Better equipment does not a good photographer make!

On Saturday I had been invited to a friend’s place to photograph some badger cubs. I was very excited as I’d been trying to find some good ones to photograph for a while and the clan near his house was showing very regularly with 3 new cubs this year. We were joined by another photographer who I’d never met, but when he was unpacking his gear I saw several bags and tripods. After exchanging a few words I asked him: “are you a professional?” He strongly said no, but that he has entered some of his photographs in the BWPA competition this year.

We went down to the hide for about 19:00 by which time the badgers were already up and running about. It’s funny how much people know about them but how few have actually seen one in real life! We got to setting up our equipment quietly, and this other man pulled out a Nikon D800E, Nikon 200-400 lens (kit worth about £5000) along with 4 flash guns on metal poles to be placed in front of the hide. Equipment envy is quite a common feature amongst photographers, yet all I could do was feel intimated more than anything else!

So this man instructed our friend where to place the flash guns, and was accommodated as best as was possible. We then sat down and started shooting. When his first flash photo was taken, the badgers got scared off and ran back into their holes. The new cubs were extremely frightened, despite their bad eyesight, and it was definitely not pleasant as the other photographer having your subject’s behaviour modified like that. Throughout the entire session they remained a bit on edge.

My curiosity got the best of me and I had a look over his shoulder once or twice as I wanted to see what kind of shots this man was getting. He frequently liked to chimp (look at his camera screen) and pixel peep (zoom in as much as possible to check for sharpness). Zoomed out, they looked rather uninteresting, the flash looked harsh and unnatural, and I think he said he was shooting at ISO 3200 most of the time (i.e. very sensitive and possible colour noise). It was at that point that I realised what this man was: someone who had decided to spend his disposable income on the most expensive camera gear he could find and all of a sudden I felt OK.

When googling what other people had to say about this, they liked to quote Ansel Adams (“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”) and talk about how excellent photographs with cheap equipment – wedding photography, portait photography, and even landscape photography, like my recent blog post about thattree. But the problem with all this is: you are limited in style by what your equipment can do, and the trouble with most wildlife photography is that often (unless you like to do wideangle wildlife shots) your subject will be far away from you meaning you will need a decent telephoto lens. Which will often lead to a pricier (though not all extortionate) initial investment.

There are a good few options out there for cheaper telephoto lenses, as long as getting something pinsharp isn’t necessarily what you are aiming for. I was using my Nikon D80 and a 55-200 (plus a very old 70-300) up until earlier on this year – the only reason for my upgrade was that I felt limited by my old equipment (mainly to do with ISO limitations in dark settings), which is the only reason people upgrade. What really makes me go ‘wow’ when I see a photographer’s work is not how well his technical brain works on autopilot, but how much he knows about manipulating lighting, composition, depicting their passion and being able to be at the right place at the right time.

If you have the disposable income to spend – spend it on learning the basics rather than jumping into the deep end. Yes, better equipment will make your images look better technically, but not creatively. And this is something that I am also still working hard at. So how, and what, did I do?

Having a nice, fast lens (f/2.8) helped me in this case, and I took a look of shots at ISO 800.

Badger portrait

Badger portrait

Telephoto badgers

Badgers eating, close-up

I somehow managed to get something reflected in their eyes, which the first reason why I would have wanted to use flash. With animals like these where their fur coloration is similar to their eyes, it helps to have something reflected in them to allow you to distinguish where their eyes actually are. After that it would have been nice to be able to remove shadows, or create a nice directional light as under dense woodland, and with a cloudy sky the light is rather dull.

Badger black and white close-up

B&W badger close-up

The one problem with telephoto lenses in this scenario is that you can tell you’re in a place where the animals are being tempted out. Another good thing about flash is that it might have allowed for faster shutter speeds.

Badger pair

Badger pair

And, knowing that my lens wideangle lens is not as good as my telephoto, I still took it out at the end to try for something different.

Badger surprise!

Badger surprise!

Badger wideangle

Badger wideangle

(If you are interested in the fate of badgers in the UK at the moment, as they are being subjected to a very unnecessary and controversial cull, have a look at this page and sign the petition here)

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