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Jochen

A simple method of shooting wildlife

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Hey ST folks,

 

As promised to @Tulips and @Kitsafari, but I hope equally useful for everyone else; a quick & simple method that works in at least 95% of all cases when shooting wildlife. 

 

With this method you should get better results from your camera, as compared to whatever results you get when using it in auto-mode. But as always with posts like this, a disclaimer is needed as well; yes, there will be some cases where this method will not work (I'm thinking of macro shots, for example). Nothing in life is perfect. If you don't like the result you get, switch back to auto! You might get lucky. :P

 

For the below; the only important parts are in bold. The rest is just info that you read maybe just this once, so you understand WHY you're doing certain steps in the process. But you can forget about it later.

 

Here goes...

 

 

STEP 1; put your camera in Aperture Mode (AV on a canon, A on a Nikon, ...)

 

When setting your aperture, you are actually playing around with your Depth Of Field ("DOF"). The purpose is to get your subject in focus, and your background as blurry as possible. Fiddling with your aperture value has consequences on your shutter speed. To be precise;

- A lower aperture value = a shallower depth of field = a higher shutter speed = more chance of getting a sharp image

- A higher aperture value = a less shallow depth of field = a lower shutter speed = less chance of getting a sharp image

 

 

STEP 2; zoom in on your subject

 

Are you at the desired zoom level? Go to the next step.

 

 

STEP 3; now roll to the lowest aperture value your lens will allow

 

I say "roll" because I assume if you are in aperture mode, your camera will allow you to set the aperture value using the main wheel. I don't know how this works on all cameras that are out there.

 

The thing is; if you would be shooting portraits, say: a person's face at the other side of the dinner table, you'd notice that it's difficult to work in aperture mode. More specifically; if you dial a too low value, your Depth Of Field might be too low, and you might notice that the person's nose is sharp, but his/her ears are already out of focus! 

But that's because your subject is close to your lens! The further your subject is away from your lens, the less likely you are to get into trouble with a too shallow depth of field. But now think about wildlife photography; your subject is almost never very close to you! So you can dial the lowest aperture value possible, resulting in the nicest blurry background, without having to fear your subject will be out of focus! On top of that, (as explained in step 1) your lower aperture value will give you a higher shutter speed, which in turn means you'll have less chance of hand movement resulting in a blurry shot. Isn't that all very convenient?! :lol:

 

 

STEP 4; half-press your shutter button

 

When you half-press, your camera will display, in the viewfinder (or at the back, if it's a camera without a viewfinder), the results of what he "reads". Basically what he does is he measures the light, and using your chosen aperture mode, your camera will say (for example) "If you want a shot of this, exposed correctly, then I can do that with a shutter speed of blah blah blah".

To give you some examples with actual figures;

- If your camera returns a value of 1000 it actually means he can get you the shot with an exposure 1/1000th of a second

- If your camera returns a value of 50 it actually means he can get you the shot with an exposure 1/50th of a second

 

 

STEP 5; read the shutter speed figure that your camera returns to you, and interpret that figure (is it enough or not?)

 

This is maybe the only tricky bit. But it's actually really simple. 

 

I'll explain with some examples again. There's a simple rule to follow:

- Suppose your zoom lens' maximum reach is 300mm and you zoomed in all the way to 300mm. Well then you need to get a shutter speed of minimum 1/300th of a second to be sure that you get a sharp picture (ic a picture unaffected by movement of your hands).

- Suppose your zoom lens' maximum reach is 400mm but you only zoomed in on your subject to about half way (200mm). Side note; you can see at what zoom you are by looking at the dials on the top of your lens. Well then you need to get a shutter speed of minimum 1/200th of a second to be sure that you get a sharp picture.

 

Can you see the pattern here? This is the only rule you have to remember:

- If you are zoomed in to 100mm, the reading you get back from your camera when half-pressing your shutter should at least give you "100" (1/100th of a second)

- If you are zoomed in to 200mm, the reading you get back from your camera when half-pressing your shutter should at least give you "200" (1/200th of a second)

- If you are zoomed in to 300mm, the reading you get back from your camera when half-pressing your shutter should at least give you "300" (1/300th of a second)

And so on!

 

All this means is; the further you zoom out, the faster your required shutter speed.

 

So if your camera gives you a value higher or equal than the shutter speed you need, MAKE THE SHOT NOW. 

 

For example; if you're at 400mm zoom, the reading you get should say at least "400". So if you get "2000", make the shot. If you get "1000", make the shot. If you get "400"; still fine, make the shot!

 

YOU'RE DONE! This is how easy it is to get that fantastic wildlife shot, perfectly exposed, and with the blurry background.

 

Only if the reading you get is lower than what you desire, go to the next step. 

In the example above; if you're at 400mm, and your reading gives you "50"... read on!

 

 

(optional) STEP 6; choose a higher ISO value if needed

 

Let's continue with that last example; you were zoomed in to 400mm, because you wanted a shot of a bird in a tree. Unfortunately that bird is in the shade, so there's not a lot of light. And when half-pressing, your camera returns "50". Basically what your camera is saying is; "if you want a correctly exposed image of that bird, I require a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second.

 

If you would ignore the rule in step 5, and press the shutter anyway, you can be almost certain you'd get a blurry shot. Because no one can hold a camera steady for 1/50th of a second while zoomed in that far. You need a faster shutter speed, so that there's less chance of your shot being blurred. You need to follow the rule in step 5! But how do you get a faster shutter speed if there's not enough light? That bird in the tree is not going to light a candle near his face.

 

This is where your ISO setting comes in. 

 

If you never fiddle around with your ISO setting, and/or if you always shoot in auto mode, there's a high chance your ISO is set at 100. This setting will give you the least "grainy" images. You can google around if you want to know more about ISO, but basically it's just like in the old days, when you loaded film in your camera.

 

For us, what's important now is to realise we would rather get a sharp shot of that bird even though the final image might be a bit more grainy, instead of getting a blurred shot of said bird ...but then with less grain. I mean seriously; what good are you with a non-grainy shot when all it shows is a blurred bird??

 

So here's the 2nd rule you need to keep in mind; every time you double your ISO value, your camera will require half the shutter speed of what he needed before. You only need to remember this rule in case you need this 6th step. So start increasing your ISO! (this is different on all cameras; you will need to find out how to do it. It might be as simple as pushing an "ISO" button).

 

To give you an example;

- Move your ISO from 100 to 200 and that "50" reading you got in the above example will change to "100" (just half-press your shutter again after having set a higher ISO value)

- Move your ISO from 200 to 400 and that reading goes from 100 to 200!

- Move your ISO from 400 to 800 and that reading goes from 200 to 400!

 

How there! Stop! No need to go even higher in ISO. Remember; we needed 1/400th of a second to get a sharp shot, as we were zoomed in to 400mm. Well, we're there! Take the shot! It should be sharp.

 

And when you're done, don't forget to set your ISO back to a lower level. Unless you expect your next shots to be of subjects in the shade as well.

 

More to come in a 2nd post, below.

 

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The above rule works in almost all wildlife photography cases, with the exception of...

 

- When your subject is too close to your lens (like macro shots of insects etc)

- When your subject is rather close to you, but it is facing you at an angle. For example; if you are really close to a lion, but it is facing you at an angle of about 45°. Then, if you focus on the head, that head may come out in focus while the tail end of the cat is slightly out of focus. But personally I don't think this "issue" is not worth throwing out the whole above method for. 

 

 

What if you pumped up your ISO as high as your camera allows, and you still don't get enough shutter speed?

 

There's a few things you can do;

 

1) Zoom in less. The less you zoom, the less lower your shutter speed is allowed to be. True, you'll get a shot where your subject is smaller. But at least it's a sharp shot, and you can always crop your shot in a photo-editing software.

 

2) Buy more expensive lenses. A certain zoom lens will give you a maximum aperture of F5.6 when zoomed in at 400mm. But a better zoom may exist that gives you a maximum aperture of F2.8 at the same 400mm. Obviously the second lens will cost much more, because it uses lens elements that are much more light-sensitive. But it can be worth it! For every full step down in aperture value, a lens needs only half the light as it's counterpart with the higher F value. In this example, the full F-stops are F5.6 -> F4 -> F2.8. So the more expensive lens needs 4x less light than the other one! Or otherwise put; the more expensive lens will be able to get to your desired shutter speed in much more extreme conditions.

 

3) Underexpose. You'll need to look at your camera manual on how to do this. What it comes down to; who says if you're taking a shot of a leopard after sundown, that it needs to be perfectly exposed like it's daytime?! Because you need to realise that is what your camera tries to do; to give you a "perfectly exposed" shot! Actually, when it comes to night time shots, I always advise my customers to divert from the steps as explained in the initial post above. I tell them to under-expose at least two full stops. This means that they will be able to get a non-blurry shot at 1/4th of the shutter speed that the camera would normally need. And in fact, their image will often still come out perfectly exposed, because the light coming from the flashlight will often over-expose the centre part of the animal. 

 

 

Are there other tricks to get the desired shutter speed (or if that's impossible; to still get non-blurred shots) at a given aperture setting?

 

Yes, there's a few things.

 

1) Shoot in burst! You'll see there's always one shot that comes out better than the rest. It's probably the shot that was fired in between two breaths you took. 

 

2) Get a stabilised lens (IS on Canon, VR on Nikon, ...). With a lens like that, you can actually divert from the "at 100mm I need 1/100s" rule. In fact, you can safely half those figures. So now the rule becomes "at 100mm I need 1/50s", "at 200mm I need 1/100s" and so on. 

 

3) Use a monopod or tripod. This is not easy though. If you're on a vehicle, it might be that others make that vehicle move slightly, or you might have there vibrations from the engine, ... and then your monopod won't help much.

 

 

 

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@Jochen This is extremely helpful! I have been trying to do this, but not as systematically and not always in the same order of steps, with highly variable results. Thank you!

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I hope it helps! 

 

When writing it all out in detail it seems like a long procedure but it's actually quite easy to remember ...I hope!

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Jochen - Two additional points to your well thought out posts ......

 

A.) the use of AI servo tracking in wildlife photography (much easier to use when the subject is moving and that's often the case in wildlife photography)

 

B.) Matrix metering 

 

WRT low light photography - it's pretty impressive how high you can pump up the ISO these days without a grainy image ....... 

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Posted (edited)

@Jochen You have just revolutionised my use of my Nikon. Thank you, you have no idea how helpful this is. 

Edited by ld1
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Thanks for so promptly keeping your promise and taking the trouble to do it step by step, Jochen! This is going to take me a while to slowly digest and work it out. It sounds so complex! But i promise to give it a try at least.

 

 

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10 minutes ago, Kitsafari said:

It sounds so complex! 

 

The lengthy explanation might be. But I can assure you, if you just follow the simple steps and memorise those few rules in bold, you'll do just fine! ;)

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What a handy, dandy little tutorial.

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Thank you so much for this!  I had been told about the 100 "rule" before, (by a photographer during safari) but this really helps sort everything out.

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10 hours ago, Jochen said:

I mean seriously; what good are you with a non-grainy shot when all it shows is a blurred bird??

@Jochen I just about spit the drink in my mouth all over the place when I read this. This is exactly the problem I have with birds and the whole time I was worried about noise.

 

my only question is would you use auto ISO?  The only reason I ask is you have moving animals and fluttering birds and sometimes you just don't have time to adjust the ISO.

 

Thank you for taking the time to write this all out.  It really makes sense.

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@Tulips, I use Auto-ISO for all photos of moving animals, especially birds.

 

But, I use it in a very different manner than the excellent method above, and I don't want to contaminate @Jochen 's excellent tutorial.

 

There is a thread under the general section about what settings to use where I have explained my method.

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8 hours ago, Tulips said:

My only question is would you use auto ISO?  

 

I never do, to be honest. Because that auto-ISO is almost always wrong. :)

 

Instead, I anticipate, and set my ISO beforehand. For instance on a day like today (clear sky, full daylight, winter - so hardly any leaves on the trees), I'd set it somewhere like ISO 250. But if I would be walking in a forest, under a thick canopy of leaves, I'd push it to ISO 1600.

 

Sometimes, if I'm not sure, I measure beforehand. I'd aim at a spot where I would expect one of my subjects, half-press, and read. Not enough shutter speed? Push the ISO and test again.

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@Jochen - Do you pre-set White Balance?  at a number? or change according to conditions?

Edited by madaboutcheetah
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Hey Harry,

 

I don't because I shoot RAW. So if my camera gets it wrong (which actually rarely happens) I can still set my WB to whatever I like in Lightroom.

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I shoot RAW too - but, have it pre-set at 5000K ...... Just something I was told to do by a photographer from the UK (can't remember why)

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Thank you @Jochen, from one whose brain seems to freeze, when trying to master anything more complicated than point and shoot. Several years ago I bought a Canon Powershot ZX50, but despite several attempts to improve my skills, I still mainly use auto. I have just printed out your instructions and taken my camera out of a dark cupboard, ready now to try and commit myself to practise, practise, practise!

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@Jochen Pentax has a TAV mode, where the user sets aperture and shutter speed with auto ISO. Since you are manipulating ISO in order to get an appropriate shutter speed, I wonder if I would be better off setting shutter speed directly after setting my aperture to the lowest possible value. Probably it doesn't matter, and I should just experiment and find out what works better for me, but I thought I'd get your input in case I'm missing something. Thanks again for this thread!

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7 hours ago, madaboutcheetah said:

I shoot RAW too - but, have it pre-set at 5000K ...... Just something I was told to do by a photographer from the UK (can't remember why)

 

Hmmm... That doesn't make sense. When shooting in RAW your camera should ignore that setting. ;)

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2 hours ago, jeffb said:

@Jochen Pentax has a TAV mode, where the user sets aperture and shutter speed with auto ISO. Since you are manipulating ISO in order to get an appropriate shutter speed, I wonder if I would be better off setting shutter speed directly after setting my aperture to the lowest possible value. Probably it doesn't matter, and I should just experiment and find out what works better for me, but I thought I'd get your input in case I'm missing something. Thanks again for this thread!

 

That might actually work!

 

Set the F-value low -> Set your shutter speed to the same level as your zoom (my little rule above) -> Let the camera handle the rest (it should set the ISO to the needed level to attain the desired shutter speed. 

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Thanks - I'll try it!

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Depth of field in 8 seconds.6323860_orig.gif.46141324f13b48fddf2ea11b8a8ee510.gif

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@Ben mosquito Very nice demonstration. Thanks.

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Very useful tips, @Jochen ! But they are still too many variables included for a starter in photography, IMO.

 

 

Based on last 3 years of safari photography, our setting (on Nikon) for Africa wildlife are (listed in importance):

 

RAW

M (manual)

AF-C focusing with back-button activation

AutoISO

1/1000 sec

f 1/6.3 (on f 1/5.6 lens)

 

That is all what is needed for majority of our photos; only when needed, shutter speed (when there is not enough light) or f-stop (when animals are bigger or closer and more DOF is needed) has to be changed. The AutoISO strategy works well enough; today sensors are ISO-insensitive (??) ... they will produce about the same quality from base ISO (100 or 200 depends on camera) to 1600-3200 ISO.

For majority of photographers that want to improve their photos, I am quite sure that M (manual) mode is more adequate then A (aperture priority) mode. Because, you don't have to change any of the two major settings as AutoISO will do the job for the majority of scenes!

 

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9 minutes ago, xelas said:

Very useful tips, @Jochen ! But they are still too many variables included for a starter in photography, IMO.

 

 

Based on last 3 years of safari photography, our setting (on Nikon) for Africa wildlife are (listed in importance):

 

RAW

M (manual)

AF-C focusing with back-button activation

AutoISO

1/1000 sec

f 1/6.3 (on f 1/5.6 lens)

 

That is all what is needed for majority of our photos; only when needed, shutter speed (when there is not enough light) or f-stop (when animals are bigger or closer and more DOF is needed) has to be changed. The AutoISO strategy works well enough; today sensors are ISO-insensitive (??) ... they will produce about the same quality from base ISO (100 or 200 depends on camera) to 1600-3200 ISO.

For majority of photographers that want to improve their photos, I am quite sure that M (manual) mode is more adequate then A (aperture priority) mode. Because, you don't have to change any of the two major settings as AutoISO will do the job for the majority of scenes!

 

 

I agree.

My settings are almost identical to yours. Only difference is that I usually set aperture at f8 and may occasionally increase the shutter speed when shooting birds in good light.

As you say @xelas this works almost every time.

I think many people are put off by the fact that the camera is set on Manual, without properly understanding that setting ISO to Auto deals with this very efficiently.

 

I've converted many photographers to this setup.

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