Wildlife photography: A beginner’s guide…

Tom, who wrote for us previously about wildlife photography, has returned to the theme with a beginner’s guide to getting to grips with the settings on DSLR cameras. For all you amateur photographers out there, we hope this is helpful. On the subject of photography, we’re running a photography competition from now until May next year, with the winning images being featured on a 2016 Warwickshire Wildlife Trust calendar. Click on this link for more details. Perhaps Tom’s tips will help you to win!

As an extension to my previous post, I thought I’d share some tips to those of you who might be considering or just trying out a DSLR for the first time. I’ll confess I’m still a rookie myself and I rarely switch to manual. But I can share some pointers on how to move away from the auto “point-and-shoot” setting and instead use semi-automatic modes to get a photo to look the way you want. In these modes, you can tweak either the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO yourself but let the camera sort the rest. I’m afraid it’s a bit wordier this time, but I’ll try and avoid getting too technical for both our sakes!

Aperture Priority Mode (A or AV)

Aperture is basically how wide the opening at the front of the lens is. Think of it like the pupil of your eye as it controls how much light is let in. On your DSLR this is measured by f-numbers. This is where it can get a bit confusing as these numbers work inversely – a smaller aperture has a larger f-number.

FStops

To make it easier to understand I just think of f-numbers of how much of the photo is going to be focus. A smaller f-number means less of the photo will be in focus. This is great for taking detailed close-ups of flowers and animals as you can blur the background so that it isn’t distracting. A larger f-number on the other hand will have more of the photo in focus. This is better for landscapes so that you can get the entire image to be sharp and in focus.

To help you out I took a couple of photos, one with a smaller f-number and the other with a larger f-number to show the difference:

This floating leaf was shot at f/5 and completely blurs out the background, leaving only the leaf in focus. (N.B. hanging on a spider web; I’m not a Jedi).
This floating leaf was shot at f/5 and completely blurs out the background, leaving only the leaf in focus. (N.B. hanging on a spider web; I’m not a Jedi).
This is the same leaf but at f/14. The background becomes less blurred making the rail along the path more visible and drawing attention away from the leaf.
This is the same leaf but at f/14. The background becomes less blurred making the rail along the path more visible and drawing attention away from the leaf.

Shutter Speed Priority Mode (S or TV)

I’ll skip giving you an in-depth explanation of how the shutter works (it’s basically just a curtain that opens and closes when you press shoot). However you’ll want to know about shutter speed. This is how long this curtain stays open for and is measured in fractions of a second. A fast shutter speed can completely freeze an action whereas a slow shutter speed can be used for night photos or to create a blurring effect.

Fast shutter speeds are often used for wildlife photography when you want to get a crisp freeze-frame photo of a moving animal – such as trying to get a bird or insect mid-flight.

Longer shutter speeds are normally used when it’s dark so your photo doesn’t end up as a black rectangle. This way you can get a detailed photo even at night.

Another nifty trick is using a long shutter speed to intentionally blur a photo for effect. One example you may see is when a slow shutter speed is used on running water to get a milky, ethereal effect.

Sort of like this ford taken at a 2 second shutter speed
Sort of like this ford taken at a 2 second shutter speed 

Tip: As my blurry photo above shows, if you’re not using a tripod, the slowest shutter speed you should use (without a tripod) is around 1/50 of a second (although it differs depending on your camera and how shaky your hands are!). This is because we can’t remain completely motionless (believe me I’ve tried) and your entire photo will become blurred from the camera moving. Because of this you might want to invest in a tripod if you want to use long shutter speeds or get into night-time photography.

ISO Priority Mode (P on some digital cameras)

ISO is how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the number, the greater the sensitivity. You can use this as a boost in places with low light without needing to use a flash or change your shutter speed.

ISO-100 was too dark…
ISO-100 was too dark…
But ISO-200 was just right!
But ISO-200 was just right!

 

Although this is helpful there is a flipside. A higher ISO will make your photo more “noisy”. This is sort of the digital equivalent of grain in film photos and looks like speckled pixels of colour.

This rabbit was taken at ISO-1600 during the evening. Though the higher ISO helped compensate for the low light, you can see how fuzzy the photo turned out.
This rabbit was taken at ISO-1600 during the evening. Though the higher ISO helped compensate for the low light, you can see how fuzzy the photo turned out.

Because of this it’s best to try and stick with as low an ISO as you can, and lengthen your shutter speed instead. But don’t worry about this too much – it’s better to take a noisy photo than miss an awesome opportunity. Plus if you don’t have a tripod with you (which I’ll admit I rarely do) it’s best to up the ISO rather than make the shutter speed so long that your photo blurs.

I realise all that’s a fair bit to take in, but I’m hoping it gives you a brief run down on what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are all about. It’s worth experimenting with their settings on your own camera to test the effects for yourself. Personally I often shoot in the aperture priority setting so I select a small f-number for detailed close ups of plants and animals, and just let the camera sort the rest. But just have a play around and see what works best for you and your subject and you’ll get the hang of it in no time. Good luck!

Tom

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