We had an interesting discussion in Alaska on the tundra last week. We were photographing ptarmigans, one of my favorite Alaska birds, along the creeks and rivers we walked during our bear photo safari. Since we were walking 3-5 miles a day, I decided to use a Nikon 500mm F5.6 PF. This lens is the size of a 70-200mm F2.8, and when paired with my D6, is a great walk around wildlife set up. Of course I always like to use my 600mm F4 because it can just melt backgrounds away at F4. The 500mm was only one stop slower, and I saved about 6 pounds. But could I get the creamy backgrounds I love with many of my wildlife photos?
One often overlooked aspect is your subject to background distance. If your background is not pinned right against your subject, doesn’t 5.6 work just fine? The answer is yes. But just knowing this principle is not enough. Take a look at this ptarmigan photo above. The willow was right behind the bird, maybe 5 feet away, and shooting at 5.6 was going to render details in the background. But sometimes details aren’t bad and can contribute to the image…maybe tell the viewer more about where this bird lives. If I had my 600mm F4 I could have blurred the background more and eliminated bright sticks and grass in the background.
But you have another tool to fix this problem. Your feet…move your position. Sounds obvious, right? But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched photographers just blaze away at wildlife and not consider background. Many people use a version of the 200-500mm, which is wide open at F5.6. If I want a soft creamy background using a 5.6 lens, I can do it, but I just have to move position or wait until my subject moves away from distracting backgrounds. Honestly, I know many times I have gotten excited about a wildlife image or portrait, and totally forgotten about how my background looks.
Here is another ptarmigan photo taken a few minutes later. This time I moved my position so the background was 20 feet behind the subject. I kept my low perspective and the same aperture at 5.6. But what a difference from the first image in terms of bokeh quality. There is no right or wrong look here. But clean subject separation from the background often creates a more striking image. Just remember if you don’t have a F2.8 or F4 telephoto lens you can still create incredible bokeh, just work the shot until the background is further away from your subject.