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Get started with animal photography in the wild

(Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome this guest post from Matt Fey of PrintingCenterUSA. Matt writes for PrintingCenterUSA’s blog and social channels. In his free time, he enjoys taking photos while out and about in the backcountry of Montana. Whether fishing or camping, he enjoys being outdoors as much as possible.)

Nothing beats the excitement of photographing animals in the wild — it’s unpredictable and extremely rewarding.

But with so much uncertainty is it possible to take stunning animal photographs in the wild?

It absolutely is.

Below, I’ve put together some helpful tips to help you maintain as much control of your wildlife photography as possible.

Choose the right camera

Before you begin, it is imperative that you use the right camera.

A DSLR camera or mirrorless camera with full control are the best type of cameras to use in wildlife photography. What makes DSLR’s great is the amount of control the user has over each of the individual camera elements, such control is not possible with the camera on a phone.

In order to manipulate these individual functions, the DSLR camera needs to be switched over to manual mode.

Let’s discuss each of these elements and their ideal settings for wildlife photography.

Shutter speed

The shutter of a camera opens and closes when a photograph is taken in order to allow light in to capture a photo. If the shutter speed is very slow, the shutter will remain open for a longer period of time while the photo is taken, allowing more light into the camera.

When would you use a slow shutter speed?

Slow shutter speeds are used in low light settings when the subject you are photographing is stationary. If you photograph a moving subject with slow shutter speed, the resulting picture will be blurry.

The dynamic nature of wildlife photography makes slow shutter speeds a bad choice. During fast shutter speeds, the shutter of a camera opens and shuts incredibly quickly while a photo is taken. This is ideal for wildlife photography since subjects are rarely stationary.

What about a fast shutter speed?

In order to use a fast shutter speed setting it is imperative that you have sufficient lighting in your environment. DSLR cameras take all the guesswork out of environmental lighting by incorporating a light sensor meter.

As you change your shutter speed, the light indicator meter will climb up and down.

If you are in a highly lit environment, the indicator will be all the way to the right. In a highly lit environment, as you increase the shutter speed, the light indicator will move toward the left.

Adjust your shutter speed until the light indicator has settled in the middle position.

The minimum shutter speed for wildlife photography is about 1/200s, so make sure your environment is sufficiently lit in order to achieve at least this shutter speed.

ISO settings

The ISO of a camera is its light sensitivity value. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light a camera is. This results in photographs appearing more brighter.

However, higher ISO’s can compromise the overall quality of an image; if you want an image to be as high definition as possible aim for the lowest possible ISO setting — ISO 100.

If after you have set your shutter speed to 1/200s (at least) your histogram still indicates that your image is too dark, raise the ISO until your lighting is well balanced.

Depending on your camera, try not to exceed an ISO of 800 in order to maintain as high a quality of image as possible.

Aperture settings

The aperture setting in your DSLR camera controls how open or closed your lens is. The lower the aperture, the wider the lens is open, this results in more light entering into the lens to brighten your image. The higher the aperture the more closed your lens is, which results in less light being able to enter through the lens.

Sometimes, simply decreasing your aperture will allow sufficient light to enter your camera in order to maintain a low ISO setting.

However, this does come with a catch.

A low aperture setting creates a shallow depth of field, meaning that once you focus on your subject, only a small (or shallow) area around your subject will also be in focus. This will result in your subject being in focus and its background being blurry.

If during a wildlife photography session you want the attention to be focused on the subject you are photographing and not its environment, a low aperture is ideal.

An example of such a scenario is shown below.

If, however, it is important to contextualize the animal you are photographing, a higher aperture setting will create a deep depth of field and keep, both your subject and the environment it is in focus.

If during your wildlife photography you cannot decide whether you should bump up the ISO or open up the aperture, definitely settle with an open (lower) aperture.

A crystal clear single frame of motion taken at the perfect moment will supersede any deeper depth of field requirement.

See the example below of a photo taken with a small aperture (open lens).

Use back button focusing

When out in the wild, there often isn’t enough time to change your camera capture settings if your subject starts moving. Sometimes you only have seconds (if even that) to photograph an animal before they are gone.

When the back button focus is set up, pressing down on the shutter button will only take the photo and not focus on the subject, even if you push it down halfway through. In this case, the focusing is assigned to another button on the back of the camera.

Using back button focus enables you to focus on a moving target with a push of a button without having to waste time changing your camera’s internal settings.

Taking photos out in the wild isn’t too different from street photography. With the shutter speed as high as possible, the ISO as low as possible and your back button focus set up, you are all geared up to capture some stunning wildlife photography.

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