Wildlife photography is probably the area in which you have to best understand and utilize your camera's focus system. Animals move, run, fly and require attention of how you use your focus system to get a good shot. There are many settings you can change and move from on to another in order to adapt best for different scenes.

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Using your focus system effectively in wildlife photography can greatly improve the results you get. Each cameras has different abilities and settings for the focus system and drive (continuous shooting) and you should know yours properly to get the maximum out of it.

Sensor AF systems vs phase detection af systems

The development of new camera systems (mostly mirrorless cameras) created a real revolution in the focus technology which makes focusing significantly more accurate and easy for every user.

Traditional DSLR AF systems are mostly based on a phase detection AF system which is the focus system we use in the viewfinder. Until a few years ago it used to be faster and more accurate than the sensor AF system (which exist in the DSLR live view screen).

Since mirrorless cameras became more popular, sensor AF systems continued to improve and ultimately surpassed traditional phase detection systems. The main feature and advantage sensor AF systems have is face/eye detection (traditional focus points are also available). This method allows automatic focus lock and continuous focus tracking for face and eyes of both people and animals. It is very reliable, fast and more accurate than any phase detection found in DSLRs. It makes focusing very easy and effective even for beginners and it is exceptionally effective in situations which in the past were very hard to get shots with accurate focus like people and animals in fast motion.

Whether you have a mirrorless camera with sensor AF system or a DSLR with traditional phase detection system, there are 3 main settings to consider about focus:

1. The focus method.
2. Using Lock-Focus (AF-S in Nikon or One-Shot in Canon) or Continuous-Focus (AF-C in Nikon or AI servo in Canon).
3. Drive: Using single shooting or continuous shooting.

Mirrorless cameras with sensor af seystem:

Use face/eye detection: due to the fact that face/eye detection focus method is so effective, it is almost redundant to use any other method when it comes to wildlife photography.

Use continuous focus: you may decide to use lock-focus for a stationary scene and continuous focus for dynamic/motion scene if you like, but since the face/eye detection is so good, you can definitely use continuous focus all the time - it will give you the benefit of being ready for every situation at all times.

Use either single or continuous shooting: as you wish. If you don't want to waste space in your memory card or end up with too many photos use the single shooting. If you want to capture several frames for best result (for example shooting a Hippo yawn) use continuous shooting.

DSLr with phase detection - stationary scene:

When you and the subject are both stationary.

Use one focus point. It is the most accurate to put the focus on what you want.

Use Lock-Focus. it is more accurate than continuous focus and also makes a beep signal when focus is locked.

Use either single or continuous shooting as you wish. If you don't want to waste room in your memory card or end up with too many photos use the single shooting. If you want to capture several frames for best result (for example shooting a Hippo yawn) use continuous shooting.

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DSLr with phase detection - DYNAMIC SCENE:

When you or your subject is moving.

Use more than one focus point. If you or your subject are moving and you try to track it, it is more than likely you won't be able to constantly hold your focus point on your subject, there for it is recommended to use more than one focus point. It is mostly recommended if your camera has an option to use a cluster of focus points that enlarge the area of focus. That way, when you track a subject in motion you have more chance of not missing it.

Use Continuous-Focus. It allows the camera to keep track of your subject and keeps focusing on it even if it changes distance from you. If you use Lock-Focus and the subject changes distance from you, you will lose focus and the subject will be out of focus.

Use continuous shooting. When shooting animals in motion we usually want to capture them in the best position, like when the cheetah is running and spreads its legs being completely air born or when a hummingbird is just touching the flower it feeds of.

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One of the biggest challenges in wildlife photography is that the scenery constantly change. You might shoot a leopard sitting on a tree and the next moment it will jump. Animals move and pause and if you want to use the best settings for each situation you should try to maximize the speed you can move between focus settings. Few advices about switching between modes:

1. Some cameras have options for customizing buttons. If you can customize a button to switch between lock-focus to continuous-focus it can help you shoot better in a scene an animal moves and pauses.

2. If you have the option to use the camera joystick or buttons to move the focus point around the frame quickly it can help you compose better and faster.

3. Many cameras today have custom exposure programs like C1/C2 in canon or U1/U2 in Nikon. In this function you can have a preset of values like exposure mode (Manual, Aperture priority, shutter priority), focus mode, drive, focus points and more. That way you can quickly switch between programs that suite stationary or dynamic scenes.


There really isn't a better advice I can give about this. First you should get to know your camera and see how you can customize it so you can choose the focus settings you need quickly and have the ability to switch between focus modes efficiently. After that its practice practice until you can control it almost blindly! 

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