One of the first photos I took with my first DSLR - I think it was this shot that sealed my fate as a photographer!
I’ve learned a fair bit about what makes a good animal photo through trial and error over the years. Even though I got lucky with one of the very first shots I took with my first DSLR, I’ve taken many ordinary shots since then. I am proud of a few though, so I’ll share them here along with a few tips I’ve learned along the way. Like all ‘rules’ in photography, the following are just suggestions, to be broken as and when you see fit!
It goes without saying that to get animals in the wild, you need to get out into nature. It helps dramatically if you can get to know an area well by scouting it several times. Time of day helps too – luckily a lot of animals avoid the heat of the day and are more active around dawn and dusk, giving us photographers great opportunities for beautifully lit images.
Just like most photography, soft light makes a better photo
The flipside to shooting at dawn and dusk is lower light – so chances are you will be shooting with a shallow depth of field (low f/stop number). In this case (much like with portraits of people), it is much more pleasing if the eye is sharp and in focus for closer shots of animals.
With the fox's eye in focus, your attention is drawn straight to it, connecting you with the animal
So you can see how it can get a little bit tricky – shooting wary animals, which move quickly and often in lower light situations. Add to this longer telephoto lenses (which will introduce more movement blur if not handled correctly) and it becomes difficult to get nice sharp photos of the animal you have been stalking so patiently!
As scary as it may sound, my best advice to you is to shoot in Manual mode. Relax! I’ll walk you through it...
You’ll need a fast shutter speed – I start with 1/1000s, and go faster if the animals are really zooming about and you really need to freeze the motion, or maybe a touch slower if you can manage it without getting too much motion blur.
Little birds move quickly! Having a fast shutter speed freezes any motion blur
Next, I set the aperture to around f/5.6. I used to go as wide open as possible (~f/2.8 or f/4), and if you need to go this wide due to low light then you can, but there are 2 reasons why this aperture works well for me. Firstly, you slightly increase your depth of field, meaning it is easier to get the critical parts (the eyes!) in focus. Secondly, lenses tend to produce slightly sharper images when they are not at their widest aperture.
You can still achieve great depth of field with higher f/stops - this was shot at f/8
Finally, I set the ISO to Auto. Because I have preset my shutter speed and f/stop, the ISO now deals with the amount of light in my scene. So if I’m in a low light situation, the ISO will ramp up, allowing me to maintain my desired shutter and aperture combo. There is a point where the ISO will get too high (which is where you will then have to lower your f/stop, or decrease your shutter speed) but if you are lucky enough to have a fairly modern camera, then it will handle higher ISO settings pretty well.
This little robin was in a fairly dark forest. I used an ISO of 2500 to achieve this shot, and it turned out great!
I hope this has helped shed some light on taking better wildlife photos. Feel free to shoot me a question in the comments below if you want any more tips, or sign up to my email newsletter for more great photos and info in your inbox!