I have often wrung my hands and lamented missed opportunities in wildlife photography. It’s awful when you are presented with a wonderful encounter and you check your pictures and not one of them is as you remembered or wished it, or you see that your shot is very grainy from under-exposure at high ISO. Here are some tips involving preparation that might help you take better photos in the field. I hope that in writing them down, I too will remember them and take them to heart. If you don’t like blurry, too dark, or washed-out images try the following and see if you prefer the results:
- Preparation is crucial, experiment with camera settings to make your pictures suit your taste before you go out into the field. Time your expedition to coincide with the light quality that you desire. Golden time is the three hours from dawn and the three before dusk. There’s an atmospheric blue light period before dawn and after sunset too, but many wildlife refuges and reserves want you there after daybreak and out before dark, so keep to their rules. We often have good encounters at other times of day too, but harsh top-down lighting is very contrasty and rarely very satisfactory.
- Avoid full Auto. Automatic settings can kill the mood of your images stone dead. If your camera has an Auto + setting, it will allow you to modify some settings while allowing the camera to retain automatic exposure. Mostly I set mine to P, program shift, so called because you can shift the auto exposure with either the shutter speed or aperture wheels depending on whether depth of field or shutter speed is your priority. I modify the following: a) To capture more of the natural ambient light quality and vivacity in your jpegs try setting your white balance to ‘cloudy’ or ‘shade’; b) set your image style to Vivid and c) set your exposure mode to evaluative. These settings will suit many outdoor situations especially with good support (see below). If your camera allows you to shoot RAW and jpeg and you have plenty of memory card space then I advise you to do so, as you can edit the RAW images later with a great deal of latitude, a life saver if your jpegs don’t turn out the way you want them. Many people like to preset quality (Fine or Large), clarity, contrast and saturation in advance. I’m pretty happy with the Vivid settings for Jpegs and add +2 for clarity. See what you like in advance, so you’ll be ready when you are in the field.
- Good camera support or a sufficiently fast shutter speed is essential to maintain tack-sharpness and fine details. The rule of thumb is that if your hands are steady your shutter speed should equal or match your focal length in mm, e.g. if using a 300mm lens, you’ll want to shoot at 1/300th of a second or faster. If you are like me, however, highly excitable when in the presence of natural majesty, then you may want to go considerably faster. Many modern cameras and lenses have independent stabilization (vibration reduction) and this can equate to up to 6.5 F stops in the case of the Panasonic DC-G9 with a stabilized telephoto zoom. That is incredibly useful.
- If your subject is in motion then only fast shutter speed may freeze it. Advancing or receding subjects can be frozen with slower speeds than subjects that cross the field of view (panning may be necessary for these). Much wildlife favours shady conditions or emerges around dawn and dusk when light levels are low. Consider how you will support your camera in the field. Will you use a tripod? a monopod? a beanbag? your friend’s shoulder / head? How will you best brace yourself if you are hand-holding? Practice taking pictures with slow shutter speeds and keeping your subject sharp. You will need a good image stabilizing system for hand-held or monopod supported telephoto shots (practice gently rolling your finger over the shutter button with breath briefly held, or using the 2 sec. timer, or use the timer or a remote cable or wireless release for tripod supported shots. From a vehicle, stop the engine. If you are getting blur even when taking care to provide sturdy support then you may be experiencing blur from shutter shock or mirror slap or both at that shutter speed. Cameras that offer Electronic First-Curtain Shutter and Mirror-up modes will resolve these problems. For more on this subject see (https://photographylife.com/what-is-electronic-front-curtain-shutter). The larger your sensor and magnification the harder it is to render true sharpness and fine detail. Good support is essential at long shutter speeds and please use long exposure high ISO noise reduction to maintain image quality if your camera has that feature for landscapes and cases where subject motion blur is acceptable or desirable, i.e a night view with traffic flow-lines or river in flow.
- Read reviews of your camera and see what the reviewers say, what they like and dislike about it. Research your lens, what is its sharpest aperture (sweet-spot)? There are some great instructional videos on YouTube. After three or four reviews you’ll start to get a fair idea of its perceived strengths and weaknesses. Refer to your camera manual often and search online for terms that are unfamiliar to expand your understanding. Can you go stealthy, i.e. turn-off lights, beeps and digital clicks? Mirrorless systems in manual focus mode can be totally silent. Fantastic!
- Practice using different focusing patterns, and different AF modes. With AFS one-shot you have to repress your focus or shutter button to refocus and shoot. AFF is more versatile, it will allow you to shoot repeatedly and if your drive setting is high will enable more chances of success, and AFC will continuously refocus for each shot with the button kept depressed and will vary focus points with each shot and works well with drive set to H to maximise your number of shots. The first may be bang on focus and the next few may be slightly off then it may be bang on again so it pays to shoot on the highest framerate possible. Pinpoint and manual focus are very useful. If your subject is in brush or among leaves, grass stems etc. you may have to use manual focus. If having trouble with ‘seeking’ sharp focus with AF, half-press the shutter to focus on the ground or branch at the subject’s feet and then raise to reframe. You can also use back-button focusing if your camera supports it and set your shutter button to just take, not to focus and take. This can be helpful when you don’t want the camera to refocus, i.e. you’ve found your best focus and don’t want it wandering off, i.e. you just want to keep shooting. You can just switch to manual focus to do the same thing, I suppose.
- If your subject is staying in place or even static, try experimenting. Plan ahead, think about what you have done already and what you’ll do next as you’re working. Cropping in camera will maximise your quality. Try varying your: a) focus point to ensure that the eyes are in sharpest focus, sometimes I’m just off and this annoys me intensely, b) your aperture setting for increased depth of field, c) try automatic exposure bracketing at 1 stop difference. d) If you have a good support or bright light and static subject try HDR mode and the lowest ISO setting and e) vary your composition, framing — just bending down or stepping to the side can improve a shot considerably. I ought to leave this to last in case my movement causes subject flight! It often seems to. Teach your fingers to find key buttons without removing your eye from the viewfinder because jerking my head up has caused flight in skittish insects.
- Take long shots and snap shots — these often turn out with surprising results. They may not be technically fantastic, but you may at least get an identification from them. You may see a distant bird suddenly fly from forest up ahead or a deer may bolt out just ahead of you. Don’t hesitate to snap off a few photos. If they’re poor, you can just delete them, they may turn out well! Autofocus is fast so have faith in it, start wider and zoom in when you’ve got your target in the frame.
- Editing pictures (Post-production) is very worthwhile. You can do this quite well with the image viewers that come with your phone, Windows and Mac or buy in an editor. RAW files will give you the best quality and most options, but you can do a lot in post production with jpegs straight from the camera too. They often benefit from cropping, lightening, sharpening and adjusted contrast. An editing software package like Adobe Photoshop Elements or the Pro version which is subscription-based, or Affinity Photo if you prefer to pay just once, allows a very wide range of modifications, photo filters and special effects like tone-mapping. I most often use sharpening and noise reduction. Denoising is a strong point in Affinity. Affinity has distinct work environments dedicated to different tasks and can work non-destructively with unlimited layers on very large images. It’s also great with panorama stitching and HDR and focus merges. These are relatively inexpensive programs / apps and very sophisticated. You can buy-in filters for use in these editors from independent companies. I like using Topaz filters with Affinity Photo.
Recommended further reading for techniques and inspiration:
National Audubon Society Nature Photography Digital Edition by Tim Fitzharris, Firefly Books
Well-written and comprehensive with excellent illustrative images throughout. This is the best on the subject all-round, I think.
Wildlife Photography Workshops by Steve and Ann Toon, Guild of Master Craftsman Publications
Inspirational and instructional with many projects. This dates from film camera era but almost all content is still relevant, and is excellent value, I think.
Close-up and Macro Photography It’s Art and Fieldcraft Techniques by Robert Thompson, A Focal Press Book Routledge.
An excellent and thorough modern book on macro photography.
The Advanced Photography Guide by David Taylor, DK Penguin Random House
Inspirational and instructional, an excellent modern book that covers a great many photographic topics, techniques, situations and circumstances. It is very open and candid about camera settings.
The Art and Business of Photo Editing: Selecting and Evaluating Images for Publication
by Bob Shepherd, Amherst Press (available used only)
This dates from film camera era but much is very useful to help you think about value from the user end, I think!
This article reflects Charles Paxton’s genuine opinions, he was not remunerated in any way for writing this article.