CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Taking pictures of animals and birds has never been easier.
So says Steve Shaluta, a St. Albans photographer who believes the advent of digital photography has transformed what used to be a prohibitively expensive, difficult-to-learn pastime into something almost anyone can afford to do.
"Everything is easier today," said Shaluta, who began shooting wildlife photos 30 years ago when most cameras used 35mm film.
"When I got started, the films those cameras used were really 'slow' - you couldn't use them in low light unless you had big, 'fast' lenses that cost thousands of dollars. To use those cameras and lenses effectively, you had to carry around a big ol' tripod."
Digital camera gear was expensive when it came out in the early 2000s, but prices dropped quickly as technology improved and manufacturing became less expensive. Shaluta said that today, amateur photographers can put together a nature-shooting rig for less than $1,000 that produces photos every bit as good and sharp as a 1990s-era rig that would have cost $5,000 or more.
"There are so many advantages to modern digital photo equipment," he added. "The cameras are much more light-sensitive, which means you can get perfectly exposed photos in low-light conditions. Lenses are smaller, lighter in weight, and lots of them have a 'vibration reduction' feature that allows them to be handheld instead of attached to a tripod.
"The biggest advantages, though, are that digital cameras allow you instant feedback on the pictures you take, and they allow you to shoot as much as you like without the expense of having film processed."
Film photographers always had to be conscious of how many photos they were shooting.
"You'd go out and shoot three, four, maybe five rolls of film in a day," Shaluta said. "That's only 100 to 170 shots. Now, with a digital camera, you're limited only by the size of your camera's memory card. Even a medium-capacity digital memory card can hold 5,000 images or more, and it can be reused again and again."
In much the same way that some audiophiles prefer analog sound to digital, some modern photographers have started to dabble with film again. Shaluta, however, remains a steadfast convert to digital technology.
"I love it. I would never go back. Digital photography is the greatest thing ever," he said.
Both formats have been good to him. Since the mid-1980s, Shaluta has had literally thousands of his wildlife and nature photos published in Wonderful West Virginia, Outdoor Photography, Blue Ridge Country and Field & Stream magazines, among many others. His photos have also appeared in dozens of calendars and books and in too many advertisements to count.
Given his accomplishments, one might presume he uses high-end, high-dollar cameras and lenses. He doesn't.
"I use 'pro-sumer' level cameras, ones that have some professional features but are priced for the consumer market," he said. "My current camera bodies cost about $1,100. The highest-end bodies in [the manufacturer's] line cost $6,000. If I drop one of my bodies into the water, I could go out and buy four more for what I would have put into one top-end body."
For nature photography, Shaluta uses only digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, for several reasons: They allow him to shoot in dimmer light, they allow him to change lenses, they give him more control over shutter speeds and aperture settings, and their larger sensors allow him to blow pictures up to larger sizes without degrading their quality.
"Almost any DSLR body from a major manufacturer will give you the ability to make publication-worthy pictures," he said. "You don't have to spend $1,000 or $2,000. Most manufacturers offer models in the $300-$400 range."
Shaluta doesn't use point-and-shoot cameras for wildlife photography.