top of page

Photographing Wildlife Handheld with a Canon 100-400mm Lens

By John Gerlach

I nearly always use a tripod as it aids me in making quality images. That means I use a tripod whenever possible, but there are times when I cannot use a tripod, so I use other tactics to help me shoot sharp images.

The image stabilization switch on my lens is set to mode 2 so I don't get any stabilization in the horizontal plane as the brown pelican is flying to the left, but IS does stabilize the camera if I have a little up and down wiggle as I pan with the pelican to produce a sharp image.

Under what conditions do I not use a tripod for wildlife or landscape photography?

I don’t use the tripod when photographing flying birds overhead, or when stalking birds in my floating blind. Of course, the Wimberley gimbal head I use is attached to the floating blind, so that does offer considerable support, and I use bean bags in the safari vehicles in Kenya. Though not a tripod, both the bean bag on top of the landrover roof or in the window, and the floating blind offer good stability. When I spent a month at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, I did find I had to shoot handheld when photographing birds – mostly snow geese and sandhill cranes – that were flying above me since I find it nearly impossible to have my lens mounted on a tripod while attempting to photograph subjects almost directly above me. And just now I happened to be in Florida getting three tooth implants worked on when I had a chance to get to the St. Augustine alligator farm and some marshy areas nearby. I only brought a Canon 5D Mark IV attached to a Canon 100-400mm lens and no tripod since space was restricted on the plane and I would only be in Florida for a few days over the Thanksgiving holiday to visit my family in Jacksonville and get the medical work done.

In reviewing the 1400 images I shot in a Florida afternoon handheld, I still got plenty of sharp images, though, certainly not all. Here is a list of my photo tactics that helped me shoot sharp images handheld.

This wood stork flies by me late in the afternoon. I used manual exposure here as the ambient light is steady and the background continually changes from blue sky to about half clouds from moment to moment. I set the manual exposure to produce the first blinkies in a white gull that was standing near me in the same light as any flying birds that I am after, and use that for the white birds flying by me. Though, I have hammered on the autoexposure problem with changing background reflectances for decades, still many fail to realize if you are using auto, and have a suitable exposure for this wood stork against blue sky, the exposure won't remain ideal in auto if the background reflectance changes, such as when the bird flies against a portion of the sky with lots of clouds which will cause underexposure as the meter now sets the exposure for the many brighter tones in the clouds. And not only that, if you set the exposure when the bird is one size in the image, and then it fills the image more, or is smaller in the image, that can throw the exposure off too. In this case, you are way better off to shoot in full manual exposure and not use Auto ISO which is an auto exposure mode.

1. I did not use any filter. I never use “protection filters” and did not use a polarizer as that would cost me about two shutter speeds and glare was not a problem, so I could get by without the polarizer. I protect my lens by being careful, and always install the lens hood properly on the front of the lens.

2. I did use autofocus all the time, and autoexposure at times. To keep the shutter speed up, I set my camera to Auto ISO and manually set both the shutter speed I felt comfortable with and the aperture. While I needed to compensate the autoexposure often, I assigned my exposure compensation dial to the SET button. In the default mode, exposure compensation must be set in a menu and that is too slow for wildlife photography, but when this function is assigned to the set button, it is an easy matter to adjust the exposure compensation by pressing the SET button in and rotating the main control dial left or right to reduce or increase the automatic exposure. Since the shutter speed and aperture are set manually and locked in place unless I turn a dial, changing the exposure compensation from 0 to +1 causes the ISO to double in size – say from ISO 400 to 800 as an example.

The advantage of Auto ISO with the manual aperture and shutter speed combination is the system locks the desired depth of field and the shutter speed simultaneously, and the ISO varies to produce a suitable exposure when the exposure compensation is set correctly. This method is a great way to avoid the problems of aperture-priority where the shutter speed might drop too slow, and shutter priority where the lens cannot open the aperture enough to provide a good exposure if the ambient light suddenly dims.

Of course, I also don’t want to be using too high of an ISO to avoid noise problems, so I monitor the auto ISO and make manual adjustments to either the aperture or shutter speed or both should the ISO rise too high. If my ISO floats up to ISO 4000, and I don’t want to go past ISO 2000, then I must either slow the shutter speed by one stop or open the aperture one stop if possible. Obviously, since both my shutter speed and aperture are set to 1/3-stop increments, I could add 1/3 stop with one exposure control and 2/3-stop with the other.

By the way, I shoot RAW images only, and process them with Canon’s free DPP4 software. I set the exposure to produce the first blinkies and go with that. It is easy enough, take a shot of a snowy egret for example, and review the image to check for blinkies. If no blinkies, increase the exposure compensation and shoot another image and check again. When the first blinkies are flashing on the bird, I go with that exposure. If there are too many blinkies, then I reduce the exposure by setting a more negative exposure compensation. As an example, setting the exposure compensation to +1 from + 1/3-stop produces a + 2/3-stop brighter image.

3. Autofocus is assigned to the shutter button and it is set to continuous autofocus. A half press of the shutter button activates autofocus, and a full press shoots the images if I continue to hold the shutter button down. By setting the shutter speed manually, that locks in the shutter speed – such as 1/125 second – where I still have a chance at getting a sharp image even when shooting handheld.

For this perched wood stork, I carefully composed the image so my single active AF point coincides with the bird's eye, set the manual exposure to produce the first blinkies in the white feathers, and fire away. I also set my lens image stabilization mode switch to Mode 1 so all directions are stabilized to produce a sharp image at the slower shutter speed I am using.

4. The lens has image stabilization which I set to Mode 1 for still subjects, and to mode 2 if photographing active subjects that I am panning with. In mode 2, with my camera, the lens only stabilizes and reduces the effects of camera movement from handholding in the direction that you are not panning. In other words, if I am panning from right to left, the lens does not stabilize the image in the horizontal direction I am panning but does stabilize in the vertical direction.

5. At the alligator farm in St. Augustine, a fence with wood posts keep you on the boardwalk and not swimming with the gators! Whenever possible, I rest my 100-400mm lens on my left hand that is resting on the top of a wood post and this acts like a monopod. This helps to minimize camera shake a lot. Sadly, most photographers I see shooting handheld fail to use solid objects to brace their camera when shooting in places where plenty of solid objects provide a convenient place to stabilize the camera. That is a HUGE MISTAKE, so take advantage of solid objects for sharper images!

I used the wooden railing along the boardwalk at the alligator farm to steady the camera when making both the anhinga image above and the tri-colored heron below. The anhinga exposure is ISO 1600, f/6.3, at 1/100 second. The tri-colored heron is 1/200, ISO 6400, and f/5.6. As you can see from the ISO, the tri-colored heron below was in much darker light at the time of the exposure. It does have noise at ISO 6400, but the image is still quite useable.

Anhinga at the alligator farm.

6. Even for a still subject, wildlife blink their eyes, and move a little, so always shoot extra images. And even when you must use a shutter speed slower than preferred, shooting many images helps you get at least a couple sharp images. Sometimes when shooting handheld, you aren’t moving the camera at all, or very little at the moment of exposure, and that produces the sharpness you seek. Shooting a lot of images catches these unexpected completely still moments when handholding.

The ruddy turnstone in winter plumage is running down the beach in the shadows and then out in the sun. Since the ambient light changes rapidly, this is the perfect time for Auto ISO, manual aperture and shutter speed.

7. Every single lens I use with autofocus is AF microadjusted to my camera. Since I am currently using two cameras – Canon 5D Mark IV and 1DX Mark II – I have to AF microadjust lenses for both cameras. With my Canon 5D Mark IV, I found a couple of years ago that it is crucial to AF microadjust lens/camera combos. Hearing rave reviews, I bought the new Canon 100-400mm lens shortly after it first became available. But, when I used it to photograph birds with the best technique I know and mounted on a tripod with plenty of shutter speed, I thought the image results weren’t as sharp as they should be. So that episode encouraged me to learn about AF microadjusting the camera and lens together and that made a huge difference. I found I had to set my correction factor to -9 to make the lens focus sharply on the spot where I want the sharpest focus, and now my images are so much sharper. Having AF microadjusted all my Canon lenses, all required some correction that has varied between -3 and -9. That means all have back focused a little, so setting a negative correction factor makes the lens focus a little closer to the camera than the factory default. A -3 AF microadjustment isn’t that much of a change, but -9 is a large correction that dramatically produces sharper images. I tell how to do this AF microadjustment in my blog posted on my website.

8. I do sometimes shoot landscapes handheld too! I try to avoid it as I often stack my landscape images using f/8 to get the sharpest possible images, but sometimes it isn’t necessary or can’t be avoided. For instance, when making wide angle landscape images in deep snow, I find it isn’t necessary to use a tripod as it is easy to shoot sharp images when using 1/125 second handheld with a 16-35mm lens. And sometimes I shoot landscapes on boats where it normally makes no sense to use a tripod as the moving boat makes the tripod and any camera attached to it move also. For example, when photographing the gorgeous rock cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I shoot hand held and employ all the techniques I use for wildlife to achieve sharp and well-exposed images.

An osprey flies by me along the Florida coast. Exposure is 1/3200 second, f/6.3, and ISO 500. When you can pan carefully on a moving subject in bright light, it is quite possible to make images if the focus is precisely on the head.

I realize many photographers think this is a lot of stuff to know, and it is, but once you get used to it everything goes quite quickly and sharp images of pleasing subjects are soon yours. Since most of these points I make here are automatic for me, I don’t have to think about them and don’t spend much time with them either. If I can go through all this in seconds, and get the shot, you can too with a little practice. I find many photographers have picked up shooting habits along the way that are hurting them photographically, but they think they are useful and will not abandon them for better new ways of doing things. In many ways, beginning digital photographers are easier to teach. I can easily turn a new photographer into outstanding photographers quickly because they aren’t encumbered by old ideas that are not helpful, and often are harmful to the goal of making successful images. As an example, and it is especially important to handheld photography, is the continued use of aperture-priority by so many. Yes, aperture-priority does lock in the desired aperture, but one of the huge problems with it is the shutter speed often drops too slow slow for sharp images as the ambient light dims. Better to lock in the shutter speed too, and let the ISO adjust to changing light conditions. And I might point out, both of my favorite two exposure methods: full manual exposure and Auto ISO with manual aperture and shutter speed lock in the aperture too!

This white ibis just landed at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine late in the evening just before closing. I used a fence post to rest my hand on, my lens on top of my hand, and set the AF point to coincide with the eye, and fired a series of shots using a shutter speed less than I wanted, but I did get many sharp shots in the series along with those that are soft due to excessive camera shake at the slow shutter speed. Remember I was handholding the camera using a 400mm lens at only 1/200 second. The lens is wide open at f/5.6, and the ISO still floated up to ISO 2500. The light was changing quickly in the evening as the sun set, and birds were landing everywhere in different light, so Auto ISO proved the answer. I did have to adjust exposure compensation from shot to shot though. In this case, to produce the first blinkies, I had to set -2/3-stop EC because the white bird was surrounded by a lot of really dark (think black) areas. Normally you would expect for a white subject that you would need positive exposure compensation, but the surroundings here made it go negative.

In no way do I plan to be a handheld photographer most of the time. I love using a good sturdy tripod for many reasons, but those reasons would be an article that I will write another time. But I do admit that sometimes I must shoot handheld and do while making sure to do everything I can to help me shoot sharp handheld photos. I hope this short article sheds some light on shooting sharp images shot handheld!

This great egret flew in to roost at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, FL about 1/2 hour before closing, and so did many other birds. I knew that birds were not nesting at the farm in late November, so I did not know how many would be available to photograph. When I first checked the area where the birds hang out, I only found perhaps ten, but in the last hour more than a hundred birds flew in to roost. Since they were not nesting, many birds selected an area to roost that is more out in the open, providing many photo opportunities. The exposure of 1/250 second, f/5.6, and ISO 800 worked for this shot carefully supported by resting my hand on a wooden post while shooting at 360mm on my 100-400mm lens.

A snowy egret at the St. Augustine alligator farm. It was late in the afternoon and cloudy dark light. By supporting my 100-400mm lens on top of my left hand that was on top of a boardwalk rail post, I managed to get some sharp images. Most images were not sharp enough for me and deleted, but by shooting 20 shots of each pose, I got a few really sharp ones, and of course I really only need one super sharp image. Using the 100-400mm lens zoomed out to 400mm, I used an exposure of 1/160 second at f/6.3 and ISO 1000. Using auto exposure, my exposure compensation is - .7 stop or negative 2/3s. Normally you must compensate by adding light for a white subject, but here the dark foliage surrounding the egret overpowered the reflectance of the white feathers so I needed to take away light to avoid overexposing the white feathers.

The two bottom images are the same snowy egret with a different image crop. By cropping tighter, I could eliminate more of the sky that appears in the holes in the canopy.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
bottom of page