Wildlife Photography Tips

The most common question our workshop participants as is related to camera settings for wildlife. So we wanted to put out a basic guide for everyone.

When shooting anything that the primary concern is a moving subject it makes the most sense to use shutter priority because you are selecting the shutter speed to freeze (or intentionally blur) the movement. There are ways to force the aperture value if you have a desired depth of field.

Shutter Priority

First thing you need to do is switch the shooting mode selection off Av (or A, depending on the brand camera) and put it on Tv (or S, depending on the brand camera). Now you need to know what shutter speeds are needed to freeze (or blur) the subject. Here is a basic guide:

SubjectExamplesLittle / No MovementWalking / Moderate SpeedRunning / In Flight
Small Game
Coyote, Bobcat
1/500-1500
1/1500-1/2000
1/2000+
Large Game
Elk, Deer, Horses
1/250 -1/500
1/500-1500
1/1500+
Large Birds
Heron, Eagles
1/500-1/1000
1/1000-1/1500
1/1500+
Small Brids
Cardinals, Nuthatch, Robin
1/1000-1/1500
1/1500-1/2000
1/2000+

Even though those are a good starting point, you should always start with a shutter speed that is equal to or greater than  your focal length. shooting at 400mm then you should have 1/400 or faster, 200mm then 1/200 or faster, 100mm  then 1/100, etc. Round up to the nearest setting your camera offers.

Adjustable focal point

You definitely want a selectable focal point and be able to move it. That joystick or the touch screen is the best way. The joysticks may need to be set in the custom options to do this. Birds in flight or other fast moving subjects, you also want to try expanded focal points. The Sony A7/A9 has some pretty good detection software, but the small focal point or expanded is a better option in most cases.

Continuous Focusing

Some cameras offer a few varieties but the continuous focusing/tracking is a must for moving subjects. Canon calls it AI Servo, Nikon & Sony call is AF-C. In either case wherever you have a selected focal point your camera will track that point.

AF-ON or OFF

Most people know this as “Back button focus” Canon, Nikon, Sony call all have a button configured to be a back button focus but you can also configure it to be a focus stop button which work great with continuous focus. For example, your subject stops moving and you want to compose your shot in camera, you press the button and focus is locked while you have the button pressed. Many newer lenses for mirrorless systems also have buttons on them that can be configured to do this as well.

Learn to read the histogram

If the curve touches the right then you have pure white (or stuff is over exposed to pure white). If the curve touches the left then pure black (or stuff is under exposed so much it’s just black). In either extreme no data is available. The pYou really don’t need to worry about the peaks, just if there is one touching the right or left sides.

The goal would be to adjust your exposure compensation to get the graph as close to the right as possible.  

Focusing the Aperture

If you shoot in shutter priority but want to force increased or decreased depth of field (the aperture value) then adjust the ISO. You can shot using Auto ISO and you camera will select the lowest ISO and widest aperture like usual. But, if you set your minimum ISO to 400 your camera will decrease the base aperture (higher f stop value), now if your light goes away your camera will increase the ISO.