The more you know, the easier everything becomes. And once you understand a few basics, you can then move forward to be more creative. One of the most important camera functions for wildlife is RAPID BURST. This allows you to hold the shutter button down and fire off several shots in a row. Even if an animal is not moving, shooting in this way will allow you to get different expressions, eyes open, and other important changes from one shot to another. If the animal IS moving, as this brown bear was, you will get a variety of paw, leg, or head positions and can choose the ones that work best for you.
Another important camera function is CONTINUOUS FOCUS (Nikon) or AI SERVO (Canon). This is a simple camera setting that allows your camera to continuously focus on a moving subject. It is especially helpful with birds in flight and animals on the move. As long as you keep the focus button depressed, and keep your viewfinder focus point on the head of the animal, your camera will continue to focus as the subject moves.
I shoot Canon, and my favorite lens for wildlife is the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II. When photographing wildlife in Denali National Park, one of my favorite places, I also often use the Canon 1.4X III extender. It allows me to get closer shots while keeping me a safe distance from wildlife. And keeping a safe distance between you and the animals is important for two reasons – first, it gives you a greater margin of safety should the animal begin to approach you, and second, it keeps you from impacting on their feeding or other behaviors. Remember that when photographing in the wild, you are on THEIR turf and the animals must be your first priority, over and above getting the shot.
Because I can move more easily and change positions quickly, I prefer to not use a tripod. This usually comes as a surprise to most people, I always have it with me, but I rarely use it for wildlife photography. Because I handhold the camera most of the time, I need to shoot wildlife with a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. That eliminates the possibility of camera shake, and also will freeze most action. I prefer an ISO of 400 or 800 at most, but if the light level is low I will increase the ISO as necessary. The shot below, taken pre-dawn in Denali National Park when the light level was extremely low, required an ISO of 12,800. It was the only way to get an adequate exposure in these conditions. A high ISO introduces much more noise to images, so noise reduction software (I use Lightroom for noise reduction) will help minimize it.
To improve your chances of getting sharp images, it is important to understand how autofocus works. Autofocus can lock on most easily and accurately if you place the viewfinder’s focus point on an area of good contrast AND that has a hard line. Autofocus is fastest and most accurate when it can grab onto a hard edge that also has contrast. Of course the area you choose needs to be what you want sharpest in your image. For wildlife, generally you can find an area of fur near the animal’s head that has dark and light areas. If that is not possible, you can focus along the edge of an ear or antler. Or if you are zoomed in very close you can focus on the eye, but that is more difficult. For this macro shot, the best place to focus was along the edge where the reddish berry was against the white tundra.
Mollie is an internationally known, award-winning professional photographer who owns Awake The Light Photo Workshops and Tours. She runs a variety of photo tours and workshops across the country and beyond. She specializes in nature and wildlife photography, plus macro, and abstracts. Her work is in the Permanent Collection of the International Photography Hall of Fame, and has been exhibited at Epcot Center at Disney World, and Grand Central Station in New York City. Early in her career she studied with Ansel Adams and Joyce Tenneson. She is also an experienced portrait photographer and has photographed many famous faces including actress Meryl Streep, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, and former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. She is a sought-after speaker at photography conferences and seminars around the country. For information about upcoming photo tours and workshops, email Mollie at firstname.lastname@example.org