Camera Settings – Wildlife Photography

An American White Ibis preens in the late afternoon light at Disney World Epcot theme park. (Bill Ferris)

An American White Ibis preens in the late afternoon light at Disney World Epcot theme park. (Bill Ferris)

This post continues a series on camera settings for specific genres of photography. As I mentioned in the first installment, I am not suggesting these settings will be best for every photographer. I am sharing them because they work for me and may be of some help to you.

As the above image indicates, this post will focus on settings for bird and wildlife photography. Let’s begin with my goals when shooting animals in a natural setting:

  • Communicate the wild
  • Convey the personality of the animal
  • Bring the viewer close

There is something about an animal in a wilderness setting that captures the imagination. This is particularly true in cultures that feel a strong connection to a past when people lived, struggled, thrived and died in wilderness places. They competed not only with the land and weather but also with animals. Some animals were hunted as sources of food and clothing. Others were hunted as competitors for scarce food resources or as threats to people.

A photograph of an animal in a wilderness setting has the potential to reconnect us with that pioneer heritage. It can make the pulse quicken and loose a surge of adrenalin in the blood. Communicating the wild is as much about setting as the animal, itself. Framing the shot with a rugged terrain or severe weather conveys a sense of wilderness. The personality of the animal comes to life through action. Interesting – even aggressive – behavior does the trick. Sometimes, the suggestion of a behavior that is about to happen can be even more compelling. Capturing the instant before the animal becomes aggressive hints at wildness and allows the audience’s imagination to fill in the rest.

The Kilimanjaro Safaris tour at Disney World Animal Kingdom exposes visitors to a host of animals native to Africa, including the giraffe. (Bill Ferris)

The Kilimanjaro Safaris tour at Disney World Animal Kingdom exposes visitors to a host of animals native to Africa, including the giraffe. (Bill Ferris)

A long telephoto lens can bring the viewer close enough to feel the breath of the animal. Stealth and patience, when skillfully employed, can have the same effect. Every guideline has its exceptions and this one is no different. A wide angle lens capturing the interesting behavior of a collection of animals in the wild can be just as inspiring.

Bird and wildlife photography is a relatively new interest for me. I’m still searching for that heart-stopping image of an apex predator in the wild, or an iconic creature persevering against nature’s maelstrom. However, the technique of capturing such moments is fairly well ingrained. I’ll be ready when the moment arrives. Here, are my settings:

  • Aperture: f/2.8 to f/5.6
  • ISO: ISO-auto with 1/500 to 1/1000-second as minimum shutter speed and 6400 as maximum ISO
  • Back Button Focus: AE-L/AF-L button assigned to autofocus control
  • Burst Rate: Low (3 fps) to Continuous High (6 fps)
  • Image Quality: RAW
  • Exposure Compensation:  +2/3 to 0 to -2/3 stop

I use a large aperture to blur the background and isolate the subject. A wide open aperture also allows for the use of more reasonable ISO’s when shooting early in the day. Now, an aperture closed one stop from wide open will do a better job of capturing pin sharp detail in the animal. So, if the light level will allow it and if there is significant distance between your subject and the background, consider closing down the lens a bit.

Back button focus is a great technique for just about any type of photography. It gives you more control over focus point and framing. If the animal is moving slowly, a shutter speed of 1/500-second will do an excellent job of freezing action. However, birds in flight and other more aggressive actions demand a faster shutter speed. A low burst rate works fine for an animal slowly grazing for food. A faster burst rate is called for when shooting birds in flight and other more dynamic action.

A bull Elk eyes a gathering crowd of tourists on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

A bull elk eyes a gathering crowd of tourists on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Finally, you’ll want to pay attention to the coloration of an animal. Animals with dark fur may require an exposure compensation of +2/3 stop to preserve detail. By contrast, compensation of -2/3 stop will preserve feather detail when photographing a bright white bird.

These are the settings I use when photographing birds and animals. If you give them a try, I think you’ll find the results rewarding. At the very least, you’ll gain a better understanding of the settings that work best for you.

Now, get out there and shoot!

Bill Ferris | April 2015

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