Ultra Zooms Bring Nature Up Close

Blue Heron - 676.4mm, 1/250s, F5.0, ISO 64, camera rested on a rock for stability

Blue Heron - 676.4mm, 1/250s, F5.0, ISO 64

Birds, rabbits, raccoons, even ducks are best photographed from a distance, in their natural habitat and indulging in their typical behavior. Many of these animals do not really want you to get too close, shying away, flying off or even biting to keep you at a safe distance. There was a time when you needed a 35mm film SLR and an expensive long telephoto lens to take this kind of nature photography from far.

Fortunately, digital technology has made possible cameras that are compact and light, and costing a fraction of what you would have had to spend in 35mm equivalent equipment, opening up a whole new world of photography to budget conscious photographers. These long zoom (or ultra zoom) digital cameras typically feature 10x, 12x, or even 20x optical zoom. For our needs, what we are interested in is not so much the zoom power, but the telephoto focal length.

Fujifilm FinePix S100FS

Fujifilm FinePix S100FS


For example, the Fujifilm FinePix S100FS features a 14.3x optical zoom lens, with a focal length range of 28-400mm (35mm equivalent). What these numbers are saying is that the maximum telephoto focal length on the S100FS is 400mm, a perfect focal length for nature photography, allowing you to bring far away subjects close. The Fujifilm S100FS delivers very good image quality with excellent low light capability (low noise up to ISO 400), important when the light level is low. It also features a manual zoom ring which makes zooming in and out very fast. The lens is image stabilized, which helps you to hand hold the camera steady when shooting at long focal lengths. The S100FS also features a swivel LCD which makes it super convenient to take pictures low to the ground without having to lie down on the ground.

Fujifilm FinePix S100FS

Fujifilm FinePix S100FS

Nikon Coolpix P90

Nikon Coolpix P90

If you want an even more powerful telephoto lens, consider the Nikon Coolpix P90, with an amazing 24x optical zoom (26-624mm equiv.). The maximum telephoto focal length of the P90 is 624mm. The P90 delivers good image quality, though high ISO (low light) images tend to get noisy. Image Stabilization helps steady the shot when the camera is hand held, but at the max. 624mm focal length, you would need to have rock steady hands — or use a tripod or natural resting surface to prevent obtaining blurred pictures. The P90 also has a convenient swivel LCD.

Olympus SP-590UZ

Olympus SP-590UZ

The Olympus SP-590UZ tops the ultra zoom category with a 26x optical zoom (26–676mm equiv.). The maximum telephoto focal length of the SP-590UZ is 676mm. The SP-590UZ delivers good to very good image quality, though high ISO (low light) images tend to get noisy. Image Stabilization helps steady the shot when the camera is hand held, but, like for the Nikon P90, at the max. 676mm focal length, you would need to have rock steady hands — or use a tripod or natural resting surface to prevent obtaining blurred pictures. The LCD on the SP-590UZ does not swivel.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28

Other ultra zooms to consider are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 at 18x optical zoom (27-486mm equiv.), with Image Stabilization, good image quality and LCD does not swivel; the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 at 12x optical zoom (25mm-300mm equiv.), Image Stabilization, good image quality at low ISOs, and high resolution LCD (does not swivel) in a pocketable compact body.

Camera Settings

Most of us either leave the camera’s shooting mode to AUTO or P, leaving the camera to make most of the exposure decisions for us. But shooting at a very long focal length introduces some challenges the photographer needs to be aware of.

The rule of thumb photographers have relied upon is to use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. For example, if you are shooting the Fujifilm S100FS at its maximum focal length of 400mm, then you should use a shutter speed of 1/400 sec. or faster (1/500 sec. is faster than 1/400 sec., and 1/1000 sec. is faster than 1/500 sec.) to ensure that you can safely hand hold the camera.

Mode Dial

Mode Dial

If you use a shutter speed less than that, you run the risk of introducing camera shake (which typically occurs when you press the shutter release button to take the picture) and obtaining a picture that is blurred.

So, the longer the focal length you use, the faster the shutter speed you need to use if you hand hold your camera. By switching to Shutter-Priority Mode (S mode, sometimes labeled Tv on the Mode Dial), you get to select the shutter speed you want — and the camera automatically determines the other settings for you.

When your digital camera meters the scene, it determines the amount of light it needs to let into the camera to expose the image sensor. Once it has made this determination, it typically adjusts two (and maybe even three) settings: the shutter speed determines how long light is allowed to expose the image sensor; the aperture determines how much (as in through a small hole or a large hole) light is allowed in; and, if you have set it to AUTO, the ISO determines how sensitive to light the image sensor will be.

Because you have fixed the shutter speed to a fast one to eliminate blur (also to freeze action on the part of your subject), the camera has to adjust the aperture and ISO to ensure the picture receives the proper amount of light for a correct exposure.

A fast shutter speed means that you are allowing light to expose the image sensor for only a very short time. To compensate, the camera opens up the aperture (uses a large hole) and, if necessary, boosts up the ISO.

There are two consequences to that adjustment:

  1. The large aperture reduces depth of field, meaning that you need to focus accurately to obtain a sharp picture of your subject. The background becomes blurred, which is a good thing, helping to isolate and bring out your main subject. The problem you may face is that, if there is not enough light, the largest aperture on your camera may still not allow enough light in for a correct exposure.
  2. If the camera determines that, at your selected shutter speed and using the largest aperture available, there is still not enough light for a correct exposure, the camera will use a higher ISO. There is a price to pay whenever you use a higher ISO: the noise increases and image quality suffers. That is why most digital cameras nowadays feature aggressive noise reduction software in-camera. Though this helps to reduce the noise, the process of doing so often smudges the fine detail in the photograph, reducing the overall image quality.

All of this to say, don’t get too excited over all the zoom power these ultra zoom digital cameras bring you. The marketing literature camera manufacturers put out (and even some articles written by reviewers) make it sound as though it’s a snap and that from now on, you’ll obtain gorgeous pictures of birds in trees, swans on the lake, geese flying the V formation, ducks in the pond, etc. Maybe. But reality is that you should be prepared to take lots of pictures, use as large capacity a memory card you can afford, use a fast shutter speed (or else use a tripod or a secure ledge to rest your camera on) and be aware that you may even need to do some post-processing in an image editing software to obtain the results you are after. The time and effort you invest in these pictures will yield your most memorable keepers.

Best Time of Day

If you’ve been taking pictures for some time, you know that it is the light that makes the picture. Noon time, when the light is straight down, is probably not the best time for your nature photography. The midday light causes dark shadows and the bright light often results in blown highlights. Early morning light is best and it is also the time when the animals do their grooming and feeding.

If you don’t care about capturing details of the animals themselves, you can shoot when the sun is setting. Then the animals are a dark silhouette against a colorful sunset.

Don’t forget that, as with humans, you should always focus on the eyes whenever the face figures prominently in the picture.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Believe it or not, you don’t need to go to exotic places to take good pictures of animals. The local zoo may provide lots of samples for you to practice on. If there is a cage between you and your subject, try putting the front of the lens right up to the wire (being careful not to scratch the lens): the cage disappears as if by magic. Again, you can go early or find out from the zookeeper the feeding times. If you have a sizable backyard that is often visited by birds, set up a bird bath and/or bird feeder and use the appropriate seeds to attract the kind of bird you want to photograph. You can then do your nature photography right from the comfort of your living room!