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One of the biggest barriers to wildlife photography as I see it is the requirement for fast, long expensive lenses. I have in the past used a teleconverter to get my 300mm lens up to 600mm but even that seems barely adequate for anything except particularly large or close subjects.

If you are properly prepared, e.g. scout your subject in advance for several days (or weeks), wear appropriate camouflage, find downwind vantage points etc, can you actually offset this need for expensive glass by allowing yourself to get closer and thus manage with, say, a 300mm lens? Or is there still a longer minimum focal length you should be working with?

Please bear in mind that I am referring to UK wildlife, which generally consists of small mammals and birds - no elephants here!

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Yes, I think it can to a degree. An expert on the subject is Moose Peterson, he has advise on getting to know the subject and getting close, see my answer here: photo.stackexchange.com/a/18942/4191 –  MikeW Mar 28 '12 at 7:55
    
Thank you Mike - some good stuff there. –  Nick Miners Mar 28 '12 at 10:26
    
heh when I read the subject, I assumed you were going to be asking about using a kit lens! –  drewbenn Mar 28 '12 at 11:20
    
Happy not to disappoint! –  Nick Miners Mar 28 '12 at 11:24

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Whatever length your lens, knowing the habits and personalities of your subjects is an essential in wildlife photography, and I have found that the knowledge I have picked up along the way, has enabled me to make good use of my 70 -300mm lens in this field. I am in Florida, where we have a variety of spectacular water birds. I have learnt that if the osprey leaves the branch upon which she was eating a fish, and flies off, she will inevitably turn and come back down the river, enabling some great in flight shots of bird and prey. I know not to worry that the dragonfly that I was about to capture sunning himself on a reed has departed, as, if I am patient and get set up focusing on the tip of the reed, he will return to that same reed, and I am ready for him. I have learned not to get out of the car for that shot of a hawk on a telegraph pole, as I can invariably get closer in the car than on foot; indeed any kind of transport, be it car, boat or horse makes me less of a threat for some reason. (I have to add that horses are good camouflage but bad tripods). Also, some birds become accustomed to walkers, or canal boats for example, just as deer in large parks are used to cars and hikers, so you have a much better chance of getting within range with them, than in a really wild spot. I could go on at length, but this is just a long-winded way of saying ‘yes’, decide what you want to capture, and then get to know it and it will pay off.

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To some extent, yes, knowledge and preparation can offset the need for longer lenses, but even though you'll need a good minimum reach and I think 300mm is just good enough.

Now, I have seen people using 200mm lenses on the field as well as people using 600mm. At the end of the day both came back happy with amazing shots. Lets face it, the 200mm lens can never give you the same flexibility and comfort that the 600mm will, you'll have to accept the limitation and only then you can start finding your work-around to overcome the limitation. Its not mandatory that the subject must fill the frame entirely. You can shoot animals and birds with their habitat, with their mate, their grou group, on hunting action etc etc, just be imaginative and don't stop shooting just because you cant reach it. Using a lens with good sharpness and resolution can retain good details even if you crop it to a good point.

Using a tele-converter is also a good option though the IQ degrades quite a bit. But I have seen good results using a 300mm f/4 + 1.4xTC.

This flickr thread has some example of wildlife shots taken with lenses up-to 200mm.

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As you mentioned, camouflage in various forms can help, including portable or permanent blinds. The next logical extension of this idea, though, is to move away from the camera and trigger it remotely, which allows the camera blind to be much smaller and very, very still. There are all sorts of great remote-control solutions for DSLR's now, including some that enable live view remotely.

If you don't have the patience to wait for the wildlife to come to your blind, of course, you can always make your remote camera mobile. BeetleCam is probably the most well-known use of this technique. Although that specific example might still be threatening to small mammals, it's a great example of what can be done with a wide-angle lens just by getting close to your subject.

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