WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY FUNDAMENTALS
I get a lot of requests for advice on wildlife photography techniques, so I put together this guide. It’s really aimed at the more novice shooters, but it might be a good refresher some for some old pros too. I hope you find it helpful.
TAMING THE BEAST
Wildlife photography is a huge topic with many different facets; gear, technique, composition, understanding animal behavior to name just a few. We’ll touch on most of these during the workshop, but mastering this subject, takes years of practice and dedication. But, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. So, with that in mind, below is my simplified paradigm for the fundamentals of wildlife photography. It’s a 4-step process that I call Expose, Focus, Frame, Fire! (EFFF).
It sucks that “Exposure” doesn’t start with an “F” – it blows the alliteration, but what are you going to do, it’s a necessary first step. Exposure is a confusing topic when you’re starting out in photography – all those f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO’s. But, exposure simply refers to the brightness of a photo. Therefore, correct exposure, means making a picture with the right brightness. There are entire books written about this topic and I can’t get into all of the details here (search understanding exposure or photography exposure in Google or YouTube for that), but what I want to talk about here are the 3 Exposure Modes I think you should consider for wildlife photography
Automatic/Program – This will be labeled with an “A” (Canon) or “P” (Nikon & Sony) on your camera’s mode dial and as the name implies, the camera takes care of all the settings. Some people think that in order to be a ‘real photographer’, you have to shoot everything in Manual mode or that using Manual mode will somehow result in better pictures. Neither is true, and using the Auto mode is a perfectly reasonable option, especially if the whole exposure thing is still a bit confusing to you. The technology in today’s cameras is just amazing and your camera will achieve correct exposure most of the time, so why not take advantage? Let the camera take care of the exposure settings and focus your attention on other aspects of photography like light, composition, your position and the animals’ behavior, which usually contribute much more to making a strong image than f-stops and shutter speeds. For those times when the camera doesn’t quite nail the exposure, you can tweak the brightness by applying a little Exposure Compensation (look for a button with a +/– symbol).
Aperture Priority – labeled “Av” (Canon) or “A” (Nikon & Sony) on the Exposure Mode dial. In this mode, you select the aperture (aka f –stop) and the camera picks the shutter speed it thinks will produce the right exposure. Choosing the aperture lets you control the depth of field (what’s in focus front to back) of your photo. You might want a blurry background, for example, to draw more attention to the subject. Aperture Priority is a good choice when lighting conditions are changing quickly, like when the sun is going in and out of clouds or the subject(s) are moving a lot so that they are front lit at one moment and side or back lit the next. As the light changes, the camera will keep adjusting the shutter speed to make your exposures come out right. It’s easy to forget about changing your exposure setting when the action gets hot and heavy and Aperture Priority lets you focus on other things besides exposure. Just check your images from time to time and use Exposure Compensation to override the camera if you think your pictures are coming out too dark or too light.
Personally, Aperture Priority is my default exposure mode – I feel like I always want to have control of the depth of field in my photos, but I can trust the camera to produce the right exposure (or at least close enough) in most cases.
Manual – setting “M” on your mode dial means you are going to take over everything. If you have good reason to think that the camera won’t get the exposure right or you are going for a special effect, that’s when it’s time to shift into Manual mode. When the light is consistent, but the subject is changing is another way to think about it. The exposure settings (aperture, shutter, ISO) for a black horse and a white horse, should be exactly the same as long as they are standing in the same light, but the camera doesn’t know what you’re pointing it at, so it will give you two different settings. Manual mode takes the camera’s “brains” out of the equation, but it means your brain has to take over. The biggest danger of Manual mode is forgetting to change settings when the lighting conditions change. It’s easy to shoot dozens or hundreds of frames before you realize that every photo you’ve taken in the last hour or two is way too bright or dark. Remember, with great power, comes great responsibility. You should always be looking at your images as you shoot, but this is even more important when shooting in Manual mode.
We’ll get into the finer points of exposure further in the workshop, but mastering exposure really comes down to two things:
Understanding the effects that your settings (aperture, shutter speed & ISO) have on the photo your are making
Understanding how your camera “thinks” about exposure which lets you decide when to trust the camera and when you need to take over to make the picture come out the way you want.
Back button autofocus – you may already be using this technique, but just in case you’re not, I highly recommend it. I was a little slow on the uptake myself but once I actually tried it, I was kicking myself for waiting so long. At this point, my advice to everyone is: Just Do It!….it’s simply a better way of working, and the only downside is the initial learning curve.
What is it – normally (the default setting) when you half press the shutter button on your camera, two things happen:
Autofocus – is activated and the image comes into focus
Light Metering – the camera measures the amount light coming into the lens and, if you are using any of the automatic exposure modes, selects the correct settings (shutter speed, f-stop and maybe ISO)
Back button autofocus separates the focusing and light metering functions that normally happen simultaneously. You do this by changing the default setting so that autofocus activation is assigned to one of the buttons on the back of your camera (hence the name) using the custom functions options of your camera. Once you’ve set it up, half-pressing the shutter button only activates light metering. In order to activate autofocusing, you have to press the button (usually with your thumb) that you assigned to this function.
Why do I want it - it might seem like we’re just making things more complicated, but there are two big benefits of separating the light metering and autofocus functions which are well worth the price of having to retrain your fingers:
Simplified focus & recompose - there’s nothing inherently wrong with having your subject in the center of the frame, but you certainly don’t always want your subject in the center. You should choose where the subject belongs in your frame, not the camera. In one-shot autofocus mode, however, the camera will lock focus on the active focus point (usually the center) as soon as you half-press the shutter. If you want to recompose, you have to hold the shutter half pressed while you adjust your framing. Once you take the shot by pressing the shutter all the way and releasing, the camera will want to focus on the active focus point again which is no longer where your subject is. To take another shot you have to reframe so that your active focus point is on top of the subject again, half press and hold to lock focus, adjust your composition again and then fire. With back button focusing, you place your focus point on the subject, press and release the focus button with your thumb and then compose your shot. After you fire your first shot, the focus remains locked on your subject. You can keep shooting the same composition, fine-tune your composition or make drastic changes to your framing (e.g. horizontal to vertical) and the subject will remain in focus.
Now, I know you can move the location of the active focus point with your camera's joystick/four-way button but this takes time and often a focus point may not exist in the part of the frame where you want your subject to be (most cameras’ autofocus points tend to be clustered in the center of the frame). Back button focusing is a time saver, but if this were the only advantage of this technique, I might not be sold.
Combining one-shot and continuous autofocus modes – this is the big benefit of converting to back button autofocus in my opinion. Normally, you have to choose between one-shot or continuous focus modes. One-shot lets you lock focus on a stationary object by placing the active focus point in your viewfinder over the object you want to be in focus — the eye of a mustang for instance — by pressing the shutter halfway. But if the subject starts moving, you would want to switch to continuous autofocus mode which continually changes the focus to keep the subject sharp as it moves closer or further from the camera. The problem is that switching autofocus modes involves taking your eye away from the viewfinder and moving a physical switch on the lens or camera body.
Since wild animals rarely have the courtesy to warn you when they are about to move, this results in a lot of missed shots. With back button focusing, you press and release the focus button with your thumb for stationary subjects (i.e. one-shot autofocus) but if your subject starts moving, you press and hold the same button and autofocus will remain activated and constantly adjust to keep your subject in focus (i.e. continuous autofocus). Once you get used to it, this ability to instantly switch between one-shot and continuous autofocusing will definitely increase your keeper rate!
How do I set it up - the actual steps to enable back button autofocus are slightly different for each camera model. The great thing is that I can just about guarantee that someone has already created a written or video tutorial with step-by-step instructions for your camera. Just Google “back button focus your camera model” (e.g. “back button focus Canon 80D”) and follow the directions. Once enabled, you should never have to mess with it again.
Buck fever is a hunting term that refers to the excitement that novice hunters feel when they first spot an animal, or anything that looks like an animal —tree branches, for example. It results in lots of shots fired but few that hit the target. Something similar happens to photographers when a majestic animal appears in the viewfinder. We get so excited at seeing our target that we start firing frames without checking our focus, exposure settings and especially, composition.
My advice here is to remind yourself that the process is “expose, focus, frame, fire” After you’ve confirmed that your exposure and focus are dialed in, try to “zoom out” with your eye and see the entire frame. It’s difficult to break out of tunnel vision when the adrenaline is pumping, but you get better with practice. One technique that can help is to ask yourself some questions: Where is my subject in the frame? How big is my subject relative to the frame? What’s in the foreground/background? The answers are often surprising. For instance when you 'zoom out' (with your eyes, not the lens), you’ll often discover that the subject is dead center in the frame, a lot smaller than you originally thought and there’s a lot of useless foreground or background that isn’t doing anything for your overall composition.
Once you’ve got a good handle on the basics, work on anticipating the action and pre-framing or pre-focusing your shots. Full-blown battles between stallions are usually preceded by the contestants pawing the ground in a head to head stance. A grazing herd will tend to move in one general direction over time. Learn to recognize these behaviors and you can set yourself up for success by moving slightly so that snow-capped peaks rather than brown scrub are behind the herd or by rotating your camera to vertical so that those battling brutes nicely fill your frame nicely when they rear up on their hind legs. Composition is the difference between taking a picture of an animal and making a photograph with your subject.
One exception to the above is when unexpected action suddenly breaks out, like the herd breaks into a gallop without warning or two stallions suddenly rear up and start battling. In these situations, just try to keep your active focus point on the subject, hold down the focus button with your thumb and fire away.
This one’s easy. Set the Drive mode of your camera to High-Speed Continuous and leave it there. Fire off short bursts, even if the subject is standing still. Those 2 or 3 extra frames are insurance against blinking eyes (the subject’s) and shaking hands (yours). Often the second or third shot in a burst will be sharper than the first when your shutter speed isn't fast enough to completely cancel out blur due to camera movement. In high action situations, press and hold down the shutter and pray that ‘the decisive moment’ happens before your buffer fills up.
If most of what you’ve read so far sounds like a foreign language, don’t panic, but it’s probably a good idea to brush up on some fundamentals. If you can get a handle on the concept of Exposure (sometimes referred to as the Exposure Triangle); learn how to change between Exposure Modes (Auto/Program, Aperture Priority & Manual) and use Exposure Compensation on your camera, it will go a long way towards making the most of your time in the field. Try search terms like “Photography 101”, “Exposure Triangle” and “Your Camera Model Tutorial”.
Until Next Time
I’ll be in touch one more time just before the workshop starts with a few final notes and reminders. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.
See you in May,