Tamzin's Slightly Weird Guide to Wildlife Photography - Part 2

Oh, you suffered through Part 1 did you? I truly hope you did learn something though as the technical aspect of wildlife photography really is just part of the equation. A technically perfect seagull on a post, is still just a seagull on a post, and even an iphone will take pretty good photos these days, as below. 

 An iphone albatross

An iphone albatross

Well on to the technical stuff. 

Firstly I am going to start with my gear. 

Cameras - Canon 5DIV, and Canon 6D, I did most of my learning on the 6D. 

Lenses - Canon 100-400 4.5-5.6 and 70-200 F4 (before I sold it, worst decision ever as in hindsight it was a great wee lens.)

So knowing I am a Canon person, it might make sense to some more than others but hopefully the advice is fairly generic.

 Canon 6d, and 70-200 F4 lens. My first wildlife set up. 

Canon 6d, and 70-200 F4 lens. My first wildlife set up. 

 Oh there I am breaking the rules again - you'll read why a little further down (Canon 5DIV and 100-400 lens, my current set up)

Oh there I am breaking the rules again - you'll read why a little further down (Canon 5DIV and 100-400 lens, my current set up)

The basic settings

Some parts of my set up never change (for wildlife, obviously I don’t shoot landscapes or people, in the same way).

1.     I always shoot in large raw files, my understanding is that it gives me a larger file to work with and I can crop more without losing detail, but like I said in my intro, I’m not a technical photographer so this could be entirely incorrect.

2.     AI Servo focus, it took me approximately 2 years to master AI Servo, I could not handle the lack of visual confirmation when I gained focus (no red squares in my view) however switching to the big heavy lens (100-400) I could start to feel when that focus was locked. Once you get the hang of it, it is far better than One Shot.

3.     High speed continuous shooting (if the objects are moving) because well, who doesn’t like the sound of a purring camera, and ‘spray and pray’ is a legit wildlife photography technique. 

4.     Auto ISO, again it took a good couple of years before I decided ‘auto’ wasn’t cheating. It isn’t until you blow a good opportunity by having the wrong settings that you realise some ‘auto’ is a good thing, in most wildlife case now I will use auto ISO.

5.     Centre point (or similar) focus, I’ll explain more about the ‘why’ of this later but it will basically ensure your camera focuses on what you are asking it to, rather than the closest object - very helpful if a bush bird is surrounded by leaves, or you are shooting a moving seabird among moving waves.

6.     Set up before you are in position. If you are on a boat, get your gear set up before the birds come, in the bush, set up before you spot your target. Too many moments are missed by having the wrong settings.

 Use AI Servo and high speed continious shooting to capture the perfect moment, 

Use AI Servo and high speed continious shooting to capture the perfect moment, 

Aperture and shutter-speed

How much money do you have? Just joking, but generally your lens will have the best aperture you can afford, that doesn’t mean you need to use it.

On the 100-400 I can only be as open as 5.6 when shooting at 400mm, that doesn’t mean I shoot at 5.6 all the time, or that I’d shoot at 1.8 if could. Sadly though, in most situation you need a fast shutter, and you don’t want a hugely high ISO so the aperture maybe the compromise. 

If I know the majority of my birds will be moving (a Pelagic birding trip etc) and my light will be ok, I would set my shutter at 1/1250, my ISO to auto and then my aperture between 5.6 and 8 depending on what it does to my ISO. If the birds aren’t moving as much, or moving slower I might drop the shutter to 1/800 or even down to 1/400 (ok, maybe not a bird, but an elephant seal, that is asleep, and snoring....) and have an aperture of 11-13 to improve my depth of field. Remember the smaller the depth of field, the less room for error. If your focus is off by a millimetre it can be noticeable - wait, I said I’d talk more about that, right? One more thing in shutterspeed/aperture first. I always have my camera set up to expose to the right (exposure bias usually +0.7), I just find in general the light meter is going to expose to the majority of the pic and often the area around the eye is the darkest, I’d rather bring down the highlights in post production if needed, rather than eking colour out of the shadows but this is totally a personal thing.

 Aperture F5.6, Shutter 1/1250, ISO 12800 - holy smokes... yes it needed noise reduction, this was dark bush. Single point focus, on the eye. Exposure bias is also +0.7 step. Read below for this to all make sense. 

Aperture F5.6, Shutter 1/1250, ISO 12800 - holy smokes... yes it needed noise reduction, this was dark bush. Single point focus, on the eye. Exposure bias is also +0.7 step. Read below for this to all make sense. 

Focal points

Now seems a good time to talk about focus. 99% of the time, if the animals eye is in the shot, you need this to be sharp. Depending on the depth of field this might mean nose and ears are not as sharp but generally the photo will be the most pleasing with a sharp eye. This is where the centre point or select focus is important as the camera will often try to focus on the closest point to the camera and you will need to override it. 

 Focusing direclty on the eye

Focusing direclty on the eye

When I am using AI servo, I don’t ask the camera to focus until the bird is within a range I’m happy with. I watch it above my camera (naked eye) then only hit the focus button when I feel like the camera will grab a quick focus. I read about this technique last year and it has made my birds in flight improve dramatically. 

While we are still on focusing, if you are a Canon shooter, consider back button focus. Some people love it, others don’t. Personally I think it’s fantastic. I’m not going to explain it all, click on the link to learn more. 

 Watching and waiting before shooting allowed me to time this one (almost) perfectly. 

Watching and waiting before shooting allowed me to time this one (almost) perfectly. 

And the final part of this exceptional ramble, don’t be afraid to crop. If animals are moving, it is again pleasing to the eye if they are moving into space, therefore you would generally want more empty space in the direction the animal is moving (if they are moving side to side) You can also crop to make use of the rule of thirds where applicable, and also take the opportunity to straighten your horizon if there is one. All of these little things are not always achievable when you take the shot, and are generally easy to fix afterwards.

Golly, that’s a lot of writing… as I said in Part 1, these things are all my opinion only, if you try any of these techniques and they don’t work for you, that is ok.

Let me know what you think, and if you do head out and try any of the above (or part 1) feel free to contact me on Facebook or Instagram to let me know how you get on.

 Nice straight horizon, could be cropped more to have less on the right, more on the left to work both the rule of thirds and my note above about space in the direction the animal is facing - but its 9pm, I'm tired and I can't be bothered cropping.... #committed... 

Nice straight horizon, could be cropped more to have less on the right, more on the left to work both the rule of thirds and my note above about space in the direction the animal is facing - but its 9pm, I'm tired and I can't be bothered cropping.... #committed...