Basic Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography - Roger and Pat de la Harpe Photography - Photographs, Video and Stock Images.

This is one of a series of regular articles featured in Kruger Magazine.

So, you bought the gear...that gorgeous body with a gazillion pixels and more dynamic range than you can see with the naked eye. You’ve got all the expensive glass, wisely buying the best you could. (By the way, glass is the cool term for lenses, as in “Wow, that’s a great piece of glass you have on that body!”)

Let’s look at some basic settings and, as always, there will be any number of opinions on this, very much depending on what you are photographing and where. I encourage you to read extensively on the subject and use your own experience – what works for one photographer may very well not work for another. But this is pretty much how I set up our cameras for wildlife photography.

If you are looking for a shallow depth of field that will isolate your subject nicely, make sure that the background is far away and use the smallest aperture available on your lens (f2,8 or f4 if you are lucky – otherwise f5.6). Nikon D3X and 200 - 400mm f4 Lens. 1/60sec at f4. ISO 400.

If you are looking for a shallow depth of field that will isolate your subject nicely, make sure that the background is far away and use the smallest aperture available on your lens (f2,8 or f4 if you are lucky – otherwise f5.6). Nikon D3X and 200 - 400mm f4 Lens. 1/60sec at f4. ISO 400.

File format

This is another of those ‘it depends’ situations. It depends on where you are with your photography and what the intended purpose is. If you are shooting pics for the family (digital) albums then high-quality (Fine) JPEGs will be just, er, fine. If you are a keen photographer and you are prepared to do some post-production, then its RAW images for you. RAW images are pretty much saved from the camera’s sensor with little or no in-camera processing. The JPEGs will have been processed in-camera and you are usually able to select how you’d like them to look – there’ll be options like scenic, camera standard, portrait and a few others. The great benefit to shooting RAW (as they say) is that you can alter a bunch of parameters in programs like Adobe Lightroom. Contrast, colour balance, exposure (within limits), sharpening, noise reduction and a host of others helps you to create awesome-looking images. The drawback is that you have to actually do this editing yourself. With JPEG images all this is ‘baked in’. Yes, you can make some alterations to the above, but nothing like what you can do with a RAW image.

You’ll need to choose: are you a photo enthusiast who enjoys working on images on a computer? It’s RAW for you. Or do you just want to shoot some pics for the family and Facebook? JPEGs are just what you need.

When working in Program or Aperture Priority, if you need to change the shutter speed, simply change the aperture until you achieve the shutter speed you want. You’ll obviously be limited in what you can do by lighting conditions at the time.  Panasonic GH5 and 12 - 35mm f2.8 lens. 5 sec at f8. ISO 100.

When working in Program or Aperture Priority, if you need to change the shutter speed, simply change the aperture until you achieve the shutter speed you want. You’ll obviously be limited in what you can do by lighting conditions at the time. Panasonic GH5 and 12 - 35mm f2.8 lens. 5 sec at f8. ISO 100.

Mode

This is the dial where you select whether you’ll be working in Manual, Aperture Priority, Program and so on. For wildlife and outdoor photography, I generally suggest that you set the camera to Program (P) and let that expensive camera take over getting the exposure right. Some say that Program is rather infra dig, but for wildlife and scenic photography it does work, and is very much like Aperture Priority on steroids. You have to keep an eye on things, and if you want a higher shutter speed or a different aperture, simply change what the camera has suggested by rotating one (or both) control wheels. If Program is too much of a leap of faith, then use Aperture Priority (A or Av), avoiding Shutter Priority (Tv or S) and all the so- called ‘creative’ and ‘green’ zones. I use Manual from time to time when I want to hold the exposure constant (as when shooting panoramic images) but it’s not the ideal way to shoot wildlife.

A low point of view often works well with animals, a high view point rarely so. Nikon D3x and 600mm f4 Lens. 1/125 sec at f4. ISO 800.

A low point of view often works well with animals, a high view point rarely so. Nikon D3x and 600mm f4 Lens. 1/125 sec at f4. ISO 800.

ISO

The old adage of keeping the ISO as low as it can go is not as important as it used to be. Yes, do err on the low side, but most DSLR cameras can easily go to 800 without noise becoming an issue – even 1600 is not really a problem, provided you get the exposure right. When I’m in the bush, I usually set ISO to 400 so that my shutter speeds are on the high side, which helps keep things sharp.

Program or Aperture Priority work well in the changing lighting conditions found in the bush when there is often no time to set exposure manually.  Panasonic GH4 and Leica 100 - 400mm f6,3 lens. 1/125 sec f5,4. ISO 400.

Program or Aperture Priority work well in the changing lighting conditions found in the bush when there is often no time to set exposure manually. Panasonic GH4 and Leica 100 - 400mm f6,3 lens. 1/125 sec f5,4. ISO 400.

White Balance (WB)

I usually set my WB to daylight (the little sun icon), except when working in artificial light or when I’m photographing a sunrise or a sunset (when you are photographing the actual sunset and not other subjects at sunset). The reason for this is that I’m looking for changes in colour. The light is not white at sunset and dawn and I want the warm tones to come through. The same goes for overcast weather – I want the cooler tones in the photograph. For photographs of sunsets and sunrises (this is of the sunrise or sunset itself), set the WB to shade (the little house icon) and, if you’re photographing under tungsten lighting indoors, set the WB to tungsten (the little bulb icon)

When shooting a series of images to stitch into a panorama, it’s important to have the same focus, exposure and white balance settings for each image – a case for shooting in manual. 6  image panorama. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/200 sec at F11. ISO 200.

When shooting a series of images to stitch into a panorama, it’s important to have the same focus, exposure and white balance settings for each image – a case for shooting in manual. 6 image panorama. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/200 sec at F11. ISO 200.

Drive

This is a term from film days when you actually wound on film. These days, it refers to what happens when you press the shutter release. ‘Single Shot’ takes one pic at time and you focus and release every time you want to shoot a pic. ‘Continuous’ (not to be confused with continuous focus) shoots pics as long as you have your finger on the shutter release button (limited only by the buffer and the size of your memory cards). The third (usual) option is ‘Self–Timer’, which is useful not only for shooting selfies but also for keeping the camera steady when you have it on a tripod and you are shooting really long exposures (so you are not actually touching the camera when the shutter fires).

As light begins to fade, keep an eye on the shutter speeds to make sure that they don’t drop too low, otherwise you’ll get blur due to camera shake or subject movement. Open the aperture and/or increase ISO as necessary. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/100 sec @f5,6. ISO 400.

As light begins to fade, keep an eye on the shutter speeds to make sure that they don’t drop too low, otherwise you’ll get blur due to camera shake or subject movement. Open the aperture and/or increase ISO as necessary. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/100 sec @f5,6. ISO 400.

Focus mode

There are usually three choices here: ‘Single Shot’ (as the name suggests, the camera focuses – beep beep – and that’s it), ‘AI Servo’ or ‘Continuous’ (the camera focuses and continues to do so as the subject or you move) and ‘AI Focus’ where the camera chooses which mode to use. I don’t use AI Focus – you have no idea what’s happening, and you are never sure whether the camera has realised that the subject is moving. Or not moving.

Focus point selection

Pick the point where you intend your subject to be when you shoot the pic. There are a whole bunch of other settings you can play with, but these are the more important ones to set up when starting out.

Shooting a series of photos to stitch into a panorama can work with wildlife too, but you do need to have a static or slow moving subject, or you’ll get ghosting and cut off animals. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/640 sec at f8. ISO 200.

Shooting a series of photos to stitch into a panorama can work with wildlife too, but you do need to have a static or slow moving subject, or you’ll get ghosting and cut off animals. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/640 sec at f8. ISO 200.

I’m so miffed!

You know how miffed you get when you head out on a morning game drive and your first pics are of a charging elephant or some other action? Focus... Aaaannnnd, action! You hit the shutter button and beep, beep, beep...it’s still on self-timer from last night, the ISO is set to 3200 from the night-sky shoot and you’ve missed winning Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Again!

Well, Pat and I have come up with an acronym. MIFFED

• M – Mode. Aperture Priority or Program.

• I – ISO. As low as possible without compromising shutter speeds – I would suggest 400 and above when working with long lenses.

• F – Focus mode. I would suggest continuous, but whichever you prefer.

• F – Focus point. As a starting point, set it to the centre and adjust its position to create a more pleasing composition as needed.

• E – Exposure compensation. The little +/- button. Zero or -1⁄3 is a safe bet.

• D – Drive. My choice? Continuous high. This doesn’t mean you have to keep the button down, shooting hundreds of pics. But if you need to, you can. 

Please let us know what you’d like to read about in these columns - what interests you, what you need to know photographically. Also, hook up on Instagram (@RogerdelaHarpe) and Facebook (@Roger and Pat de la Harpe).

Getting down low and opening the aperture as wide as it will go (a side-effect of falling light levels) often results in some pretty dramatic images. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/125 at f5,6. ISO400.

Getting down low and opening the aperture as wide as it will go (a side-effect of falling light levels) often results in some pretty dramatic images. Nikon D800 and 80 - 400mm lens. 1/125 at f5,6. ISO400.

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