Wildlife photography presents many challenges. How do you approach wildlife closely, make pleasing compositions, determine the ideal exposure, and make sharp images? In this article, let’s cover the techniques for making super-sharp wildlife images. While there is a lot to it, once you adopt quality shooting techniques and apply them consistently, making super-sharp images becomes the rule, not the exception.
I demand high-quality images and hope you do too. I don’t cut any corners and continually seek techniques that deliver quality. Here are some techniques I do to achieve the quality I seek.
Using a tripod not only let me shoot a sharp image, but it let me get the pose. I tracked this courting pair of Harlequin ducks for more than ten consecutive minutes with a Canon 600mm III and and Canon 1.4x teleconverter. That gives me 840mm of focal length. When things began to happen, I held the shutter down to shoot at the rate of 14 images per second, and I only got one sharp image of this fleeting pose. If I had to raise my camera to shoot, I would have missed this shot. Another thing about getting this unusual shot. When I found the thirty-some harlequin ducks at the LeHardy Rapids in Yellowstone during mid-May, I photographed them from one spot for four consecutive hours, only leaving when I lost the light in the evening.
Skip the UV protection filter.
Any time you add glass to the optical path, you suffer a slight, and sometimes a significant loss, of sharpness. While many high-quality protection filters are available, most photographers who use them use the least expensive brands purchased from the camera store and their images suffer.
It is questionable how much protection a filter provides anyway, so do your images a favor and don’t use them. I haven’t even owned a protection filter in 45 years of professional photography, and during that time, I have never damaged a lens. Perhaps I am more careful than some, but I always properly install the lens hood that comes with all my Canon lenses and that alone has prevented damage to a lens during the few times when I have dropped one.
I never use UV filters as they reduce image sharpness. And on a 600mm lens, can you imagine how big and expensive that filter be? USE THE LENS HOOD INSTEAD FOR PROTECTION!
AF Microadjust your lenses.
On a DSLR, the autofocus is controlled by a focus mechanism in the top of the camera and not at the sensor plane. This is done because the mirror and the shutter curtain cover the sensor prior to the exposure. Of course, the mirror can be moved up out of the way on most cameras, but the shutter curtain continues to cover the sensor until the moment of the exposure.
It isn’t surprising to learn it is difficult for camera makers to build equipment where the distance the light travels to the sensor is slightly different than the distance the light must travel to the focus mechanism in the top of the camera. This difference results in slight autofocus errors. That is why in recent years camera makers have provided a way to AF microadjust your lens/camera combo to make autofocus more accurate.
With my Canon gear, I find it is mandatory to AF microadjust every Canon lens I use with the camera body I use it on for truly sharp focus. So far, all my camera/lens combinations have produced sharper images when AF microadjusted – some a little and others a lot! For example, with my Canon 1DX Mark II camera, my Canon 100-400mm lens needed a -9 AF microadjustment to produce sharp focus (that is a lot) while my new Canon 600mm f/4 III lens only required a -1 adjustment and that is negligible. But when I add a Canon 1.4x teleconverter to the 600mm to make it an 840mm lens, then I need a +5 AF microadjustment and that is significant.
My detailed article on running an AF microadjustment test is found on my web site at www.gerlachnaturephoto.com The only change to my method now is I use flash to light the target when running the test. This makes it possible to AF microadjust indoors and eliminates all sources of vibration to make sure only AF accuracy is tested.
Note: AF microadjustment is not necessary for mirrorless cameras since autofocus is determined at the sensor plane. That is a huge plus for mirrorless cameras.
A tripod, bean bag, or other solid and stable support must be used whenever possible to ensure sharp images.
The merits of the tripod are well-known, but the tripod also keeps you ready to shoot. Without a tripod, I would not have caught this pose because this Northern Shoveler duck did not flap its wings often, so I was looking through my cameras viewfinder for at least ten consecutive minutes when this happen. If I had to raise my camera to shoot handheld, you would not see this image as I missed it!
I had already moved my single active AF point toward the upper portion of the planned composition where the Northern Shoveler head would be. When this duck began to shows signs that it would rear up and flap its wings, I immediately began shooting images at 14 images per second and caught this fine pose.
Never shoot handheld when it is possible to brace the camera.
I admit handheld shooting is sometimes necessary, such as when photographing wildlife from rocking boats or birds flying overhead. But most of the time it is convenient to use a tripod for wildlife photography or a bean bag when shooting from vehicles.
Tripod heads must be substantial for the larger lenses typically used by wildlife photographers.
I use a Kirk BH-1 heavy duty ballhead at the minimum and prefer the Wimberley gimbal head (WH-200) whenever it is feasible to use. Be certain no joints in your tripod and head wiggle or wobble when things should be tight.
Image stabilization is a key tool!
While it is good advice to turn image stabilization (aka vibration reduction) off when using a camera mounted on top of a solid tripod, it is useful to leave it active when photographing wildlife while using a tripod. What is the difference? Normally when shooting close-ups or landscapes with short lenses, you are using a remote release to fire the camera and not touching it. With long lenses and wildlife, normally the photographer has both hands on the camera and lens, even when shooting on a tripod, to pan with the critter and fire the camera. We humans are not steady! The blood pumping through our bodies and our breathing create vibrations in the camera that are minimized when vibration reduction is active.
Keep in mind most lenses have different vibration reduction modes. For example, Canon typically has mode 1 and mode 2. Mode 1 is best for still wildlife where you are not panning with it. This mode reduces vibrations in all directions. Mode 2 is for panning where only vibrations in the plane perpendicular to the direction of the pan are compensated for. Since I do a lot of panning, I normally use Mode 2.
With my telephoto lenses on a tripod, I normally turn on my image-stabilization. Since I am touching the camera and lens when I shoot, it is moving a little and IS helps minimize the "camera shake." This green-wing teal is swimming, so I selected a single AF point that corresponds to its head, and my IS is set to Mode 2 that stabilizes the lens only in the up and down directions, not in left to right since the duck is swimming to the right.
Stop the lens down a little.
Most lenses are sharpest about 2-3 stops down from wide open. That means a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 is particularly sharp between f/8 and f/11. While it often isn’t realistic to stop down to f/11 due to shutter speed requirements, if possible, try to stop down at least one stop from the maximum aperture for better overall sharpness, but don’t be afraid to shoot with the maximum aperture if you have no other choice.
Keep the shutter speed as fast.
Accurate focus and fast shutter speeds are the keys for producing sharp images. An old guideline for shooting handheld is to use a shutter speed equivalent to 1/focal length for sharp images. That means a 300mm lens or a 400mm lens can be handheld at 1/300 second or 1/400 second respectively. While this guideline depends much on the photographer’s steadiness, it is a useful guideline for shooting on a tripod with a modification. When shooting on a tripod, I feel confident of making sharp images with a 500mm lens by using 1/250 second and my 800mm lens at 1/400 second.
Keep in mind that autofocus accuracy does vary a little, even when all other factors remain the same.
When photographing still wildlife, it is wise to autofocus on the face or eye of the critter, shoot a few images, then make the lens focus to another distance, either closer or farther away, and then refocus on the eye and shoot again. Your chances of getting precise focus on the eye is better if you try it more than once.
While I shoot with the maximum aperture when I have no choice, I prefer to stop the lens down at least one stop and even two stops to get more depth of field and to use an aperture that is a little bit sharper due to optical reasons.
Increase your accurate focus odds by shooting short bursts of images.
I typically shoot short bursts of 3-6 images when I photograph still animals, and longer bursts for active animals. Even when shooting conditions are far from ideal, the strategy consistently delivers a few truly sharp images. For example, when photographing animals in dim ambient light with my 600mm lens, I have done well even at 1/60 second on a tripod by shooting short bursts of images. While the shutter speed is far slower than I would like and most images don’t meet my sharpness standards, every once in awhile all the wiggles and wobbles are just right where I still produce a sharp image even at a slow shutter speed that is clearly less than ideal.
I normally shoot short bursts of images (3-6 shots) at 14 images per second when I have the subject at the right distance and nicely composed. I like how the gentle wave covers up most of the eared grebe and that highlights the appealing head feathers and ruby red eye.
Learn the merits of Back-button focusing
This is a method where autofocus is removed from the shutter button and assigned to a button on the back of the camera. It is enormously effective for achieving more accurate autofocus when switching between still and active wildlife rapidly. By setting the camera to continuous autofocus, you instantly enjoy continuous autofocus by pressing the back-button in to maintain continuous autofocus while also pressing the shutter button to shoot images. Should the animal stop moving, point the active AF point at its face, press in the back-button to make the camera focus the lens on the face, let up on the back-button to lock the focus, recompose and shoot. Since the autofocus is assigned to the back-button, and not the shutter button, the camera doesn’t refocus on the wrong spot when shooting images. This is a very powerful technique that I have advocated for decades beginning with Canon film cameras.
While it took decades for photographers to finally realize the merits of back-button focusing, it is not the best option for all wildlife situations. When photographing only wildlife in action – snow geese flying over, ducks swimming – then it is far more effective to keep autofocus on the shutter button and switch the active AF point around to coincide with the face of the subject. Obviously, if you use back-button focusing for active wildlife like a swimming duck, if you depress the back-button to make the lens focus on the duck’s face as it swims, then let up on the button to lock focus, the ducks swims to a different spot where the focus likely is no longer precise. In this case, you are far better off to move a single (or small group of active AF points) around to coincide with the subject’s face, keep the continuous autofocus on the shutter button, depress the shutter button half way to initiate autofocus and fully depress the shutter button to shoot images. This eliminates the need to fuss with the back-button focus control. Some photographers argue that it is difficult to depress the shutter button only halfway without accidently firing the camera, and perhaps it is a problem for some, but I have never had the slightest problem doing it, and with practice, I don’t think you will either.
Active focus points can be selected either as an individual AF point or a group of them.
I prefer using a single AF point when photographing still animals and creatures that move in a predictable pattern – such as a slowly swimming mallard. For erratic moving animals, I prefer using a group of five active AF points where the center one is the dominant AF point, but should this point move off the target, one of the neighboring points picks up the target. There are five active AF points in all, the center one and another AF point above, below, and to both sides of the middle AF point.
Back-button focus is handy here because this sandhill crane in Yellowstone is really tall. When you compose this bird to include its feet in the image, the head is high in the image where my Canon cameras do not have an active AF point to select. By using BBF, I point the active AF point at the crane's head, push in the BBF button, the lens focuses on the head, let up on the button to lock focus, recompose, shoot, and the focus remains on the head. It works super well here!
Having a choice of active AF points with back-button focusing.
And because I sometimes prefer a single AF point, and other times a group of five, I sometimes switch to back-button focusing even though I would prefer to use autofocus assigned to the shutter button. Why? On both of my Canon cameras – 1DX Mark II and 5D Mark IV – I can assign back-button focus to two buttons on the rear of the camera – the star button and the AF-On button. By doing that, I then can select to use single point AF when I use the AF-On button to initiate autofocus, and when I want the group of five AF points, I depress the star button because I have assigned the multiple AF point pattern to that button. This is enormously useful at times.
For continuous action, most of the time I keep the autofocus on the shutter button and merely select a single AF point, or small group of them, and move it around with a button on the rear of my camera to coincide with the subjects head. That is what I did here for this drake Hooded Merganser.
Cameras offer many ways to configure autofocus.
Unfortunately, many photographers don’t take advantage of these options to fit the situation that help you shoot sharper images. For example, Canon offers three selectable AF parameters that help with various situations. These settings include three autofocus factors. I could write an entire article on the six cases provided by the camera and how to individually set any of the three options listed below. I won’t do that now, but here is a summary of what I do.
AF point auto switching
Tracking sensitivity is a way to adjust how quickly the camera changes focus distance when the active AF point or points moves from one area to another. Normally I use the most positive value to make the autofocus quickly change focus from one spot to another. Of course, this means you must keep the AF point exactly where you want precise focus. The most sensitive plus value works great for moving targets against a low contrast background. Since the autofocus can’t see a low contrast background, you stay focused on the important foreground object, even should the AF point slide off the target and hover over the background. In the case where a background has contrast – clouds in the sky, ocean waves, or tree branches – then I prefer to set this option to the most negative value. If your composition wanders and the AF points accidently are superimposed on the background, the camera waits before it refocuses giving you time to move the active AF points back to the intended target.
Acceleration/Deceleration tracking is useful for subjects that move quickly, and often I photograph such subjects. To make my camera react quickly to changing speeds of my subjects, I use the most positive value possible.
AF point auto switching applies only when photographing a moving subject where multiple AF points are active. I often use a small group of five active AF points. The middle AF point is my primary one, but should my composition slip off the target a little and the middle one is not on the target at all, an active AF point adjacent to the middle one will keep me in sharp focus. If I am clumsy enough to let that happen, then I want my auto AF point selection speed to be fast to maintain sharp focus on the subject. Therefore, I have it set to +2. Note that most of the time I use a single active AF point, so then this third setting does not apply as there is no active AF point to switch to.
This background has little contrast, so the autofocus does not "see it". Therefore, since hummingbirds are quick, I use the most positive Tracking Sensitivity setting I have. That makes the autofocus quickly react to a change in focus distance. If I had contrast in the background, then I would slow Tracking Sensitivity down so it does not immediately focus at a different distant, but waits a moment to give me time to move the active AF point or points back on the target. Don't be confused by tracking sensitivity. This does not affect the speed of the autofocus once it has "decided" to change focus. It affects how long the AF waits to actually begin to change the focus.
I realize there are many factors that ultimately determine how sharp your images are. Eventually, this all becomes automatic and sharp images will be the rule, not the exception. Good luck!