Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography – Mostly Manual Mode and Why


This post is by David Ziser from Digital ProTalk


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Good Morning Everybody,

I hope today finds everyone well and “Sheltered in Place” along with 90% of the US. It’s certainly a different feeling than usual but the sun is shining in our “neck of the woods” and the weather is just beautiful.  So, I’m going to make the best of it and that means sharing another blog post with all of you.

This post really came about as a result of our safari experiences over these last few years.  I have to say, as a wedding/event photographer, I was ill-prepared with how the shooting circumstances change when

in the field photographing animals.  In this post, I’ll share a few of the insights I gained and new shooting technique changes I made to my shooting style for shooting Big game.

Here we go…
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Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography – Mostly Manual Mode and Why

In my wedding photography world, I generally used two modes when shooting.  First and foremost was M-Manual mode. I did a blog post right here about 10 years ago which fully explains why I make that choice – you can find it right here [link].

Most of my exposures were made with flash and I always wanted to be in charge of my exposures as I balanced flash with various lighting situations. Whether “dragging-the-shutter” indoors to pick up a lot of the ambient  – see image to the right, or shooting outdoors and shooting in “High-Speed Sync” to accentuate skies and other details outdoor, I wanted to be in charge of the lighting on the scene.

When shooting wedding images with no flash attached, I’ll shoot many times on P for Professional  – haha, I mean Program Mode and that served me just fine.

But what about Wildlife photography? Thankfully I learned early on in my wildlife safari experience that P – Program mode was many times an “Image Killer” – many photos would just come out “motion blurred”.  Think about it,  if you are bouncing along in a safari vehicle, trying to stop the action of moving animals or birds in flight, Program mode just doesn’t work many times – you will get blurry images.

Remember, the camera is trying to set the optimum exposure for a nicely lit scene.  It generally sets a fairly low ISO, a reasonably decent aperture, and what looks to be a sufficiently fast shutter speed.  This is all well and good for most day-to-day shooting situations but not out in the middle of a Big 5 wild game reserve.

Time shooting on a game drive takes place between the hours of 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. A lot of that shooting time is mid-day. It’s from about 10:00 a.m. till about 3:00 p.m. that I definitely set my camera to Manual mode.  I want to call both my Shutter Speed and My Aperture letting the ISO just float.

I have discovered that my preferred shutter speed is 1/2500 second and my preferred aperture is usually about F7.1- F8.0 – just off full aperture in order to use a “sweeter” part of the lens and to enhance my “depth of field” ever so slightly.

Now in the image above, I really don’t need a shutter speed of 1/2500 second but who knows what might happen in the next half a second – heck, the lion may charge the jeep and I’d miss the shot – not to mention being totally uncomfortable in my underwear – if that ever really happened…haha.  The fact is, I didn’t want to take the time to change my settings even for this image. You, many times, lose or miss your best photos because of changing settings and/or lenses. So, just shoot away even at the much faster shutter speed.

In the above image, I’m still using that fast shutter speed.  Did I need it to be that fast – of course not.  But if I was relying on P-Program mode, the camera may have given me a shutter speed that was maybe too slow for the swaying of the elephant’s trunks – why take a chance.

Why You Have To Be Ready – All the Time
Here is a perfect example of why you want to be ready for the shot.  Check out the image below.  Just an easy photo of the Zebras enjoying a refreshing drink at the watering hole. Right?

But, just 10 seconds later – I know, I checked the EXIF data – something spooked everyone and all the animals took off in all directions.  Check out this next image of the Zebras.  They are high-tailing it out of there and not wasting any time clearing out from the watering hole.

What spooked them, we weren’t quite sure. It might have been the rhino that wandered by and just wanted a drink too.  Anyway, all the animals headed for the hills. But once the danger subsided, they all returned just as though nothing had happened. Just check out the image below.  It was taken 70 seconds after the previous image but this time everybody is happy as can be enjoying a sip of water in the hot sunny afternoon savannah sun.  Pretty cool to see – and why you need to be ready and prepared to capture the shot at the proper shutter speed to capture the action.

Let’s talk about one more time when a fast shutter speed is of the utmost necessity. It’s bird photos.  You can sit there for 5 minutes with the bird is sitting up on its branch just enjoying the view. But then, it too eventually gets spooked or just tired and will take off.

In either case, I have found that you need at least 1/2500 second to stop the motion of the bird’s wings flapping.  You must also use a fairly fast frame rate – I prefer 9-10 frames per second to ensure my action sequence does get a decent wing position of the flying bird.

All the above images were made with my Canon 7D Mk 2 firing at 9.5 FPS fitted with my super-fast focusing 100-400 Sigma IS lens – a great camera/lens combo for safari photography

So there you have it – my favorite shooting mode when photographing animals mid-day along with my preferred apertures and shutter speed. I hope this little insight helps you in your wildlife photography.  I’ve got lots more tips and tricks – so please stay tuned.
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Hey Gang,

Thanks, that’s it for me today. I have to tell you, that just looking over this post gives me so much JOY – I just loved the fact I have a wedding image in the same post with my wildlife photos – who would have guessed. Hey, I’ll take my simple little pleasures wherever I can find them amidst our quarantined  times;~)

Audios for now everybody,

David

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