Coastal Otters: A wildlife photographer’s guide – Camera Gear

Most importantly, I only carry one camera. Following coastal otters is not an easy task, by any stretch of the imagination. With two systems, it’s near impossible. A spare camera and lens, dangling round your neck or over the shoulder, will bash against your other camera, or a rock, at the most inopportune moment. If you don’t damage your kit, you’ll scare off an otter. Keep it simple.

Otter standing on rock (September 2006)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Loch Spelve, Scotland with 300mm lens and 1.4x at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ/5.6 on ISO 400

Camera Lens Suggestions

For coastal otters, I use a 300mm f/2.8, 600mm f/4, or 200-400mm f/4. They each have their benefits. The 300mm is fast, short and well-balanced, and captures greater colour saturation in flat light. The 600mm gives you the reach, ability to diffuse foreground and background, but it’s unwieldy and very heavy. The 200-400mm is a good compromise between the two and the zoom can be useful for altering compositions.

If I’m following a male otter, I may opt for the 70-200mm f/2.8, as it’s much lighter and easier to carry, plus it’s easier to tuck into your jacket during particularly heavy downpours. Male otters have a tendency to move in one direction, along the shore, travelling for several kilometres. It’s often a very long, difficult hike. I once followed a male otter for 7km – the entire length of the loch – with my 600mm f/4. I was absolutely knackered.

Protecting your camera gear

Both DSLR camera and lens are covered with Wildlife Watching Supplies reversible covers to keep out the worst of the rain and salt spray. Neoprene covers are a really good investment too. It’s easy to scratch the lens barrel or lens hood on barnacle-encrusted rocks.

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Camera gear support

Beanbag

For support, I carry a Kinesis waterproof double-beanbag. I can throw it down and, most importantly, it’s very quiet to use. I previously used regular canvas double-beanbags, but it’s such a wet environment, they soaked up the water like a sponge. The rice or bean filling would swell and weigh a tonne!

Tripod

A tripod is impossibly cumbersome, difficult to level on rocky shores, and cannot be assembled or moved quickly during these fast-changing situations. There’s also the added worry of banging the tripod on a rock, alerting the entire world to your presence.

Monopod

A monopod is a good option, just as long as you’re careful not to bash it on a rock. Be sure to use one that packs short as you always need to keep low to the ground. My Gitzo Carbon Monopod “Series 4” 6S works well with a relatively low-working height of 44cm. My strongest recommendation is still with the beanbag.

Other useful gear

Below is a quick list of other useful items that I regularly carry in jacket pockets. Make sure you carry them in upper pockets. I often found myself partially submerged up to the waist, waiting for an otter as the tide came in – which is exactly what happened when photographing the otter above.

  • Spare batteries
  • Spare memory cards
  • Angle finder
  • Compass
  • Multi-tool
  • Lens cloth
  • Binoculars
  • Tide-time chart
  • Mobile phone (emergency use only)

  1. Introduction
  2. Ground Rules
  3. Camera Gear
  4. Finding & Approaching
  5. Useful Observations
  6. Making Mistakes
  7. Stay Safe
  8. Otter Facts