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Photography FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)

Many people have asked Geoff what equipment he uses, how he gets his photographs, and for advice on photography, especially since this website went online, so, in the best tradition of the web, he has produced the following FAQ which he hopes provides the answers to most people's questions. Though Geoff is happy to answer e-mail questions about his photography, please check through this FAQ first.

Q: How did you start in photography?

A: "My interest and fascination with the natural world developed from my early teens when I spent many an hour 'bug-watching'. This soon spread to birdwatching and then mammals, plants, everything! The photography developed from the desire to share with others the things I saw (and, to an increasing degree, the way I saw them). For a number of years my nature and landscape photography was a passionate hobby and semi-profession which I had to fit in with full-time work (most of which, fortunately, was field-based biology) before I finally turned full-time professional."

Q: How did you learn your photography?

A: "On the technical side, mainly by trial and error, learning from my mistakes, but I also looked at other photographers' work, and read photography books and magazines. Photography is (still) quite a technical business and whilst there is a lot to consider when taking particular photographs, the fundamentals (focus, depth of field, exposure) are fairly straightforward. By keeping detailed notes during my (long - and continuing?!) apprenticeship in photography I learned what worked and what didn't. Even now, if I am trying a new or unfamiliar technique I will make detailed notes to see what combinations of settings seem to work best. Nowadays, with digital cameras, it is much easier to assess variations of technique on the spot using the in-built display screen. As for the artistic side, I have had no formal training or education in art but seem fortunate in having a 'good eye' for composition and for 'seeing' a potential photograph (both of which can be developed with practice and experience)."

Q: What photographic equipment did you start with?

A: "My first 'good' camera, that is the SLR (single-lens-reflex) type with through-the-lens viewing, was a Zenith B, the film camera equivalent of a 2CV! It had screw-thread interchangeable lenses with no automatic iris control (stopping down the iris had to be done via a ring on the lens) and not only no TTL (through-the-lens) metering but it had no built-in meter whatsoever! If that was not bad enough, the shutter speeds ran from just 1/500th sec to 1/30th sec (flash synch to 1/30th sec only!) and 'B' (bulb or time exposure), and the shutter clunked loudly. I used to lust after a Praktica, never mind a Nikon or Canon! Nevertheless, it helped me to learn some of the fundamentals of photography and I managed to get some decent photos with it, a few of which are still in the files and still stand up to scrutiny (and amazingly I even managed some sharp close-ups! - see Red Admiral Butterfly LP 20-13, Comma Butterfly LP 3-18, and Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly LP 26-29).

"In view of the reputation of Nikon lenses, and on the recommendation of a professional nature photographer that I'd talked with, I then bought a secondhand Nikkormat Ftn with standard 50mm Nikkor lens and began producing much better work - the full aperture TTL metering was excellent and the automatic iris was sheer bliss! With a full range of shutter speeds from 1/1000th sec down to 1 sec (and 'B') and the fastest flash synchronisation speed (at the time) of 1/125th sec, coupled with the quality of the Nikkor lens, my photography (especially insect photography!) improved no end. But it was some time before I replaced the independently-made wideangle and medium telephoto lenses with Nikon lenses and several years before I got any lens longer than the Nikkor 300mm f4.5 (non-IFED version)."

Q: What photographic equipment do you use now?

A: "For 35mm - film and now digital - I still use Nikon equipment and, from my own personal point of view, one of Nikon's major advantages over its rival manufacturers has been the retention of the original bayonet lens-mount, which permits the older manual-focus lenses (such as my first Micro-Nikkor 105mm macro lens bought way back in 1979) to be still usable on the latest auto-everything bodies, and the latest auto-focus lenses to be usable on the older manual bodies, maintaining the two most useful features of auto-iris operation and TTL metering. This is still true with the Nikon digital SLR professional/semi-professional bodies (such as D2x, D200, D700,) and even with my first Nikon digital SLR, the lower spec Nikon D70, all of my lenses could be used (except my very first Nikkor 50mm which would require slight modification of the mount) with auto-iris maintained but without TTL metering for the older non-autofocus lenses (though it proved to be a relatively easy matter to use the camera histogram function to get exposure correct with any variation compensated for by shooting RAW). With the D200 and D700 bodies, these older lenses are very usable with full metering functions maintained.

"Many photographers (professional as well as amateur) can become pre-occupied with equipment and manufacturers, and I am often asked "what make of camera do you use" and usually which actual model. When I reply "Nikon" it frequently elicits a look of 'oh, that explains why the photos are good' as if only Nikon (or Canon, or Hasselblad) cameras can produce good photographs, and only the top-of-the-line (most expensive) camera model at that. To paraphrase renowned American nature photographer John Shaw when someone saw his photographs and said "you must have a good camera", he replied that, yes, he had very good equipment, but not once has it gone out and produced photographs all by itself (!).

In days of film, I always advised others that it's the lens that really counts, not the camera body, though with digital the camera body now plays an integral part in the quality of the image produced (sensor type, size, construction, camera software, etc). Nevertheless, film or digital, it still holds true that if you start off with a cheap, inferior quality lens on the camera then the chances are that you will not produce critically sharp, quality images - a sharp lens can always be softened if wanted but you can't make a fuzzy image sharper (UnSharp Mask has its limits!!). Most modern lenses are optically very sharp and differ more in evenness of exposure and control of flare (and also perhaps quality of construction) but I would always advise sticking with the camera maker's own lenses whenever possible/affordable, and in practical everyday use in the field there is little to choose between the four or five top manufacturers (though Nikon and Canon have the widest range of cameras, lenses and accessories). Therefore, my use of Nikon equipment should not necessarily be seen as an endorsement of that manufacturer (and they certainly haven't provided me with any kind of sponsorship or support!), nevertheless, the Nikon equipment I have bought has worn well and performed well during some thirty-odd years of use (and abuse!).

"Current Nikon bodies (in order of most use) are: D700 and D200 for digital shooting, and though I rarely shoot film nowadays, I still occasionally use FE2 (for very long exposure capability mainly, though the latest digital cameras like D700 now peform well for long expsoures). Previously I've used the D70 (digital) and F4s, F801, FE2, FM, F90 and Nikkormat Ftn film bodies (still got the latter, somewhere). All my lenses but one are Nikkor - 20mm and 28mm wideangles, 18-70mm (DX) zoom, 28-105mm, 28-200mm, 35-80mm, 80-200mm and 200-400mm zooms, 55mm and 105mm macros, 300mm f4.5 and 400mm f5.6 telephotos, together with 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x teleconverters - the exception is a Sigma 12-24mm ultra-wideangle zoom. Nowadays it is clear that modern autofocus long lens technology coupled with high-speed cameras puts the wildlife photographer who can afford such equipment in a much more advantageous position to get a greater percentage of correctly-focused frames of moving subjects and action, and, to some degree with some subjects, the skill of getting correctly-focused images is replaced by just ensuring the subject is kept in the viewfinder. Whilst I do shoot action images, personally my interest lies more in images which exhibit a stronger 'artistic' input from the photographer by way of composition and the quality of the light, so that they are more than just a product of the technology.

"In film days, I used to also shoot 6x6cm for which I used a trusty old but well-built (and very manual focus!) Mamyia Twin-Lens-Reflex (TLR), which was an uncomplicated and robust camera and the only TLR with interchangeable (and easily affordable!) lenses - just 55mm wideangle and 80mm standard lenses for mainly landscape work (though its built-in bellows did permit close-focusing to nearly 1:1 it suffered from 'parallax' due to the different framing of the viewing and taking lenses which becomes most noticeable with close-ups).

"For camera support, I still use my faithful Benbo Mark I tripod with ball-socket head which I bought way back in 1983 (!) (along with a Billingham 445 camera bag which continues to give good service), though for nature photography in the field, for the last several years, I've carried my equipment mostly in a LowePro Orion AW belt-pack/back-pack (see pictures below), now replaced by the more capacious Lowepro Pro Trekker AWII backpack.

"I have to say that, with photography, it is very easy to be seduced into feeling that you must have all the latest and 'best' equipment and gizmos and if you can afford it then fine, but otherwise you should ask yourself whether such equipment will help you to get better pictures and the pictures you want. Remember, even the best equipment can produce lousy photographs if it's not used correctly or skilfully - the equipment may physically produce the photograph but it's the person using the equipment that creates the picture."

Q: Of the equipment you own or have used, what is your favourite camera model?

A: "For digital, currently my favourite and main digital SLR is the Nikon D700 which now gets most use and is capable of providing images of a quality that in my opinion surpasses that which came from 35mm film (and even medium format film), and I now shoot almost exclusively digital using this camera, backed up by the Nikon D200. The D700 is an enjoyable (though complex) camera to use and I am very happy to be able to use some of my old manual Nikkor lenses on it with full metering function, in particular the 20mm wideangle and 105mm Micro-Nikkor, and, as the D700 has a full-frame sensor, my 20mm is once again a true 20mm wideangle! Most of these older lenses produce just as good quality on digital as they did on film, though this isn't always the case and some lenses seem to work better/worse depending on which digital body is used. The D700 has much improved high ISO (low light) capability and better image quality, and a quite high framing rate of 5 frames-per-second (fps) which can be increased to 8 fps with the addition of the MB-D10 battery-holder (with a buffer of up to 21 frames shooting RAW). A great feature of the D700 is its ability to synchronise with Nikon Speedlight flash (SB-800/900) up to its top shutter speed of 1/8000th second. "

"In film days, my favourite film camera for everyday use was the Nikon F801, one of Nikon's less expensive models at the time but with excellent specifications which included the then fastest shutter speed (1/8000th sec! - though I never used it!), autofocus (never used it...), matrix metering (ditto...) and several auto modes (I only ever used manual...). The F801 had a built-in motordrive which, at nearly four frames-per-second, was not only faster than the old MD12 bolt-on motordrive but was much quieter, and although not that light (it needed four AA-batteries) it was significantly lighter than the Nikon F4s (eight AA-batteries!) which I also used. Unless I expected to require the higher framing rate (nearly 7 frames per second) of the F4s then I regularly carried three F801 bodies in my field kit, and usually an FE2 body too. The F801 proved to be up to the rigours of my kind of use (and abuse!) and was adequate for my general photographic needs at that time. Nikon had several other mid-range film camera models available (F70, F100, etc) but I never felt the need to try them. Sadly, my F801 bodies have been pretty well consigned to the cupboard as I now shoot almost exclusively on digital.

"Previous to the F801 it was the Nikon FE2, my mainstay camera of the 1980's. The FE2 was (is) a lovely camera, light, highly specified and a joy to use - in particular, the 'match-needle' viewfinder metering system afforded great control and ease of use, and was particularly good in low light - if the meter needle didn't register on the shutter scale it was possible to set the film speed dial to maximum to get an exposure reading and then adjust the exposure accordingly (I found that the electronic F801 and F4s seem to have a 'cut-off' light level at which no meter reading is available, not even by setting a faster film speed; modern digital cameras are much better in low light and, if no meter reading is available, a shot can be taken and the exposure assessed on the in-built LCD playback screen). The FE2 had the fastest shutter speed (1/4000th sec) and fastest flash synch speed (1/250th sec) at the time and was the first 'non-pro' Nikon camera to have TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering. I have until recently still occasionally used the FE2 for long exposure photography, especially for such as lightning photography, where the need for continuously open shutter can lead to to-rapid battery drain with digital cameras, though battery life in modern digital cameras is also improved.

Q: Of the equipment you own or have used, what is your favourite lens?

A: "For wildlife photography, my favourite lens, of necessity, is the longest, currently a Nikkor 200-400mm f4G AFS-VR IFED zoom lens (Autofocus, Vibration Reduction, Internal Focusing Extra-low Dispersion), which produces excellent results especially with the TC14eII 1.4x teleconverter. Previous to this it was my Nikkor 400mm f5.6 IFED and previous to that was my Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IFED - the Nikon TC-14b 1.4x teleconverters I had at the time matched near-perfectly with these particular lenses (giving an effective 560mm f8 and f5 lens respectively), producing beautifully crisp shots at full aperture . In film days, there had been numerous occasions when the speed of the 400mm f3.5 lens had helped me get good quality pictures with relatively slow transparency film or in marginal light conditions. Such fast and heavy lenses are not such a necessity now with the increased sensitivity and quality of digital sensors, and with the advent of anti-shake technology. Then and today, a long-focus lens of 400mm or more permits photography at distances where the photographer is less likely to cause disturbance to the wildlife subjects.

The Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IFED lens
"The Nikkor 200-400mm f4 and Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IFED lenses are the only 'big glass' long lenses I have experience with, used with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. Other good (but expensive!) alternative 'big glass' lens combinations for wildlife photography would be a 300mm f2.8 lens (giving an effective 420mm f4 with 1.4x teleconverter or effective 600mm f5.6 lens with 2x teleconverter) or, for more 'pull', the 500mm f4 (giving an effective 700mm f5.6 lens with 1.4x teleconverter or effective 1000mm f8 lens(!) with 2x teleconverter). The bigger and much heavier 400mm f2.8, 600mm f4 and 800mm f5.6 lenses are for those with even deeper pockets (or an understanding bank manager!) - and maybe a home gym!

"A close second favourite lens was my old Nikkor 80-200mm f4.5 zoom lens which is beautifully sharp and, when used for close-up in the field (with close-up lens or extension tubes) has produced images with sharpness the equal of the 105mm macro (also a favourite).

"For landscape work, the Nikkor 20mm wideangle was almost like my 'standard' lens on film - I loved the foreground perspective and wide depth of field possible with this lens and with digital I've gone even wider with the Sigma 12-24mm."

Q: What is your favourite photographic accessory?

A: "Excluding my trusty Benbo tripod (bought way back in 1982 and still giving good service) which is a necessity rather than an accessory, my favourite accessory - and certainly most useful - (at least in film days) was the polarising filter which can be used to deepen blue skies, remove unwanted reflections from shiny surfaces (especially on tree foliage, exposing the rich colours under the waxy coating), and reduce the effect of haze. Additionally, because it reduces the amount of light passing through it (by up to 2 stops) it can also occasionally double as a kind of neutral density filter when longer exposures are desired - all in all a very useful accessory! - though I have not used it as much with digital capture."

Q: What equipment do you carry with you in the field?

A: "I try to carry as little equipment as possible but, as my photography tends to be quite far-ranging from wildlife to close-ups to landscapes, I usually end up carrying a backpackful (!) - my current standard 'everyday' field equipment consists of the following:

Nikon D700 digital body with MB-D10 battery pack plus spare battery pack
Nikon D200 digital body
(Nikon FE2) film body - only occasionally if expecting to do very long exposures
Sigma 12-24mm ultra-wideangle
Nikkor 20mm wideangle
Nikkor 28-105mm (or Nikkor 28-200mm) zoom
Nikkor 105mm macro
(and occasionally 55mm macro)
Nikkor 80-200mm zoom
Nikkor 200-400mm zoom lens with hood
Nikon 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x teleconverters
Nikon SB800 flash with TTL extension cord
Extension tubes - for close-ups, usually 3, different sizes, can be combined
Close-up lenses - ditto, one for wide to standard lenses, one for telephotos
Coupling and reversing rings - for close-ups - see 'Useful Accessories' below
Filters - polarising, grey graduates, warming, softening, neutral density
Filter holder Cokin type
Nikon right-angle finder - for ground-level viewing without a pain in the neck!

Ground plate - a home-made 9-inch (20 cm) square of wood with a bolt in the middle - takes ball-and-socket head for ground-level work
Accessories - cable release, remote release, filter wrench, hotshoe spirit-level, Lastolite reflector, camera strap, various spare batteries, grey card/white card reflector, Dubois sun position compass, Mini maglite torch, 8 x 42 binoculars, waterproof lens-cape and plastic bags
notebook and pen, Compact Flash cards - several 8GB and 4GB (one 8GB card is equivalent to about 14 x 35mm films!) gloves, hat, waterproof jacket, map

- all (except the 200-400mm) was carried in a LowePro Orion AW belt-pack/back-pack (with two clip-on accessory pockets), which at the time I preferred to the bulkier LowePro Trekker packs, though I have now had to upgrade to the Lowepro Pro Trekker AWII pack for the extra capacity to accommodate the 200-400mm lens (and the bulkier digital camera bodies and other AF lenses). For those without such big lenses I can highly recommend the Orion AW type pack (though, personally speaking, the last 'improved' version wasn't as good as the earlier version, unfortunately) and I found it comfortable and flexible - its upper section is a daypack which can be easily and quickly unclipped from the main belt-pack containing most of the cameras and lenses (see images below).


The Lowepro Orion AW belt-pack/back-pack with main compartment holding (from film days) two F801 bodies (now replaced by D700 + D200 bodies), 14mm (now replaced by 12-14mm zoom) and 20mm wides, 28mm wide and 35-80mm zoom and 80-200mm zoom (now replaced by 28-200mm zoom), SB24 flashgun, Cokin filters, screw-in filters, extension tubes, close-up lens, various connecting rings, cable/remote releases, mini maglite torch and several film cans (now replaced by several CF cards); accesory pockets hold 55mm and/or 105mm macros plus lens-scope converter in one, 300mm f4.5 IFED lens (now replaced by water bottle) in the other; additional camera bodies, accessories, more film, clothing, etc, in upper daypack; batteries/other small items in other fixed pockets.

The Lowepro Pro Trekker AWII backpack showing main compartment holding (clockwise from bottom left): Nikkor 28-105mm + Nikkor 20mm lenses - - Sigma 12-24mm lens + Cokin filter holder - - extension tubes + flash TTL cord + remote release - - Nikon TC17eII teleconverter + filters + AA battery holder - - Nikon TC14eII + TC20eII teleconverters - - Nikon D700 body with MB-D10 battery holder and Nikkor 200-400mm f4 zoom lens with hood fitted (with camo covering) (also accommodates 8x42 binoculars on top) - - Nikon SB-800 flashgun + Nikon right-angle finder - - Nikon D200 body with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 zoom lens + waterproof lens-cape + Dubois sun position compass - - Cokin filters + spare Nikon camera batteries - - Micro-Nikkor 105mm f4 lens with lens-hood and extension tube. Inner lid compartments contain Compactflash cards, grey card/white card reflectors, flash diffuser, adapter rings, other small items, Lastolite reflector, kneeling mat, spare gloves. Left outer pocket contains flash bracket, scrim net, camo jacket or camo waterproof. Right outer pocket contains water bottle, snacks, mini maglite torch (when required), camera strap.

"The 'basic' Pro Trekker pack with big lens but without tripod weighs in at around 20kg (44lb) which isn't exactly lightweight! So far my back is coping! All this is accompanied, of course, by my Benbo tripod with ball-and-socket head (which adds another 4kg (9lb) to carry!...). If I know I'll be doing a lot of insect and close-up photography I may add another flashgun with cord plus diffuser. If I'm likely to be shooting mammals or birds, then I'll take the 200-400mm f4 zoom. Occasionally I'll include an FE2 film body if I expect to do some long exposure work. I'll also sometimes pack a camouflage cape (available from Wildlife Watching Supplies - see Web Links Page) usually with a small fold-up stool, which together makes an effective mobile 'hide'.

"If I'm going up mountains then weight becomes more critical and more 'survival' equipment may be required so I'll usually take just two camera bodies and fewer lenses, and frequently I will leave out the tripod and take just a monopod and the ground-plate with ball-and-socket head - the latter is great for ground-level work and usually can be placed on top of rocks to get any desired height. In general winter mountain-walking, I'll carry a standard mountaineering backpack which usually contains more non-photographic equipment such as crampons, ice-axes, head-torch, emergency survival equipment, extra clothing and food, and so my photographic equipment is often pared down to just two camera bodies and three or four lenses (mainly wides) with a couple of filters

"In addition to photographic equipment, my everyday camera-pack usually also contains a couple of pairs of thin thermal gloves (even in the summer!) plus a pair of thick fingerless gloves for colder days, a (camouflaged) waterproof jacket, usually a bottle of water and occasionally a couple of snack bars (the latter are definites when walking the mountains!) together with map(s), and mobile phone (usually switched off!!)."

Q: What films do/did you use and why?

A: "Not so relevant now that most of us shoot digital but read on if you like.

"Although I now shoot almosy exclusively on digital, I do still occasionally shoot some film. When I shot solely film, in common with most other nature and landscape photographers working in colour, I used transparency (or slide) films. This was mainly because the publishing world was geared to reproduction from transparency films in preference to negatives or prints, but also because transparencies can be projected to an audience, and at any size dependent only on the screen available. Also, it is far easier to obtain a high quality print from a transparency than it is to obtain a good quality transparency from a print (which has to be re-photographed or scanned). In addition, the negative is more of a half-way stage in the production of the final photograph as there is a degree of control during printing (with colour, more in terms of contrast control and compensating for exposure variations) whereas with transparency film it is more a case of 'what you see is what you get' as little can be done to 'salvage' a transparency that is either very overexposed or very underxposed, and getting the optimum exposure for the scene is vital.

"Colour transparency film generally has a lower 'exposure latitude' or contrast range than colour negative film - that is, it cannot cope with extremes of brightness and darkness in the scene. Typically this equates to a range of about four stops for slow-medium speed transparency film compared to maybe seven or more stops for negative film. With transparency films in practice it is vital to retain highlight detail as otherwise the resultant transparency can end up with an absolutely clear 'window' in it - often, even the darkest parts of a transparency can contain detail that can be 'pulled out' in the process of reproduction. However, with particularly high contrast scenes such as on sunny days, shadows may become 'blocked' (totally black) where no detail at all can be discerned.

"In the early years I used to use Kodachrome 25 and Kodachrome 64 for all of my nature and landscape photography but as Fuji film improved in the 90's film of choice became Fujichrome for its more vibrant colours and finer grain. Kodachrome 25 (now, sadly, discontinued), though very slow (ISO 25), was a lovely film, with very fine grain, excellent contrast range and excellent colour rendition, and Kodachrome 64 wasn't far behind it for quality results. However, both of these films tended to give a little less than what was there in terms of colours - K64 in particular often gave very 'cool' (i.e. blue-ish) colour rendition frequently producing 'flat' dullish images on cloudy days. Fujichrome Velvia, on the other hand, only fractionally slower (at ISO 50), tends to give a little more than what was there in terms of colour, due to its slight red bias combined with its inherent higher contast, and, for plants in particular, Velvia excels on cloudy days, when the even diffused sunlight produces images with wonderful tone and colour. However, Velvia's contrastiness can prove problematical on sunny days and in such situations it seems far less 'forgiving' than Kodachrome 25 was in terms of retention of highlight and shadow detail. For wildlife such as mammals and birds I will use Velvia whenever possible, but more often than not Provia 100 (rated ISO 100), occasionally uprated to ISO 200 if conditions dictate. Only very slightly grainier than Velvia and with similar colour and contrast properties, the extra speed of the Provia can make the difference when struggling with shutter speeds to stop movement. I know of some nature photographers who just shoot Velvia, uprating it to ISO 100 or even ISO 200 when needed, though I've not yet tried it.

"Whenever I could, I tried out other films for comparison. When concentrating on landscape photography, I often had fast, grainy Provia 1600 in the FE2 body - use of grainy film was something that occasionally 'experimented' with. Pre-digital it had been a case of using the 'right' film for the job and I would use the Kodachrome films for a 'cooler' look and experimented with other films.

"Of course, with the advent of digital imaging, problems like exposure latitude have become less of a concern, although the digital sensor does have its own limitations in this respect. Shooting in RAW format allows one some leeway to make adjustments to the exposure, contrast, colour balance (white balalnce), etc., via software in post-production, and in this respect digital shooting is more akin to shooting negative film than transparency film in terms of the final image."

Q: Do you use a lot of film/take a lot of frames to get the pictures you want?

A: "Again, skip the first couple of paras unless you want to know about shooting film. Nowadays, there is no per-shot expense to shoot extra frames on digital provided you have plenty of CF cards, and digital photographers rattle off shots like machine-gunners, but it still pays to time your bursts carefully (but see my final comment on this).

"In film days, I used as little film as possible but as much as it took(!) However, with wildlife photography, I did't believe in reeling off shot after shot paparazzi-style in the hope of getting some good ones somewhere. Nevertheless, when photographing fast-moving action it was (and still is) often necessary to get as many frames as possible in order to end up with images that 'work'. Also, when it looked like I might be on to some good images I did shoot more 'insurance' shots in case the anticipated action or composition that I was really after didn't actually occur - and if it did, it was also important to shoot more than one frame.

"In film shooting, one of the main differences between a professional (nature) photographer and an amateur was that the pro would always try to get several in-camera 'duplicates' of a good scene as post-produced transparency duplicates never matched the original in quality. If you had just a single 'special' shot then this became very vulnerable as film is easily damaged (or lost by publishers). This is one reason why fast motordrives are the norm now but, with fast action, there will usually still be one particular frame that is 'best' (until, maybe, motordrives approach 24 frames per second - that is, movie film speed!). Habitually, shooting film I would try to get at least two frames of each 'composition' and, particularly with relatively static subjects, I usually aimed to make at least four in-camera 'dupes'. This was especially important in rapidly changing light or when shooting into the light, when minor changes in the exposure can have a great effect on the 'mood' of the final film transparency. Of course, all of this meant that, often, my processed film would contain only half-a-dozen different compositions on it (and sometimes only one composition!).

Nowadays I am shooting almost exclusively on digital and such in-camera duplication is not necessary, and one can feel more confident that a good image has been recorded by checking the image on the camera display screen. In addition, there is no loss of quality when copying digital images and many backups can be made of the best shots. Even with occasional film shooting, I am much more selective of what I actually shoot and the ease of scanning film means less in-camera duplication.

"Digital imaging is already having a great impact on many aspects of my photography (not least in the saving on filmstock!), with the availability of immediate preview of images, immediate deletion of images that didn't work, making multiple copies without any loss of quality, and more control (and manipulation) of the image at post-production. Large-capacity media cards coupled with high framing rates provide more scope for capturing action shots without the worry of using up all 36 shots of traditional film in a few seconds, and all the unwanted images in a sequence can be discarded.

"The still image will never die but I really see the day (quite likely in my lifetime) when the stills camera per se will no longer exist in everyday practical use - instead, its place will be taken by an all-purpose video/stills camera, so that effectively one will have a motordrive running at movie film speed, and a still image of action will be chosen from a video sequence...."

Q: For digital do you shoot jpeg or RAW?

A: "I always shoot RAW. I want to get the best quality images I can out of my equipment and shooting RAW allows me to make adjustments later for photographs taken in difficult or poor light, or that have under-exposed or over-exposed areas. There is more adjustability to RAW files than with jpegs and seemingly burnt-out highlights in a RAW image may be partially (or fully) recovered in post-production software; similarly, under-exposed RAW images can have shadow detail recovered, and noise (speckling) reduced. In many respects shooting jpeg is akin to transparency (slide) shooting in film days, where the exposure latitude (the contrast range that the film could cope with) was not very wide and the 'right' exposure had to be within quite narrow tolerances, whereas RAW is more akin to shooting negative (print) film which had wider exposure latitude and some under- or over-exposure could be compensated for during developing/printing. The highest RAW setting generally allows the camera to produce the best files possible in terms of the digital image information."

Q: Do you have any favourite techniques?

A: "Not really - I like to experiment whenever possible with techniques like multiple exposures with and without defocus, multiple filters, long exposures, etc. and blur effects either by subject movement or camera movement. I do think it is important to experiment with new and different techniques. Now more than ever, if you want to get nature images that will beat the increasing competition and have that 'wow!' factor, it is essential to aim to get different and unique images - whether of action or behaviour, or by creating a particular composition in special light, or by using particular techniques. With wildlife photography, I do prefer actively stalking in preference to hide work or baiting - and I much prefer creating images out in the field than back at the office on the computer...."

Q: What equipment would you recommend for beginners at nature photography?

A: "Obviously this depends very much on the kind of nature photography you wish to do and how much you can afford to spend on equipment and currently there is a wide range of affordable digital cameras available.

Presently, the main requirment is an SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera - that is, a camera where the subject is viewed through the lens by means of a mirror mechanism - that can take inter-changeable lenses. Semi-compact types with fixed zoom lenses may eventually prove too limited for wildlife photography. The camera make is not as important as whether a good, comprehensive (and, perhaps, affordable) range of lenses and accessories is available for it. Most modern digital 35mm-type SLR cameras have full-aperture TTL (through-the-lens) metering, auto-iris, and a range of shutter speeds of at least 1/1,000th second to 1 second (and 'B' - shutter remains open as long as release is pressed) and many now have various kinds of auto-exposure modes, auto-focus, and built-in motordrive. However, one of the most useful and desirable features of the camera, I find, is a depth-of-field preview button - this allows you to manually close down the lens iris to the taking aperture before taking the photograph, serving two important functions: firstly, to some extent it helps you to gauge the degree of sharpness of foreground and background parts of the image, and secondly, it can help you spot any foreground and/or background elements in the scene which may be brought into sufficient focus so as to become distractions in the photo. The latter can also be assessed on the playback LCD screen of the camera.

"At the moment, 99% of nature/wildlife photographs are produced using 35mm equipment mainly because of its portability (especially with big telephotos), ease of use, and variety, with an immense choice of cameras, lenses and accessories with a wide range of prices. The quality that can be attained with modern lenses, films, and now digital sensors, is quite remarkable and this, combined with ease of use makes 35mm format the primary choice for most nature photography.

"A good 35mm-type digital 'starter' kit for general nature photography would consist of two camera bodies, a wideangle of at least 28mm, a standard 50mm lens, a medium telephoto zoom around 80-200mm and a 300mm or maybe 400mm telephoto. There is currently a huge choice of high quality new equipment at very reasonable prices and there are still many secondhand lenses (though usually manual-focus) at bargain prices. Nowadays, zoom lenses are no longer considered to be so inferior to fixed focal length lenses in terms of quality in everyday practical use in the field and it's now possible to cover the aforementioned 'starter' kit with just a 28-300mm zoom lens! However, there are compromises in terms of maximum aperture, distortion, lens shading, close focusing capabilities - also if you lose or damage the lens you're stuck. Better to opt for, say, a 28-80mm zoom and perhaps a 100-300mm zoom. Note, though, that at the longer end of zooms is where a wider aperture really counts, both in terms of ease of focusing (for manual lenses) and light-gathering power which permits faster shutter speeds to stop camera shake and/or subject movement and/or allow use of slower, better quality film. Again, not such a problem with digital with the increasing quality of sensors and various camera-shake reduction systems.

"If you want to shoot wildlife proper (that is, birds, mammals) there is a lot that can be covered with just a 300mm lens, especially on the cropped-sensor format, but, sooner or later, you will find that the extra 'pulling' power of longer lenses becomes essential for some subjects (or, conversely, to keep you at a distance from nervous subjects). Choose telephoto or long-focus lenses in preference to catadioptric (or mirror) lenses as the latter, although lighter and more compact (and usually less expensive!), suffer the limitation of a single fixed aperture (usually quite 'slow' - f5.6 or even only f8) and are also inclined to produce rather distracting doughnut-shaped out-of-focus highlights, though I think mirror lenses are a thing of the past. Going past 400mm tends to involve a significant jump in expense, as well as in weight and bulk to carry.

"Teleconverters, which fit between the (telephoto) lens and the camera, are a useful way of increasing the 'pulling' power of a lens but, for full aperture work, both the individual lens and the individual converter should be of the highest optical quality and must match well together (not all do, even the top makes occasionally have particular individual lens/converter combinations that don't match well). Bear in mind that the converter will 'magnify' any optical deficiencies in the prime lens, however slight, and may also introduce more aberrations resulting in softening and general degradation of the image. This can often be counteracted by stopping the lens down by around two stops so that even a relatively cheap converter can produce sharp images when used with a high quality lens - but note that when using a converter there is also a price to pay in terms of loss of light gathering power: a 1.5x converter reduces light gathering power of the lens by about one stop (e.g. effectively, f4 becomes equivalent to f5.6), a 2 x converter by 2 stops (f4 becomes eqivalent f8), so with lenses of maximum aperture f5.6 stopping down two stops may then mean shooting at an effective aperture of f11 or even f16! Using more than one converter is possible but should only be done with the best optics for full aperture shooting and light-loss is additive (so using two 2x teleconverters together would reduce light-gathering power by four stops(!).

"In addition to the camera bodies and lenses, buy (and use!) a good, solid tripod as use of one does mainly two important things: firstly, it reduces the risk of camera shake affecting the photograph, and secondly, it slows down your photography and makes you think more about the photograph you are about to make, instead of the temptation to just 'point-and-shoot'. The last piece of equipment worth carrying with you in the field is a flashgun, which can provide vital fill-in lighting or even all the lighting (though many digital SLRs have built-in flash. For other photographic accessories see following.

Q: What accessories would you recommend always having in the camera-bag?

A: "All the following are accessories that I have found handy to always have in my camera-pack and add little to the overall bulk and weight of the pack:

Polarising filter - to darken blue skies, reduce haze, reduce reflections including reflections from shiny plant leaves, can double as a neutral density filter
Neutral density filters - for long exposures
Warming filter(s) - (film only) to compensate for both overcast light and clear blue sky light
Grey graduated filters - to help control contrast range and tonal range of the scene
Filter wrench - light plastic gripper to remove stubborn screw-in filters
Stepping rings - if needed, to mount screw-filters to lenses with different diameters (all my older Nikkor lenses from 20mm wideangle to 80-200mm zoom used to have 52mm filter thread but not newer lenses!)
Cable/remote release - to reduce camera vibrations
18% Grey Card/white card - grey side for metering reference, white side as reflector for close-ups
Hotshoe bendy arm clamp - to hold card to shade wideangle lens from sidelight
Mini Maglite torch - to see what your doing after you've photographed the last of the sunset... - the Mini Maglite is small and uses two standard AA-size batteries
Plastic bags - to keep equipment dry both in and out of the camera-bag
Black plastic tape - for sealing flash-cord connectors, securing zoom/focus ring on lenses used vertically, securing lens-hoods, etc

and for close-up work:

Extension tubes - fit between the lens and camera body and greatly increase close-focusing capability of the lens
Close-up lenses - screw into filter thread and increase close-focusing capability of the lens (though not nearly as much as extension tubes)
Coupling ring - connects two lenses togther via their filter threads - by coupling a 50mm standard lens onto the front of a 200mm lens the 50mm lens acts like a 'super' close-up lens permitting real macro photography (that is, greater than life-size magnification) in the field
Lastolite reflector - this clever gadget is about 15cm in diameter when packed but springs out to form a 40cm diameter circular reflector - the plain white one is most useful as it can be used not only to reflect light for filling in shadows but also to diffuse bright sunshine."

Q: What advice would you give to beginners at nature photography?

A: "Respect the welfare of your subjects above all, whether mammal, bird, bug or flower. Do it for love rather than money(!). Buy the best equipment you can afford, bearing in mind that the lens is still what really counts, the camera body is secondary (autofocus and digital excepted). Read books and magazines to learn the technical bits and techniques. Always carry a notebook and keep detailed notes on how you take each picture so that you can learn from your mistakes, until you gain experience and confidence with your equipment and technique. Use a tripod whenever possible! (for the reasons given previously). Be prepared for many disappointments, not only the 'just-misses' in the field but also the 'if onlys' back at the light box/computer. Whenever you look through the camera viewfinder think "is there any way that I can improve this photograph", perhaps by slight change of position, change of lens, use of filters, or perhaps by returning when the light is better! If you think you are onto some good photographs, don't be economic with the film (if shooting film) - better to throw away pictures that didn't work rather than wish you'd taken more. Try to be ruthless when editing your photos - throw out/delete any that are poor technically (very overexposed, very underexposed, out of focus, camera shake, etc) and cannot be 'rescued' in post-production, no matter how much effort was involved to get them (I know - it hurts).

Be ruthless when editing your photos .....

"As well as learning about photography, learn about your subjects, both via books and direct study and observation in the field. When photographing animals, try to keep your eye to the viewfinder as much as possible so that you are ready for fleeting actions or poses - but also keep an eye on your frame counter! - if shooting film and it's already on 30-something the best shot is bound to be frame 38! (that is, off the end of the film - it always amazes me how many of my best film shots were frame 36 or 37) and the same can happen with a compact-flash card! Always think about the light - its direction, how contrasty it is, its quality ('warm' as at sunset, 'cool' as through overcast skies, mist, etc) especially in terms of its effect on your subject, and how the sensor (or film) will record it - learn to look at the scene the way the camera will 'see' it and, nowadays, with how it can be further 'developed' in post-production (this comes with practice and experience). Try not to get too discouraged by photographs that haven't 'worked' for one reason or another but analyse why they didn't work and think what could be done to remedy it next time.

"Decide how you intend to use your photographs - if all you want are prints no bigger than A4 then either:

(a) shoot with print film (colour negative) - but bear in mind that you may have no control over how your pictures are printed (most are machine-printed) and hand-printed enlargements can be expensive; ISO 400 colour print film allows hand-held camera for most conditions and can now produce good quality prints up to maybe 24 inches (60 cm) before the grain size becomes too obvious
(b) shoot with a less expensive smaller-sensor digital camera.

If you just want to do slide shows then medium to fast slide film (ISO 200 to 400) and hand-held camera is fine - even slightly 'soft' slides can look sharp on the big screen!. Or shoot digital and go the digital projector route, again highest quality may not be required.

However, if you want to produce larger exhibition-size prints, or to have your photos published, and to beat the increasing competition, then higher standards are required and you will need to get the best from your equipment and technique, which usually means shooting at low to medium speed ISO (transparency film or digital), tripod, and greater effort. Finally, whatever your aspirations, your photography should be enjoyed."

Q: What are your thoughts on digital manipulation?

A: "Although I have my reservations, I am not anti-digital and believe it is another tool (albeit a very powerful tool) for the photographer and its use can be as legitimate as conventional image manipulation techniques to create the final image - such as use of filters, printing on different contrast photo papers, lith film, process techniques, etc. Indeed, in many respects, digital photography has many advantages over conventional film as the latter is a relatively fragile medium, easily damaged both before processing and after, and is difficult to copy without some loss of information. Digital photography should also give the photographer much more control over how the final image will appear, both from adjustments at the taking stage as well as subsequently at the computer. Digital photography does have its negative sides, such as extensive investment in peripheral technology (computer equipment, storage devices, printers, software), many more technical issues, and archivability concerns (my transparencies of 25 years ago can be easily viewed right now with a simple hand-held daylight magnifying viewer held up to window or room light - will digital images taken now be so easily viewed in 25 years' time?...).

Digital manipulation?......

"When it comes to digital manipulation however, with nature photography in particular, I believe that photographs of nature subjects or natural events should either still depict an actuality - a moment in time captured by the camera - rather than a post-produced 'Jurassic-Park' type image of what the photographer wanted it to be, or else it should be obvious (or made clear) that it is a photographic interpretation or montage (whether produced at the time or later), so that the skill of creating the image lies not just in the ability to use ever more complex and expensive equipment but in the ability of the naturalist/photographer/artist to be there and to see and capture the moment. Any subsequent digital modification should, perhaps, involve nothing more than 'tweaking' tones, colours, contrast rather than more radical modification such as moving/removing/adding elements. Beyond this it can be argued that one perhaps enters the domain of nature illustration or 'nature image creation' rather than nature photography per se. I guess it is up to each photographer to decide where he/she draws the line, but each of us should ask ourselves what we wish to achieve with the photographs we produce, bearing in mind that the general misconception of 'the camera never lies' still applies, particularly with 'straight'-looking photographs of nature/wildlife.

"In this respect, I find it saddening and frustrating that more and more 'wildlife' (mammals and birds) photographs published nowadays are, in fact, captive or tame subjects in a 'set-up' situation - manipulated before the camera if you like - and usually produced primarily for commercial reasons but give the impression of having been photographed in wild conditions with all the requisite skill and expertise that implies. Unfortunately, these kinds of images are usually published with nothing to say otherwise (and, let's face it, most publishers don't really care as long as the image fits their requirements). Now add to that the capability of making seamless digital composites of several elements from different photographs and it is becoming more and more difficult for even an informed viewer to judge whether the resultant image actually occurred or is 'made up'. My general impression from both informed viewers (that is, photographers) and uninformed viewers (that is, non-photographers) of nature and wildlife images (and, to some extent, landscapes) is that the mere hint of any digital 'jiggery-pokery' immediately diminishes the perceived artistic and emotional value of the image and the skill taken to achieve it.

"Nevertheless, I already know of several professional UK-based 'traditional' nature photographers who have said that they would certainly 'improve' an image digitally even to the extent of moving/removing/adding elements rather than just 'tweaking' tones or colours. Therefore, I think we will be seeing more and more nature/wildlife images which have been digitally 'idealised' (perhaps substantially in some cases) and it will become increasingly difficult for even very informed viewers (pro nature photographers) to judge the authenticity and veracity of such images and whether they were produced mainly by skilful photography or mainly by clever use of the computer. It will also become increasingly difficult not to 'go with the flow' because, as a professional (nature) photographer, I have to accept the economic and commercial imperative to produce some images that will satisfy the market demand, beat the increasing competition and be published (and paid for!). Already, the catalogues from most of the major stock photolibraries contain numerous 'straight'-looking nature/wildlife images which, to my eyes, are just too good to be true and which, I suppose, might be near-impossible to get using straight photography, but there are also more and more images which, to the informed eye at least, are more obviously the result of digital manipulation. I think it is important that the person viewing such an image is made aware of how it was created in terms of wild/captive and 'straight'/manipulated, and that nature photographers should be open and honest about these aspects (though, as mentioned before, publishers seldom concern themselves with this).

"I have to confess though that, even though I enjoy photographing animals wherever they are, I do not get as much artistic and emotional satisfaction from photographing them in captivity, or from actively 'designing' wildlife photographs, whether the subject matter is manipulated before or after the photograph is taken. Whilst I realise that some particular subjects or images may be virtually impossible to obtain except under controlled or manipulated conditions, whenever possible I prefer to photograph wildlife that is wild and free, looking for truly natural situations and images with poetic qualities in terms of subject, lighting, and composition, making the best of the circumstances at the time and accepting the many failures and 'if-onlys' that are a fact of photographing wildlife in the wild."

Q: Which other nature photographers do you most admire?

A: "Of contemporary nature and landscape photographers - in the UK there is Heather Angel, Stephen Dalton and Laurie Campbell - in the rest of the world there is Franz Lanting of course, Art Wolfe , Tom Mangelsen, Jim Brandenburg, Jeff Foott, Konrad Wothe, to name just a few. Of past nature and landscape photographers - Ansel Adams, and I must mention Richard and Cherry Kearton, two brothers who were pioneers in nature photography around 1890(!) - in an old book shop I found this wonderful book entitled "With Nature and a Camera" and subtitled "Being the Adventures and Observations of a Field Naturalist and an Animal Photographer" first published in 1897 and which was about the exploits of this intrepid pair as they travelled around some remote (and not so remote) corners of Britain (transport by bicycle, train and boat only - no cars or aeroplanes in those days!), observing and photographing the wildlife and people they came across - some of the old photographs (taken with a large plate camera, remember) are frighteningly good for their time (and some of their field techniques are just plain frightening!)."

The Kearton brothers in action c.1890
(photographing crow's nest using ladders)

Q: Which other nature photographers have had the greatest influence on your photography?

A: "In my photographic 'early learning' days, Heather Angel's books opened my eyes to alternative ways of seeing and photographing the natural world. In my 'mid-term' years Franz Lanting's photography showed the use of some novel techniques and also that the final image didn't necessarily have to be pin-sharp or fine-grained to make a great nature image. Latterly, the superb (and consistent) work of Art Wolfe and Tom Mangelsen."

Q: What is the motivation behind your photography?

A: "First and foremost, a fascination and love of nature in all its amazing variety, its forms, patterns and colours, and the quest to capture with a camera the evocative and poetic images that my eyes and emotions have already been captured by - coupled with the need, almost, to share these images with others. Secondly, the love of photography and the still image. Lastly (and leastly) is to pay the rent(!)."
"Good luck with your own photography and may you have few frame 38's/corrupted cards!"

If you have any other photography questions not covered here
then feel free to e-mail Geoff at:


- but please don't expect an immediate response!.
New questions may be incorporated into this FAQ.


This page last updated (selective): Mar 2010