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How to approach digital wildlife photography

Digital wildlife photography - Interview with Irvine Eidelman

Irvine, you are a renowned wildlife photographer whose stunning images of big cats and other African wildlife have adorned the pages of


and featured in various publications.

You share your skills via hands on photography workshops based in and around your South African Cape Town home. Sadly attending your course in person may not be a possibility for all of us – so many thanks for agreeing to share a few of your “trade secrets” with the visitors of Digital Photography Bureau.

Irvine Eidelman, poses in front of one of his prints

1. If there was one key piece of advice you would give an aspiring wildlife digital photographer – what would it be?

Thank you for asking me to share my ideas. Yes the distance to South Africa is long…but the wildlife opportunities abound. Your readers are welcome to interact with me via my website

A single piece of advise is a big ask because there are so many factors at play in photography and in the segments of photography, specifically wildlife. Patience and opportunity come to mind, meaning that in order to capture wildlife images one has to travel to the various wildlife parks, be well prepared and with lots of patience and persistence. As an example – we tracked a cheetah and three cubs in temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius for close on 4 hours before there was action. Get to know animal habits, study their behaviour and habitat. Make wildlife photography your passion…..The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park while being remote and stark is one of the finest places on earth to photograph Cheetah, Leopard, and Lion. And we have travelled there over forty times since 1989. My wife Jen is also a photographer and we are able to act as a team…share the driving and equipment as well as those special moments which happen in the wild.

2. If you were starting from scratch – with a limited budget – what equipment would you buy?

All the big names in digital photography manufacture quality cameras and lenses. I am a Canon user. For wildlife as a hobbyist the outlay can be quite high as you would want to have the best quality lens from the start. Think of it this way – you can have a perfect brain but if you have bad eyes the images your brain sees will not be good. So if you have a reasonable camera body buy the best quality lens. For wildlife you need reach and at present in Canon the longest zoom is the Canon 100 to 400 L IS lens. This is an L series lens and if one is using a crop camera like a Canon 7D, the focal length of that lens “increases” by a factor of 1.6 (to give from 160 to 640). That’s a reasonable length together with the versatility of zoom. Many may argue that prime lenses are superior – I use both. If wildlife was going to be my only interest and if my budget would allow it and if I could only have one lens – I would buy the Canon 300mm f2.8 L IS type 1 lens with Canon L 1.4x and 2x converters…by so doing you have a versatile lens from 300 to 600

3. Obviously different shots call for different settings – but do you have a basic set up as a start point?


Set up is the most important part of a shoot. Before you go out searching for the cats you have to know your camera. Photography is all about light. When I teach, I find that many clients do not know how to set up their cameras. Basic things like charging batteries, enough memory cards etc seem obvious, but people have been known to leave home without battery chargers!!

I set up all my cameras to these same settings:

  1. IS0 200, single centre focus point,
  2. AI servo,
  3. Av mode,
  4. back button autofocus,
  5. maximum frames per second setting
  6. shoot in RAW format.

Using Av puts me in control of the aperture and I keep an eye on my shutter speed. If its slow I bump up the ISO. The biggest causes of unsharp images are camera shake and poor focus technique. Stabilization support for your gear is non negotiable and for wildlife photography from a car a beanbag still works best for me. I have a number of camera bodies each with a different lens which obviates changing lenses in sunny and dusty conditions. But that’s me….for the enthusiast…a good camera body and a zoom as I mentioned above will be adequate.

4. What would you say were the biggest mistakes you made – and learned from?

Oh Gosh….I have made many mistakes. Buy best camera and lens from start to avoid the “upgrade trudge” as I call it. And when in the field be patient.

5. You have produced thousands of stunning images – do you have a personal favourite, and why?


My personal favourite is an image of a leopard cub walking towards me at dusk. I christened him “Little Guy”. I like the picture because it has a surreal effect and I managed to get eye expression that makes the picture.

In wildlife photography……focus on the eyes. If the eye is in sharp focus, your image will be that much better.

leopard cu

6. Which photography accessory do you consider least able to do without?

Oviously without camera and lens you cant do anything.

But in addition to those basic requirements, I personally never leave home without spare memory cards, batteries and chargers.

I strongly recommend making a checklist of literally everything you may need on the trip - we have one that includes everthing from breakfast cereal to extension cords which we check and double check before setting off. After all digital wildlife photography takes place in the "wild" and one cannot afford to risk wasting all the investment made in both time and equipment for want of some small but essential item.

7. Do you have any shot in mind that you have yet to accomplish?

I am still hoping to capture a Caracal or a Honeybadger. I have been pursuing these rare and shy creatures for a number of years - but have yet to get that elusive "keeper". For me this patient "hunt" for the perfect photo, epitomizes what digital wildlife photography is all about.

8. If its possible to say – how many shots do you reckon to take in order to create a “special keeper”?

On a good day one can land up with so many images…..if you get 2 to 5 keepers a day that would be special. In wildlife I would say 2 keepers per day and you are doing well.

9. What piece of equipment is next on your wish list?

I have two items on the wish list - Canon 500mm L f4 and the new Canon 1Dx

10. Any final words of wisdom regarding digital wildlife photography?

Create the opportunity to see them and photograph them. My recommendation is a trip of say 10 days to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and don’t forget the beanbag, and a hat. Many say that you must be up at the crack of dawn or late afternoon….I agree as far as light is concerned …but I have seen the cats at all hours…the trick is to find them and sit with them…..patience pays off.

in summary

"It is a great honor to see and photograph wild animals in their natural habitat. Conservation areas are precious gems to be enjoyed, but above all respected."

Many thanks to Irvine for sharing his knowledge about digital wildlife photography and some of his stunning images.

To benefit from Irvine's skills first hand, contact him at

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