Getting pin sharp images is certainly the obsession of every wildlife photographers. In fact, we all want these crispy details in our shots- water drops on the fur, details of feathers or being able to see deep into the eye of the subject- especially now that cameras allow such performances.
Understanding your gear to achieve sharp images can feel like a never ending quest. To help you, here are 5 major tips to use everyday:
1) Get the right focus settings
The very first step is to understand how the auto focus of your camera works and set it based on the subject you want to photograph. For instance, if you want to photograph a flying bird, your focus point has to be larger than if you want to shoot a portrait of an elephant where you have to be pin sharp on the eye. One thing you also have to consider is that your central focus point will always be more accurate.
On some DSLR cameras you can also modify the sensitivity of your autofocus. This can be very useful if you want to track a fast moving animal and your focus point might encounter some grass in the way of the subject. By reducing its sensitivity, the focus point has a greater chance of staying on the animal instead of focus on the grass in the foreground.
2) Size matters
Something you have to take into consideration is the focal length of your lens. The longer your lens is, the more blur you will potentially have. To explain myself, I will use a simple example…if you record a video, the more you zoom into it and crop, the more you will see the camera shaking. It’s exactly the same principal with telephoto lens.
To counter this effect, I recommend using the Rule 1 for 1. Namely, if you are using a 600mm lens, set at least 1/600sec shutter just to compensate the micro-shaking (even if you are using a tripod).
3) Double S : Stabilized = Sharpness
All the settings are now complete to take the sharpest pictures. But even with all the precautions, nothing will replace a good tripod, monopod or bean bag. Indeed, your camera has to be stable as much as possible while you are shooting. The trick here, is to pick the right tool between all the options that exist out there.
A tripod is the most common one but it can be heavy and it’s not the best choice for when you want to move quickly and silently.
A monopod is the lighter version of the tripod. Using it allows you to move faster but you’ll lose a little bit of stabilization.
Bean bags are very convenient when doing game drives or when you are shooting very low on the ground. They are pretty easy to move with and very light when it comes to packing your gear.
Finally, nowadays, cameras and lenses are getting better and better. Most lens (except entry level ones) will have a stabilization system that will allow you to compensate camera shakes when you are handholding it.
4) Motion of your subject
Now, you have to ask yourself: Do I want to freeze the motion or do I want some motion blur to show action in my picture?
Your shutter speed setting depends on your answer to the previous question.
Always keep in mind that setting the right shutter speed depends on the speed of your subject. Taking a picture of a bull elk grazing might require a shutter of 1/600sec whereas a bull elk during the rut might require a higher shutter speed, around 1/1000sec since they are fighting and chasing others males.
Personally, even if I’m shooting with short lenses such as 35mm or 90mm (link lenses) I will always push my shutter to a higher speed than the focal lens Rule 1/1 (seen previously). In fact, photographing wildlife means you rely on a rarely cooperative subject and on outdoor elements. Higher shutter speeds will allow you to avoid having unsharp images because of the animal blinking, moving his/her tail or because of the wind moving the fur of your subject.
5) No noise
The last tip to get crispy sharp images you want is to check on the ISO of your camera and make sure they are not too high.
If you push the ISO up, you will have some ‘noise’, a grainy image losing details. Below is an example of two identical images but one with low ISO and the other one high ISO.
In case you have to choose between ISO or shutter speed, keep your shutter speed as it should be and pump up the ISO a little but more.
I hope this little 'tutorial' will make you satisfied with you pictures and don't forget, have fun!