Urban Wildlife Photography

You don’t need to go far to capture enticing wildlife photos, and more importantly you don’t always need an expensive super telephoto lens to capture story-telling imagery.

While I don’t consider myself to be a dedicated wildlife photographer, in this post I take you through some memorable wildlife images that I captured right here in Southern Ontario. Living in a big city like Toronto can make it difficult to find wildlife to photograph, but if you’re keen on finding them, they are out there to be found. The photos in this post were taken in the Toronto and Kingston areas—both quite heavily populated; But the natural surroundings and parks within these cities offer the perfect hideaway for those elusive birds or mammals.

A flock of geese fly over a field full of bird nests empty for the season. Nikon Z 9 with Z 24-120mm f/4 at 110mm, f/16, 1/250sec., ISO1800.

Photograph Responsibly

Take note and be a responsible photographer by not affecting behaviours of wildlife you find. Don’t bait them to get the perfect shot, nor scare them to make them run or fly away. Be cautious around them and when you have your shot, move on.

For the longest time my longest lens was a 70-200mm lens, which isn’t the most ideal lens for wildlife photography. But I made do with what I had and I’m proud to present those photos as storytelling wildlife photos. They include the surrounding habitat so you really get to see where the wildlife live and hunt.

Let’s take this photo below for example. I captured the egret sitting on a log within the wetlands with my 70-200mm lens. The uniqueness here is the sliver of lighting that shone between the trees, perfectly lighting just the egret and not its surroundings. I love how this allows the egret to naturally pop from its surroundings.

A lone egret is perched on a log. He is subtly lit by a sliver of a sunshine breaking through trees on the left. Nikon Z 7 with 70-200mm at 200mm, f/9, 1/400, ISO64.

Up close and personal

While up close and detailed photos of wildlife are always a pleasure to see, that’s a rare occurrence with a 70-200mm lens, unless you get lucky. I’ve had some great opportunities with a focal length of 500mm so I’ll make note of my camera lenses and focal length used so you’ll get an idea of what they were.

This moment below was a special one as a great blue heron walked right in front of me as it was hunting for fish. This allowed me to get extremely close to it with a 500mm lens. In some cases it got too close that I couldn’t even focus with the lens.

The Great Blue Heron came within a few feet away from me so I focused on the details it made in the water as it walked by me. The bubbles it created contrasted to the feather floating on the surface. Nikon Z 7ii with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm, 1/400sec., f/5.6, ISO400.

Here’s a portrait of a great blue heron that I love. It’s not your typical wildlife portrait but one taken from the back. It highlights the details of the feathers on the neck and head. If you look closely you can see the eyes pop out from either side of the head.

The details of the feathers on a great blue heron caught just a couple feet away from me. Nikon Z 7ii with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/640sec., ISO400.

The benefits of a higher megapixel camera

The Nikon Z 7, Z 7ii, and Z 9 are all 45.7 megapixels allowing for a high resolution image. One benefit to this is that I can easily crop in to capture a closer view of the subject while still maintaining a decent resolution. So while I may have posted a close-up shot of an animal on Instagram, in reality, it could have been a tight crop of an image that had the subject shown really small.

Swipe right to see the full scene taken with the Nikon Z 7 and the 200-500mm lens at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1250sec., ISO200. Swipe left to see how tight I cropped into it to get the composition I felt worked better.

Lenses used

The lenses I’ve been using for the photos in this post are listed below. I realize saying “expensive” earlier in this post is subjective but I am comparing these lenses to super telephoto lenses like the AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR which costs more than CAD$20,000. In comparison, the lenses below are more affordable and a great investment as well.

AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II

The longest lens I’ve owned up until the end of 2021 was the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. It’s one of my favourite lenses with its fast focusing and sharp output. It literally went everywhere with me. It’s a fast lens at f/2.8 and in my opinion is worth every penny. Current selling price: CAD$2400.

AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6 E ED VR

I’ve also rented on a number of occasions the f-mount 200-500mm f/5.6 lens which is a larger lens than the above, but still fairly portable. The bokeh is clean and not too distracting and it provides a decently sharp image. The long zoom range makes this the ideal budget lens for wildlife photography. If you ask me, it’s a steal for what it’s selling at in some markets now-a-days. Current selling price: CAD$1750.

NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S

Now that I have fully switched to the Z mount from Nikon, I’ve invested in this lens which gives me a decent amount of reach from the 200mm that I was so used to. At twice the amount of reach it has helped me get that much closer to my subject, which can be very helpful. I find the bokeh to be slightly busier than the 200-500 f/5.6 lens. It’s compact, amazingly light, and produces a sharp output, making this a winning lens in my bag. Current selling price: CAD$3650.

Z Teleconverter TC-2.0x

This teleconverter isn’t a necessity by any means, but it transforms my Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 to a 200-800mm f/8-11 lens, which for a wildlife photographer can be really useful. At f/11 though, it should be used with good ambient lighting, otherwise you’ll be relying on the low-light capabilities of your camera to produce clean pictures. The teleconverter may not be for everyone so you’ll have to weigh your pros and cons on if you want this addition to your bag. Current selling price: CAD$799.

Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4.0 S and NIKKOR Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S

I included one photo from each of these lenses since these are not your typical wildlife lenses but are still excellent options for use in other niches as well. The Z 24-120mm f/4 is an excellent all around lens that I find to be incredibly sharp. It’s not as long as a 70-200mm so I wouldn’t count on this to be my sole wildlife lens. This is also a terrific lens that I highly recommend for general photography. Current selling price: CAD$1499.

The Z MC 105mm is a macro lens and a superb one at that. The focal length of 105mm gives just enough working distance to your subject to get the frame-filling shot you want without having to get too close to it. As a macro lens its strength lays in capturing the intricate details, so I use it for those cases where the subject is directly in front of me. Current selling price: CAD$1349.

Birds, birds, and more birds

Here’s a photo of a gull that I caught during a vibrant sunrise. The gull is seen calling as he had shortly captured a crayfish from the lake. He is about 20 feet away from the camera, so I was able to capture this with my 70-200mm lens creating a portrait of a gull that included its surroundings. The interesting part of this photo is the small piece of metal he is standing on—which happens to be the same piece of metal that I am standing on. The water level was quite high that morning covering most of this metal structure except for this one portion that allowed birds to land on.

A gull makes a calling after catching and finishing his meal. Nikon D800 with 70-200mm f/2.8 at 200mm, f/2.8, 1/200sec., ISO400.

A head-on portrait of a mute swan as it swam towards me gave way for this minimal portrait. Using the 200-500mm lens, I made sure to include the surroundings to make the white swan pop out from the darker and more ominous background. The water was so still giving way to a clear reflection of the swan, so I refrained from cropping any part of the reflection to yield a more balanced image.

This portrait of a mute swan lets her colours stand out amongst the darker background. Including the untouched reflection adds a touch of warmth to the image as if to signify the lone swan isn’t alone. Nikon Z 7 with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm, 1/200sec., f/5.6, ISO500.

This barn swallow was so colourful that I wanted this to be the focal point on this picture. Its plumage was filled with vibrant orange and blue, not to mention its softness that made you want to feel it for yourself. This was taken with the 200-500mm lens at 500mm but it was further cropped to highlight the texture and colour of the feathers.

This barn swallow was taken at 500mm but was further cropped tighter as I wanted the intricate details of the swallow to take centre stage in this photo. The morning dew on the metal railing also adds to the interesting details in this photo. Nikon Z 7ii with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/160sec., ISO125.

Kingston birds

A roadtrip to Kingston brought me out to some places that I had never been before. These uncharted territories often bring a new sense of inspiration to my photography as you observe every small detail in the scene in front of you. The vast land made spotting wildlife that much more difficult—and when I did spot them, they would be pretty far away. In the photo below I used the 2x teleconverter on my Z 100-400mm lens to produce this unique wildlife photo of a snowy owl in flight just as it landed on a post.

A snowy owl spreads her wings just as she is about to settle on a post. Nikon Z 9 with Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with 2x teleconverter at 800mm, f/11, 1/1000, ISO800.

This photo below shows the owl perched on the top of a large tree. The beautiful pink hue in the background is thanks to the setting sun that had cast its colours that evening all throughout the sky. It was a beautiful sunset to cap off a day of photography. The snowy owl is shown looking intently to the side probably wondering where her next meal might be running. It’s a minimalist photo where the intricacies of the branches gradually lures the viewer’s eyes up towards the top to the owl.

A snowy owl is perched on top of a tree, looking off to the distance. Nikon Z 9 with Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/640sec., ISO12800.

This photo below is also a minimal photograph where I used negative space to carry the viewers’ eyes down to the only thing in the photo: the tip of a tree with an owl perched on top. This amount of negative space is quite a lot but I feel like the colourful sky we had that evening gives enough of a visual interest to be able to guide our gaze towards the owl.

A lone snowy owl rests on the tip of a tree. Nikon Z 9 with Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/400sec., ISO640.

In and around the Toronto area

Out in the early morning hours gives rare opportunities like this, where a single duck was found swimming by its lonesome in the vast openness of Lake Ontario with a little bit of lake fog creating the hazy atmosphere. The haze above the lake and the clouds near the horizon blended seamlessly blurring the line of intersection.

The lone duck swims in the fog. Nikon Z 7 with 70-200mm f/2.8 at 130mm, f/8.0, 1/500sec., ISO200.

We often tend to think of wildlife photos of large, fast paced animals hunting for its prey, but we can’t forget the smaller creatures that live right in front of us. In this photo below I caught this snail trapped in a web of a spider that is much smaller. The early morning sunlight gives off the warm backlight in this photo, which you can see through the snail.

A snail is trapped in a web as the spider looks on. Nikon Z 7 with Z MC 105mm, 1/800sec., f/14, ISO4000.

The hunt is on here in this photo of the great blue heron looking for its next meal. As I sat on a rock, I watched it as it walked in front of my lens. Again, the side lighting here emphasizes the back of the heron giving it a little bit of depth. This warmth also contrasts from the darker blue-ish tone created from the setting sun behind the trees.

A great blue heron hunts for its food as he is dimly lit by the spotlight of the sun breaching through the trees. Nikon Z 7ii with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm, 1/640sec., f/6.3, ISO640.

I once had a face-off with a turtle in one of the parks in Toronto. If you look closely you may find an ant perched on the nose of the turtle who didn’t seem to mind this visitor. This was taken with the 500mm but was also cropped a little tighter so that we could actually see this ant!

The best of friends shown here as the turtle lets an ant crawl on his nose. Nikon Z 7ii with 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm, f/8, 1/320sec., ISO 500.

What I tried to illustrate with this next photo is the stark contrast between man and nature. The female snowy owl sits atop a barrier of rocks backed by a silhouette of a smoke-billowing industrial complex. The owl faces the industrial complex and turns his head around looking to the side. The orange glow is created from the sun near the horizon as it set near the owl.

The beauty of this image also lies in the fact that this snowy owl is actually about 50km away from the industrial complex which is located across Lake Ontario in Hamilton. With the clear, crisp atmosphere of winter it allowed us to see fairly clearly right across the lake. With just a few steps to the side I was able to frame the owl with the silhouette to create this juxtaposition.

The Snowy Owl does a classic look back above her shoulders. She is backed by the silhouette of the industrial complex in Hamilton, located across Lake Ontario. Nikon Z 9 with Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with 2x teleconverter at 800mm, f/11, 1/800sec., ISO800.

This downy woodpecker was busy pecking at this common reed in the middle of a snowstorm. As I crouched down to get to the same level, he stopped for a moment and stared right at me before continuing on with his pecking. If you look closely you can see the hole in the reed just by his head, showing the feather-like innards. The woodpecker eats the seeds inside the reeds.

What I find unique in this photo is that we see the underbelly of the woodpecker, which is not the common pose in many bird photos. I love how we can see the feet grasping the reed tightly and we can see the fine details of the feather of the woodpecker.

The downy woodpecker grasps the reed and stops briefly to take a quick look at me as the snow fell hard all around. Nikon Z 9 with Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 at 400mm, 1/100sec., f/8.0, ISO100.

Oh deer! Deer are very sensitive to sound so as I drove by and stopped the car, heads of several deer looked up wondering what the noise was all about. I scoured the field to find these two deer one behind another. Their position made it seem like it was one deer with two heads. I waited for the second head to turn in my direction but she never did so I had to settle with just the one head looking at me.

This was also intentionally framed to include the tree branches on top and a little bit of the tall grass on the bottom in order to provide a better idea of their surroundings. You get the sense that the deer is standing under a tree trying to find food down below.

A deer standing behind another almost makes it seem as if they are one. Nikon Z 9 with Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/160sec., ISO640.

This was taken a little further away outside of Toronto but I thought I’d include it in here anyway as these sandhill cranes are fascinating to watch and hear. With the sun quickly setting and the light becoming scarcer by the second, I chose to expose for the sky and bring the sandhill crane to a silhouette. This way we’re able to fully appreciate the wide wingspan and the grace of its shape.

A silhouette of a sandhill crane backed by the colours of a sunrise. Nikon Z 9 with 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with 2x teleconverter at 800mm, f/11, 1/1600sec., ISO400.

On a walk through a park these Eastern Bluebirds were flying all over the place. One landed ahead of me up in a tree and stayed there for a long time allowing me to create a panoramic image made with two shots. The colours of the plumage was so vibrant they were so much fun to watch. I made this a panorama as I liked the branch extending all the way in the image from left to right. The full panorama has more of the trunk of the tree which I thought to be a little distracting, so this was cropped slightly tighter.

An Eastern Bluebird sits on a branch staring at me. Nikon Z 9 with Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with 2x teleconverter at 800mm, f/11, 1/2000sec., ISO400, two-image panorama.

The sleeping swan is one of my favourites and it was taken with my 70-200mm. To emphasize the swan surrounded by the complex network of trees and bushes, I incorporated as much of it as I could without including the white clouds directly above the treetop. The side lighting here highlights the individual branches really bringing out the chaotic nature of the branches covering the swan. The sunlit leaves on the top half of the photo adds a little bit of warmth through the colourful leaves glowing and contrasting from the darker bottom half.

The sleeping swan depicts the lone swan surrounded by the ragged branches and sunlit leaves that seem like it is almost engulfing it. Nikon Z 7 with 70-200mm f/2.8 at 165mm, f/7.1, 1/1000, ISO200.

I hope these examples of wildlife photos show you that you don’t need to go far or use expensive prime lenses that costs thousands of dollars. The lenses I used vary in price but the more expensive ones I feel are great investments for anyone serious in wildlife photography. There are so much more wildlife to be found in the city; I have seen many other wildlife like foxes, coyotes, and deer roaming the city streets, but have yet to capture them in appealing ways. Rather than constantly be on the hunt for them, I hope to one day run across their paths to photograph them in their natural environment. Spring is also just around the corner which means capturing migrating birds may be in order in the near future too.

Do you enjoy photographing wildlife in your area? Have you caught something interesting? Let me know in the comments below!

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