Wildlife photography is very different from any other type. Your subjects won’t pose as you direct them, you have no idea if they will show up on time, and you can’t get too close unless they become hostile.
Because of these challenges, you need to change your camera settings and normal creation processes to get a good photo.
You Need A Fast Shutter Speed
Your shutter is the bit of metal or plastic which covers your lens. Your shutter speed is the amount of time it takes for the shutter to close.
In your camera’s settings, there will be options for making the shutter speed longer or shorter – only cheap or single-use cameras prevent you from changing the speed.
If the shutter takes a while to close, then the camera will be taking in all of the movement during the time it’s open. When you look at the image, there will be a motion blur effect around the moving subject. This is a stylistic choice, often used to imply speed.
If the shutter speed is fast, very little movement is captured. This creates a clear image. A lot of cameras have super fast shutter speeds. They are often written like this – 1/4000th.
Depending on your subject, you should pick a speed between 1/250th and 1/4000th. If your wildlife isn’t moving very quickly, for example a lazy cat on a brick wall (see also “How To Photograph Cats“), you can afford to use a slower shutter speed like 1/250th.
Your image will still be sharp, but you can play around with the other settings more easily. However, if you’re photographing a racehorse or a cheetah, go for 1/2000th or 1/4000th for a clear image of the speedy creatures.
Remove Shutter Speed Priority
Although shutter speed is important, it shouldn’t be the main setting on your camera. The lighting balance matters a lot more when you’re working in natural lighting.
We will go into more detail about that later, but for now, simply remember that your shutter speed is important but a blurry background is preferred over a too-bright or too dim image.
Turn On Aperture Priority Mode
As we just mentioned, you should control your light more than you should control your shutter speed. The aperture is the size of your lens coverage. You’ll notice your camera’s shutter can be partially opened, or completely opened, this is on purpose.
The more light that can get into the lens, the brighter your image will be. The more the shutter covers the lens, the less light will get through – this creates a darker image. The terms f/2 or f/16 refer to your f-stops – the aperture value.
The larger the f-stop figure the less light will come through. F-16 will have a darker image than f/2. Allowing your camera to make f-stop decisions for you, means it will be judging the natural light and the focus you have chosen.
It will change the f-stop value to balance the light around your focused subject. If you put your shutter speed as a priority, your cheetah will be captured mid-jump, but the image might be overexposed.
As you were tracking the creature, the sun popped through the trees, and blinded your camera – the image is now useless.
With the aperture as your main priority, the legs of the cheetah might be blurred, but the body and head are in clear definition, and the lighting is just lightly moody to create a dramatic scene. With the blurred legs, you’d have created an action shot!
It would be a dramatic image of detail, fast-paced energy, and perfect lighting. Before you set your aperture priority mode to priority, first put it on f/5.6 or the widest value on your lens.
Take a couple of practice photos to understand the lighting at that moment. Then do the same with your higher f-stop value. This will help you understand the extremes you are currently working in.
Keep Your ISO In Mid-Range
ISO and Aperture work together to manage your brightness, but they use different methods. ISO is an acronym no one really bothered to explain. It refers to the sensitivity of your film to light. It does this by measuring the speed of your film.
The faster the speed the less light is being absorbed. In the olden days, your camera would have one number which represented its ISO or International Organization Standard.
It didn’t matter which brand you bought your camera from, they all used the same measuring system to create a uniform understanding of the camera.
Because you couldn’t change the ISO, your aperture and shutter speed would change to create a unique balance for your camera. However, most digital cameras no longer deal with actual film. This means the ISO values don’t need to be fixed.
Instead, your modern digital camera will have a range of ISO. They normally double in size. For example – 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,600. Professional cameras can even reach 102,400, but that’s only needed for nighttime photography.
For wildlife photography, you could stick to a mid-range ISO. This means keeping it at around 400 and 800. This mid-range option allows you to play around with shutter speeds without worrying about light levels.
The mid-ranged ISO balances the long shutter speed times to capture movement, while the aperture priority mode fine-tunes the rest. As with all the other settings available to you, you should take some practice shots on the day of your shoot.
This will help you gauge the distance, light, and movement of the day. You can change the settings to best suit your conditions.
Remember to keep your animal type in mind too. A slower creature doesn’t need a large shutter speed, so you can balance your f-stop values with your ISO values.
How To Balance Shutter Speed, Aperture, And ISO Values?
Balancing these three settings will help you create clear images, with the right darkness levels and the right brightness levels. The automatic features can only do so much, so don’t rely on them entirely.
First work on your ISO, take a few photos until you get the balance right. Then bring in your shutter speed. If your ISO is mid-range, your shutter speed can be a lot faster than normal.
This figure will change daily depending on your target subject. Lastly, put the aperture priority mode on. This will change your settings, but only to adjust them to a similar but more appropriate figure.
If you go straight into auto mode, your camera will misunderstand your intentions and will not offer the best auto settings. Put your assumed settings in first and then let the auto feature do the rest.
How To Use Autofocus?
Beginners should be using autofocus. We would argue that everyone should be using this setting, but some prefer to manage their camera more manually. If you have the knowledge and skill, that’s not a problem, but beginners may need some help.
Creating a good focus on an animal can be difficult. They keep moving so the image needs to be adapted every second. To get around this, pick a singular focal point, like the snout of a dog.
When you aim at a single point, your camera can autofocus around that area to keep it all in the same “depth of field” or blur level. Ideally, you should aim your camera so the main focus point isn’t dead center, but in the middle third of the frame.
This will prevent the image from becoming plain while telling the camera what’s important. As a rule of thumb, always make the image focus off-center. It will help with the overall composition.
Next, make sure you’re using a continuous focus mode. This will help your camera latch onto the dog’s snout as they move around. As you take photos, make sure to check in your focus. The autofocus tool may slip up every now and then, moving your original aim.
The best settings for mammal photos (see also: How To Get Close To Wild Mammals For Photos?) are a fast shutter speed, mid-ranged ISO, and priority mode aperture. This will help you balance your lighting and capture images of fast-moving creatures without developing a blur.
You should also consider autofocus, to help you keep your subject the main focus of your image. Lastly, try to make the subject off-center for a more interesting composition.
Frequently Asked Questions
Set your AF to “continuous AF” this will help your lens stay focused on your subject. AF is shorthand for autofocus.
Auto ISO can be helpful in low light conditions, while auto aperture works best in high light conditions. Change your settings based on your current light levels.