The On Nature column by Jason Hahn on Photofocus
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On Nature: What settings should I use for wildlife photography?

When we talk about photographing behaviors and events as they unfold, we think about being “reactive,” or shooting on the fly. In a studio setting, we are “proactive,” we make decisions about pretty much every characteristic of the photo before it is taken. My goal with wildlife photography is to be more “proactive” and make as many choices before the action begins as possible, so I am not fumbling with settings when the good stuff goes down!

Be a “ready” photographer

Being a “ready” photographer means you are prepared for the things that will give you the least time to think when you encounter them.  When I am driving to a site, I have a card in the camera and my largest focal length lens on the body.  This way if I meet some cool creature on the drive, I at least have a chance to capture a shot of it.  If I am switching lenses, or worse, having to retrieve my gear from the trunk, odds are I am going to miss the opportunity. Put simply, a landscape is not going to walk or fly away from you.  You usually have time to set up for it.  Being ready for the critter before you see it vastly improves your odds for getting shots of it.  

When working with wildlife, I generally start out on Aperture Priority (or Manual in constant light), select my desired f-stop, and then use exposure compensation to adjust for the tonality of the scene as the animal moves through it.  This way I control the depth of field necessary to get the subject in focus while rendering the background and foreground the way I want them to appear.  If I give up depth of field choices to the camera, I am not really controlling the way I want my photo to look!  

What aperture?

Many numbers get thrown around as the f-stop you should “always” use for wildlife, f8 being the most common.  I find it is a good starting point for my longer lenses, providing a good balance between depth and being able to freeze action in typical daylight. But this is only a guideline, and the aperture you choose will vary in every situation by what you are trying to photograph, how you want to compose the scene, the depth of field you want, and the lens you are using.

Shutter speed?

Generally, with wildlife action photos I will almost always favor having a faster shutter speed over depth of field if there is a chance that my shutter speed in the given light conditions is too low to produce a sharp image.For example, if I am photographing birds and I want to get a flight shot, I typically want 1/640th of a second or faster using a 400mm or longer lens.  Granted this varies with equipment, how smoothly you pan, and how much coffee you drank that day, but you get the idea.  It will also vary by species, a sandhill crane flaring for a landing will be a lot slower than a cave swallow shooting by at mach 3, seriously those guys are fast!  Knowing I need 1/640th, I can open up my aperture a bit to get a little faster shutter speed if the available light is not enough to give me that speed.  But, there is a limit in terms of loss of depth of field, and making sure that all the right things are in focus in the image.   

What ISO should I use?

One of the joys of digital photography is, when faced with dropping light conditions, instead of switching out that roll of film we can just click in a new ISO setting.  But the higher ISO’s come at the cost of increased noise or grain in the image.  For wildlife, I will almost always favor a grainy image over a blurry image.  I would rather go with the higher ISO than end up with an image where eyes are soft, and details are blurred.  Now there are certainly times where motion blur is a great composition tool, but for wildlife action images where I want to freeze the action, I almost always favor settings that will give me the sharp shot, sacrificing a little depth of field or ending up with a more noisy image, to do this.  

Again, the amount of acceptable noise varies from situation to situation.  If the image has large areas that are a single color with little or no detail (such as out of focus water as a background), the noise removal tools in your digital darkroom will have an easy time cleaning this up, and you can err on the side of a higher ISO.  Tools like Adobe Lightroom’s built-in noise reduction are great for basic noise removal. If there’s a lot of details where noise removal will result in a loss of sharpness, then err on the side of introducing less noise.  As the technology gets better in our cameras, the noise characteristics at higher ISO’s have gotten better too.  Today I shoot about 99% of my wildlife images at ISO 400 or higher, sometimes using ISOs of 1600 or more.  Just a few years ago that number would probably have been flipped, with 95% of shots at less than ISO 400.

Make compromises

Remember, every situation is different, and it all comes back to what you are trying to capture.  If you are shooting a close portrait of that sandhill looking straight at you, and you want both beak tip and eyes in focus, then favor a small aperture with a large depth of field over a high shutter speed.  Also, I am not recommending you use Shutter Priority for Wildlife in most situations. Rather, use Aperture Priority or Manual mode and jog your f-stop up or down to achieve a compromise between the depth of field you want, and the shutter speed you need to get a sharp image.  The key is seeing the shot before you take it, and knowing how shifts in either setting will affect the result!

Gear

Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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