Wildlife photography is just like most other pursuits, the more you learn & practice the "luckier" you get.
Understanding the basics is important and trying out some of these tips from top wildlife photographer Isak Pretorius will help guide you in your quest for better wildlife photographs.
6. Shutter priority
In SHUTTER PRIORITY (Tv/S) mode YOU select both the shutter speed and ISO at which you want to photograph, while the camera will automatically select the aperture (f-stop) to create the desired exposure. A fast shutter speed like 1/1600 sec will render a sharp portrait and frozen action photo.
Although this might seems like the logical choice for sharp photos, the problem is that you loose control of depth of field (see the previous tip) and the camera is limited by its minimum f-stop (e.g. fast shutter speeds in low light will render underexposed photos because it can't open the aperture up wide enough). This is why I photograph mostly in APERTURE PRIORITY mode instead.
A slow shutter speed like 1/25 sec will render a soft portrait and blurred action photo. There is a creative application for slow shutter speeds however, called MOTION BLUR. It requires a technique where you 'pan' with a subject, keeping the moving subject in the middle of your frame while taking a series of photos at a slow shutter speed. It's usually a hit-and-miss affair with a low success rate but the result is an artistically blurred photo with a sharp moving subject in it.
I use SHUTTER PRIORITY mode only for motion blur photos.
Cape Vulture, Magaliesburg in South Africa
1/50 sec at f/32, ISO 200 | 1D Mark III + 600mmf/4 + 1.4x | Tv/S, 0 ev
ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera's sensor. A low ISO value like ISO 100 renders the best quality and smoothest photo whilst a high ISO value like ISO 1600 renders a grainy (or noisy) poorer quality photo. At a low ISO value the sensor is less sensitive to light and requires more light to create an exposure. The same exposure can be created at a higher ISO value with less light since the sensor is more sensitive to light.
The ISO values should always be manually selected in Program (P) and the creative modes, Aperture Priority (Av/A), Shutter Priority (Tv/S) or Manual (M). In Aperture Priority mode the ISO would impact what shutter speed the camera selects, in Shutter Priority it impacts the aperture, and in Manual it impacts the exposure.
In portrait and action photos done in Aperture Priority mode the rule of thumb is to use the lowest ISO value that still renders a fast enough shutter speed per application. In bright sunlight ISO 400 is a good starting point and ISO 800 in low light or cloudy conditions. In tripod supported landscape photos always use ISO 100 for best photo quality.
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Kruger National Park in South Africa
1/320 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400 | 1D Mark II N + 600mmf/4 + 1.4x | Av, -2/3 ev
8. Manual mode
In Manual mode YOU select all three settings that collectively create the exposure, the aperture (f-stop), shutter speed and ISO, without any automatic adjustments done by the camera itself.
This mode is typically used in advanced landscape photography or when the lighting conditions becomes difficult for the camera to consistently render the correct exposures in Program (P), Aperture Priority (Av/A) or Shutter Priority (Tv/S) mode, like extremely contrasty scenes or spotlight lit subjects at night.
If the photo is too dark you could either change to a smaller f-stop like f/4, a slower shutter speed like 1/50 sec or a higher ISO value like ISO 1600 to increase the exposure. If a photo is too bright you could either change to a larger f-stop like f/16, a faster shutter speed like 1/800 or a lower ISO value like ISO 100 to decrease the exposure.
Remember that this mode is difficult to use and requires constant confirmation of exposure after each photo.
Square-tailed Nightjar, Kruger National Park in South Africa
1/50 sec at f/4, ISO 1600 | 1D Mark IV + 600mmf/4 | M
9. Rapid fire
When you do action photography it is difficult to take one photo at a time and capture the best moment of the action sequence. The action usually only lasts a few seconds and it is impossible to predict what the best moment will be, so when the bird take to flight for example, you want to capture the perfect frame where the wings of the bird are all the way up and its legs pushes away from the perch.
Your best chance to capture that perfect frame is to use the RAPID FIRE mode on your camera where it will take a series of photographs in rapid succession for the duration that you keep the shutter button in all the way. Remember to keep your autofocus point covering your subject in your frame for the entire series of photos. In outdoor photography you always need to be ready, to pick up the camera at any moment to start photographing.
I recommend that you always keep your camera on RAPID FIRE mode by setting the drive/release mode from single shot (single rectangular icon/S) to multi shot (stacked rectangular icons/CH).
Pale Chanting Goshawk, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa
1/2500 sec at f/7.1, ISO 400 | 1D Mark II N + 600mmf/4 + 1.4x | Av, +2/3 ev
Metering is the way in which the camera reads the light in a scene to calculate the correct exposure. There are three main metering modes.
- EVALUATIVE/MATRIX is the most commonly used metering mode where the camera reads the light across the entire scene with each part of the scene having equal importance in the exposure calculation.
- CENTRE-WEIGHTED metering also reads the light across the entire scene but the light surrounding the a autofocus point have more importance in the exposure calculation.
- SPOT metering only reads light in the 5% surface area surrounding the autofocus point, disregarding any other light in the scene. It would be technically correct to use different metering modes in different situations, like using SPOT metering to photograph a sunset for example.
It is important to note however that even if you are using the correct metering mode for the scene that you might still have to correct the exposure using exposure compensation. For this reason I permanently use evaluative/matrix mode but have learnt instead in which scenes to over or underexpose a photo.
For a start I encourage you to do the same and only use EVALUATIVE/MATRIX metering since you'll have one less setting to worry about.
Grey Heron, Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana
1/1600 sec at f/4, ISO 800 | D4 + 200-400mmf/4 | Av, +1/3 ev
About Isak Pretorius
Born in Africa and with a natural passion for both nature and photography, the continent provides Isak with ample opportunity to harness his passion and to share this with others. Having hosted many groups of photographers in Africa, Isak has taken a keen interest in educating the photographers about their surroundings as well as teaching them the art of photography. Isak is experienced in all forms of wildlife and nature photography and will ensure the avid photographer a platform to take the dream shot with good animal sightings coupled with the practice of visiting good locations across the continent, yielding superb results for those participating. An accomplished and published photographer with bird and wildlife images in various magazines and calendars globally, he has a natural eye for seeking out the unique composition and structure of a magical photograph.
Cell: +27(82) 340 8625
Email: isakpretorius @ gmail.com