I need to shoot macro with my 50mm.
  • Manfratto 3221 Tripod - I can't say enough great things about this tripod.  It is no longer made, but has served me since the mid-1990s.
  • Bogen 3030 Pan Tilt Head - A great all purpose tripod head which can even be used as a poor man's gimble head in a pinch. This item is no longer made, but can be found on the used market.
  • Grizzly Camera Bean Bag - I can use this bean bag as a saddle over my car door and rest my long telephotos on it for great support.  It can also be used on the ground.
  • 3 LP-E6 Batteries - Even shooting heavily I can get through an entire day of shooting with these batteries.
  • 2 MP-E3 Batteries - These are use for my Canon 1D Mark II.
  • Battery Chargers for both camera bodies
  • 4 Compact Flash Cards - used primarily in my 7D. UDMA 7 are the best version for the 7D.
  • 4 SD Cards - I only use these in my 1D Mark II along with a backup CF card.
  • Emergency Blanket - A light and small item which might help save your life if trapped in the car or in the woods.
  • Small LED Flashlight - Great for finding the settings on the camera in the dark and checking out the trail.
  • Lens Cleaner and Cloths
  • Lens Pen
  • Hunting Knife - The knife can be used for protection, but I have it in case I get lost or need to cut something in the field.
Note that I have two bags.  One bag I put all my backup gear in, and one backpack I actually wear on my shoulders. I leave the backup gear in the car.  Both my bags are sprayed with camp dry to keep them waterproof. Make sure you take your gear out of the bag before spaying the silicone and let it dry thoroughly.
Arriving at the Location
Plan your arrival time based on your research conducted during the preparation phase of the trip.  For example, you want to shoot in the best lighting for animals and this is not usually in the middle of the day.  Don't roll out of bed a 10:00 am and expect to get great shots during the heat of the day.  Get up before dawn and be at your location no later than daybreak.
If this is a location you have never been to before, realize that it will take some time to get acclimated and find the animals.  If possible stop by the park ranger's office to find out where the wildlife currently is and what species are plentiful.  You might burn up a couple crucial hours of shooting, but the time could pay off for you in better shots that evening.
Finally, and above all,  be patient.  If you can't sit still and wait on your subject, then wildlife photography is not for you.  It can take hours to get only one good shot!
I hope this was helpful for you when planning your next wildlife shoot.  So now get out there, have fun and shoot!  


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