Capturing The Urban Menagerie With Canon Lenses

©Jon Sienkiewicz

In their natural habitat, animals are as beautiful as they are elusive and uncooperative. We’d all love to go on safari in Africa, or archipelago-hopping in the Galapagos. Who doesn’t envy National Geographic photographers who travel the world to celebrate every living creature?

But let’s be real. The chances of me tracking elephants, giraffes and zebras are about the same as me playing in the NBA.

Besides, photography is something I want to do every day, not only when I get enough scratch together to travel.

But being stuck in a large metropolitan area won’t stop me from photographing wildlife. And it doesn’t have to stop you either.

Cropped shot of 8-point buck captured with Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM zoom and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. Notice the intense eye contact. I spoke softly to this majestic animal as I approached, and he neither flinched nor twitched his tail—the signal deer instinctively use to warn other deer of danger. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

Even if you live in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, you’re surrounded by wildlife. The creatures may not be as close as your doorstep, but they’re nearby. For instance, within 12 miles of Manhattan—as the brazen New York City pigeon flies—you’ll find dozens and dozens of nature preserves, parks, environmental centers and animal refuges.

I live in Bergen County, NJ, and according to 2010 US Census data there are only about 55 counties in the country with more people—impressive when you consider that the US is divided into more than 3,100 counties. In my neighborhood—which is anything but rural—we regularly see deer, foxes, hawks, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, a resident woodchuck, tons of turkeys and my favorite—Great Blue Heron. I even had a turtle knock on my front door once—really. (Yes, I let him in.)

I was able to approach within about 15 feet of this beautiful bird who was resting on the back of a park bench. Camera was my trusty Canon EOS 5D Mark II and older Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM zoom. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

Location, Location, Location
As the old saw says, if you want to be successful hunting ducks, go where the ducks are. Finding wildlife is easier than it may seem. Do a quick online search and the first area of interest that appears near me is the New Jersey Audubon Society, a nicely maintained spot that was bequeathed to become a refuge by animal lover Lucine L. Lorrimer in 1956.

A better way to find animal photo ops is to ask other photographers, birders and hikers. Most of my favorite places do not appear on maps and thereby have retained much of their unexploited beauty. You will not find a list of these spots at the end of this article. Others are so obvious and accessible they are sometimes overlooked—some things are so familiar that we ignore them. So check popular local parks, ponds and public easement areas, too.

If you enjoy photographing animals and do not own any of the lenses mentioned below, I recommend that you see the difference a new lens can make. The single most common lament I hear from friends and other photographers is that the animals are always “too small” in the images that they shoot. The regal woodchuck that looked toothy and magnificent in person appears like little more than a fuzz ball when shot with the standard kit zoom packed with most DSLR cameras.

I hear people claim that good photographers can use any manner of equipment—that talent trumps technology. Maybe, but think about this: even a master electrician needs some tools—an insulated screwdriver, wire cutters, Linemen’s Pliers. An expert would not attempt to achieve satisfactory results with only a jackknife and a roll of tape.

Telephoto lenses are a must, as anyone would suspect. Telephoto zooms are a plus. Canon’s EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM is an outstanding choice and offers the best combination of zoom range, magnification and a fast aperture. The focusing speed, overall performance and optical quality are second to none. Because we can never predict how distant (or close) a subject opportunity might be, having a short minimum focusing distance is a definite advantage—and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM delivers in spades, focusing down to 3.9 feet at all zoom settings.           

This lens also features Canon’s next-generation Optical Image Stabilizer, which provides up to four stops of correction at all focal lengths. This feature is helpful at telephoto distances, and extremely helpful when combined with the fast f/2.8 aperture in dim light situations.

Since nearly all wildlife photography happens outdoors, where weather can be foul—and even good weather can degenerate into conditions that might be disastrous for conventional camera gear—the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM zoom is dust resistant and moisture resistant, and designed for use in potentially inclement environments typical of professional and ardent amateur use. 

Personally, I favor the less-featured and more affordable Canon 70-200mm f/4 (officially labeled “EF 70-200mm f/4L USM”) for three reasons.

First, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L is only one f/stop slower than the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. I concede that one f/stop can be significant at certain times, particularly when controlling depth-of-field (as is common when shooting human portraits). But the great majority of the time when shooting wildlife, I use an aperture of f/5.6 or smaller anyway. The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV has a very bright viewfinder, and while an f/2.8 lens does provide more VF illumination for composition, I don’t miss it when using the f/4 lens. Plus the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV has such outstanding low-light/high-ISO performance that I don’t need an f/2.8 when the lights go down.

Second, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM weighs less than half as much as its f/2.8 cousin, tipping the scales at 1.55 pounds (705 g) vs. 3.28 pounds (1.49 kg). That difference may not seem like much on paper, but when you’re lugging several pounds of equipment for hours at a time, every once counts.

The final reason—and this should be the primary reason, after all—in my personal experience the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L  IS II USM  zoom is every bit as first-rate as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM lens. The f/2.8 lens has excellent Image Stabilization which contributes to additional sharpness, and the larger f/2.8 aperture can make portraits appear sharper because the subject can be isolated from the background, but under normal bright daylight conditions I find the f/4 lens as potent as the heavier and costlier f/2.8 version.

Long prime telephotos like the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens, which seem to predominate every sporting event, are of ultimate value for wildlife photography, but are slightly less desirable in slam-bam city settings because for most practical purposes they require use of a tripod. Keys to capturing the urban menagerie include speed and spontaneous reaction, situations where a tripod can be a handicap.

Two other lenses that round out my Canon lens wildlife arsenal are the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM and my ancient Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 with Softfocus. The later lens has been discontinued but is a living testament to the eternal quality of Canon lenses. I use it because it offers a good combination of focal length, speed and size. And like all Canon lenses, it’s sharp and crisp. The EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM provides an exciting zoom range from extra-wide wide-angle through moderate, portrait-length telephoto. If circumstances warrant it, I sometimes pack my Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM wide-angle zoom.

Good Work Habits Produce Good Results
You cannot take a picture with the camera you left at home. Sure, I look silly walking through a grocery store carrying a Canon DSLR and big, white telephoto zoom lens, but I’m immune to the stares. If someone asks, I honestly explain that I didn’t want to leave my camera in the car (although I once told a cashier that I was a ghost hunter and the store was haunted).

Don’t misunderstand—I’m not expecting to encounter an elk or grizzly inside ShopRite. But I could—and sometimes do—spot wildlife on my way to the store and back. Like the evening I returned home to find nine turkeys roosting in a tree in my front yard. The one phrase I never ever want to say is, “I wish I’d brought my camera.”

A couple hen turkeys eyeing me curiously, wondering if I’m one of the badly misinformed and sadly ignorant folks who feeds bread to wild birds. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

Wildlife can be photographed at any time during the day, but I have found early dawn and pre-dusk periods to be most productive. As a matter of routine, I typically visit two or three hot spots early in the morning or just before sunset.

Tips for Approaching Animals
Accept from the beginning that you’re not going to get as close as you’d like, and be prepared to shoot from any distance. Everything else seems like common sense.

Be quiet, walk slowly and keep your elbows tucked in when you shoot (which is always good advice in all situations). I stop frequently and remain as still and silent as possible. Some animals—like highly urbanized white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) for instance—often ignore people who are willing to play statue. When you raise your camera to eyelevel, do it slowly. Needless to say, you should make the appropriate camera settings—ISO, Mode, etc.—before the stalking begins to avoid noisy fumbling with control dials.

Occasionally I talk to the animals, aloud. Creepy perhaps, but it works for me. I use about the same tone of voice that I use when I praise my dog. I believe that this chatter makes some animals curious, so they stare hard at the source.

Although this mallard is common and ordinary, the wake he created makes an interesting pattern, once heightened slightly via post processing. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II zoom. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

Camouflage? Wear it if you want, but I don’t think it matters much. I’ve had the same success wearing an urban camo M65 field jacket as wearing a blinding blaze orange sweatshirt. I tend to opt for the brighter colors so I can be easily seen by hunters. Armed humans are far more dangerous than any animal I’m likely to encounter in The Garden State.

Cautions and Warnings
Never offer food to the animals, even if they approach you with their palms up. Some city birds and other creatures learn to associate humans with the snacks that thoughtless and ignorant people sometimes provide. Not only does this desensitize the animals to the very real threat of Homo sapiens, feeding them human food can make them sick.

New Jersey has a large black bear population, but they are not typically found in larger cities. If you travel to known bear habitats, learn and remember the safety rules and consider carrying a bear horn or marine air horn. Bears usually avoid humans and run from loud noises, but don’t bet your life on it.

Be aware of the danger signs of rabies in wild things. When animals that are normally nocturnal—the skunk for instance—appear during the daylight hours, that’s a warning you should heed. In general, if an animal appears to be acting in a strange or unusual way, don’t take chances—make tracks. In my area, deer can carry blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) also known as deer ticks, which have been linked to Lyme disease. Common sense is required—along with a quick scan for bugs after being in the woods.

The last tip is passed on from a late great friend who was as wise as he was talented. He told me, “When you visit an animal’s home, behave the way you would want it to behave if it visited your home.” I cannot think of any better way to say it.