Birds fly. Deer run. Wildlife photographers have to be ready to capture wildlife action in an instant. Pre-setting the ideal camera controls is the best way to do this.
Defeat Hand Tremors With the Right Shutter Speed
To prevent handheld camera shake, choose a shutter speed equal to or faster than the focal length of your lens expressed as a fraction. A 200mm lens should be shot at 1/200 second or faster. A 400mm lens should be shot at 1/400 or faster, etc. I shoot one full speed faster than this just to be on the safe side.
Stop Wildlife Action in Its Tracks
The speed of wildlife must also be considered when pre-setting shutter speed. Because many birds and running mammals blur at 1/500, I prefer to shoot at 1/1000. Most bird wings will still blur at bit at 1/2000. Unfortunately, light levels don’t always allow such high shutter speeds — unless I crank up my ISO setting, too. At dawn and dusk and on gray days I’ll go with ISO 1,000 or faster, depending on what wildlife action I anticipate and what the light meter tells me is necessary to accommodate that 1/1000 shutter speed.
Sacrifice Aperture for Shutter Speed
Another way to insure adequate shutter speed for stopping wildlife action is by setting your lens aperture wide open. This lets in the maximum amount of light at all times. When I start out at dawn, I set an f-stop of f-5.6, f-4 or whatever my lens allows. Only when the light intensity increases significantly do I move to a smaller f-stop and/or lower ISO. If I stumble onto a critter that’s perfectly still and stays that way AND I have my camera locked on a tripod or steadied some other way (as explained in the blog on this link,) I’ll lower ISO for better image quality. I may also decrease my aperture (set a larger f-stop number like f-8 or f-11) to increase depth-of-focus, hoping to get the animals nose, eyes ears and maybe even its tail in focus. This blog explains the relationships between f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO.
Use Aperture Priority to Assure Fastest Shutter
Don’t make the mistake of locking in a high shutter speed and letting your camera adjust the f-stop. Shutter speeds are infinite. F-stops are not. You quickly run out of f-stops, and there you sit with a locked-in shutter speed. Set your camera’s auto-exposure to Av mode (you select the biggest aperture your lens allows) and you’ll automatically get the fastest shutter speed possible under all light levels. Yes, these speeds will sometimes be slower than you’d like, but at least you get a proper exposure if you must fire away in a hurry. Subjects aren’t always moving. Many, many times I’ve captured great images of sitting or standing wildlife with auto-exposure shutter speeds as slow as 1/60, 1/30 and even 1/15. Concentrate on keeping that camera still, bang off a few shots with the motor drive on continuous and, if the critter cooperates, dial up your ISO before shooting some more. This way you’re covering your bases before taking time for adjustments.
At the risk of redundancy, let me reiterate: My pre-set auto-exposure mode for capturing wildlife action is almost always Av, which means I set the f-stop and let the camera choose the shutter speed. This guarantees me the fastest shutter speed possible in any lighting condition. Again, shutter speeds, like time itself, are infinite. F-stops are not. Lock in your shutter at 1/1000, and there’s nowhere to go after f-4, f-2.8 or whatever your lens’ widest f-stop. Lock in your f-stop wide open, however, and your shutter can remain open for as long as it takes to let enough light in for a proper exposure. You just have to keep the camera dead still and hope your subject matches it.
Readjust As Conditions Change
So, at first light I’m locked in with a wide open aperture, Av mode with the ISO cranked as high as it needs to go to get me as close to 1/1000 second as possible. Obviously, it’s often dim enough that even at ISO 3200 shutter speed languishes at 1/60 second or less. The only option then is a tripod, beanbag or other way to keep the camera rock steady. As for the subject, you just have to anticipate it and hope it freezes for the shot. This is another reason why wildlife photography is so challenging. Many of our desirable subjects are most active in poor light.
Don’t forget to check and change your settings as the day gets brighter or darker. I tend to get so fixated on the subjects that I forget to adjust settings as the lights come up. Feels pretty silly shooting 1/8000 second at f-5.6 and a noisy ISO 1250 after the sun’s up. But that’s better than blazing off 50 frames at a moving bobcat at dawn with the shutter at 1/15 second!
Pre-set your camera for fast wildlife action in low light BEFORE you bump into the greatest wildlife shot of your life.
Author Ron Spomer has photographed wildlife on six continents and sold thousands of images to publishers during a 40-year career.