At some of these locations a good DSLR, with a telephoto lens having a focal length of 200mm will suffice, as you can get fairly close to the animals, but generally you'll need a 300mm lens or longer, and 400mm or longer could be a real help.
I found that even in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, which Charles Darwin's book, “Origin of Species,” made famous, where many of the birds and other wildlife have a small “circle of fear,” you often need a lens with a 400mm focal length.
The “Circle of Fear” is the distance from an animal, inside of which, the animal has discomfort or distress from the photographer's or observer's presence, which may cause the animal to flee.
In other locations, such as an African safari, or a hike in Denali, a super-telephoto focal length of 500mm or more is virtually a “must.”
Using one of those big guns in the world of photography for the first time can be very exciting, and rewarding. At last, you'll have a lens which can capture a small bird, at distance, with beautiful sharp detail.
Unfortunately, often the results of that first time out with a super-telephoto are disappointing, as even the slightest movement of the camera/lens is magnified by these long lenses.
Sometimes, even when mounting your camera/super-telephoto lens on a tripod, it just isn't enough. You still get a significant number of rejects, photos you can't use, and your good photos aren't what you really wanted, due to lens/camera motion and vibration.
Motion at the end of long lenses is the main contributor to fuzzy images. Lens vibration can be due to any one of several reasons including wind, an unstable platform and even the movement of the camera's mirror.
The first line of defense to hold your camera/lens motionless is the use of a tripod, or such products as a beanbag. You might have noticed some using a monopod for wildlife photography, just as it's used for sports photography, but to me, it's rarely as good for photographing wildlife, unless the subject is approximately the size of people. For small birds, to me, its use is only barely better than hand-holding, though it will reduce fatigue.
Of course, the tripod must be suitable for your camera/lens combination, so it can hold it still. For information on choosing a tripod, please read How to Choose a Tripod.
Normally, for most photography, I recommend a ball head, but for wildlife photography, more often than not, I recommend a gimbal head, or gimbal accessory to turn a ball head into a gimbal head. While the right ball head can carry the heavy weight of a DSLR coupled with a super-telephoto lens, it's rarely maneuverable enough for wildlife photography. You often must be able to pan the camera/lens rapidly and smoothly, both vertically and horizontally, when photographing wildlife.
I use a Wimberley Sidekick attached to my Really Right Stuff BH55 ball head.When focused on a stationary subject, I tighten all the knobs to hold the camera/lens steady. When focused on a moving subject, such as a flying bird, this isn't possible, so I set the knobs to have a small amount of drag. For small birds, such as warblers, which seem to constantly flit and flitter, the head is set as it would be for flying birds.
Those are the basics, a great sturdy tripod with excellent head.
Now for long lens techniques:
- How you hold your camera and activate the shutter is important, as holding your camera and pressing the shutter release down can create vibration (movement of the camera/lens). The movement travels forward, hits and resonates at the lens' front element, then moves back to the camera, causing a blurry photograph.
To limit this problem, I rest my eyebrow on the camera at the top, back of the viewfinder. You can also use an eyecup. I gently rest my left hand on the top of the lens barrel. Finally, I don't sharply press down, or jab at the shutter release, but gently press down on it, in a rolling motion. This helps to limit the camera/lens movement, and helps retard the transmission of any movement to and from the lens.
- For stationary photographs, use a remote shutter release, and consider locking your “mirror up,” to reduce the generation of vibration.
- Don't extend one or any of your tripod leg sections if not necessary.
- Especially in windy conditions, add weight to your tripod by hanging the weight from a hook underneath your tripod head. Make sure the weight won't sway in the wind, as that movement will defeat the use of the weight.
- Ensure that your tripod legs will not slip. If you are on soft ground, use spiked feet for your tripod.
- Never, repeat never, extend your tripod's center column, as it adds instability to your tripod.