Getting good exposure in wildlife photography is a complex and dynamic matter. There are many things you have to consider in order to get a sharp and well exposed image. The light outdoor can change rapidly, your subject might move and you have to constantly be aware of your exposure settings to get everything right.
The shutter speed is the first thing I pay attention to. Without sufficient shutter speed the image will be blurry and not usable (unless you’re aiming for a blurry shot which has a meaning). If you shoot handheld the first thing you should check is that you have the minimum shutter speed according to the focal length you shoot. Your minimum shutter speed in seconds should be – 1/focal length (for full frame sensor cameras). Using a slower shutter speed can result in a blurry image due to natural movement of your body. For example, if you’re using a 400 mm lens, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/400 seconds, if you’re using a 600 mm lens, it should be 1/600 seconds. That is the basic and most important guideline for your shutter speed.
– If you’re using a crop sensor camera, the shutter speed should be approximately 1.5 times faster, that’s because crop sensors see an even more narrow angle of view of the lens you use. For example, if you use a 100 mm lens, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/150 seconds. If you use a 300 mm lens, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/450 seconds and so on.
– If your lens has an image stabilizer, you might be able to use a slightly slower shutter speed than the minimum. It depends on the number of stops your stabilizer can compensate. You should check and get to know your lens to determine what the minimum is.
The minimum shutter speed is the basic guideline, using a faster shutter is more than welcome and becomes mandatory if you shoot animals in motion. If an animal is moving or fast moving, the minimum shutter speed might not always be fast enough to capture it completely still and sharp. Estimating the right shutter speed for capturing animals in motion is a matter of experience you’ll have to learn. Walking animals usually require a shutter speed of 1/250 seconds or faster, Fast walking can get to 1/500 seconds, running or flying will probably require speeds of 1/1000 seconds and faster.
The aperture is the second thing I determine in the exposure settings. It will usually be the widest possible, or a little bit narrower than the widest. A wide aperture lets more light in and allows you to use faster shutter speed (which reduces light). It also contributes to a shallow depth of field which is often complimenting as we discussed before. If there is enough light, closing the aperture a bit can be useful to get the sharpest results from your lens. Most lenses are sharpest at 1-2 stops above the widest aperture. For example, an F/2.8 lens will probably be sharpest at F/4 – F/5.6.
The ISO is the last setting I determine and it has one important job – to balance the light for the right exposure. If there isn’t enough light for good exposure after setting the shutter speed and aperture you should increase the ISO to whatever is necessary to get decent exposure, even if it results in a noisy image. A noisy picture will probably be more usable than a blurry picture due to use of slow shutter speed. If there is plenty of light you might be able to use low ISO and avoid noise and graininess.
Examples of exposure settings in different situations:
– Plenty of light: sufficient shutter speed (can be minimum or higher) + wide aperture (or a bit closed) + low ISO.
– Low light: sufficient shutter speed (usually the minimum) + widest aperture + high ISO.
The three most recommended setting are Manual, Aperture priority or Shutter priority. There isn’t one right choice and it depends on how you’re comfortable working.
gives you full control of ISO, aperture and shutter, but it also forces you to constantly pay attention to each of them and change them according to the light and situation. If your control of the camera buttons isn’t very good and fast you might miss shots or get inadequate exposure. There is an option in some cameras to use Manual mode with Auto ISO – this setting allows you to control the shutter and aperture as you wish and the camera changes the ISO automatically to get good exposure. In some cameras you also have the option to set the minimum shutter speed with the auto ISO and avoid slow shutter speed that might result in a blurry image. It is a very a good choice for most situations (especially if you have a camera that has good high ISO performance), but has one major downside – if there is too much light and the camera reached the base ISO (usually 100) you might end up with a burnt image.
my preferred choice for wildlife photography. I usually set the aperture to the widest and choose ISO that allows the camera to set shutter speeds that suits the current light. Again, you always have to be aware if the light changes and increase or decrease the ISO according to what you want. This method may also work well with Auto ISO setting if the camera also has an option for minimum shutter speed.
Allows you to control the preferred shutter speed you need. It works well if the shutter speed constantly needs to change, but it can be problematic in strong light because the camera might choose a very narrow aperture automatically which is not a very good choice.
Exposure compensation must always be taken in consideration when shooting wildlife. It is very hard to know or predict if you need exposure compensation at all. I usually start with the first shots when the light meter is at “0”. Most of the times it will result in a decent exposure with no extreme burnt or dark pixels. If I have time to make corrections I check the results and the histogram and see if any corrections and exposure compensation is needed. It can be very efficient to check the exposure before shooting the frame you want. For example, if you see a Hippo in a pond that might yawn in a few minutes, it is great to take some test shots and make corrections before the critical moment arrives.
At some point along the road, every person develops his favorite use with light metering. The 2 most common options people use are general metering (Matrix in Nikon or Evaluative in Canon) or spot metering. Both have advantages and disadvantages, what is most important is to understand how it works and how it will impact your photo.
measures the light in a very small part of the frame. in Nikon it follows the focus point you use. In Canon it is always in the middle of the frame. The advantage here is that you will get an accurate light metering of your subject, so if you’re taking a portrait of a face of a leopard it should be well exposed. The disadvantage is that if other areas in the frame are different, they might not come out well. The main problem is if your subject is in the shade and the background is brighter – it might burn the background.
measures the light in the entire frame and makes an average. It mostly suites wide scenes, it is an advantage when you want to get good balanced exposure for the entire frame. For example if you’re shooting a lion sitting in the grass with a beautiful landscape ahead. The disadvantage is it might not well expose your subject or other parts in the frame if there are large lighting differences.
Whichever choice you make, the most important thing to understand in the light relations between your subject and the background/foreground and be aware of it. It is mostly better when your subject and the background/foreground are evenly lit, or if the background/foreground is a bit darker. If your background/foreground is significantly brighter than your subject, you might have to choose between a frame with well exposed background and your subject as silhouette, or a well exposed subject and a burnt background.
This is only a part of the technique you have to master in wildlife photography to get good results. The best way to get better is to practice more and more. It will familiarize you with your camera and sharpen your skills and attention to all the settings you have to pay attention to. Don’t be lazy… and good luck!
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