Step one to being a better wildlife photographer is getting out there with your camera and look for the unexpected. When I first stared to photograph wildlife I would scare them before I got the shot, by either my body noise or the cameras shutter. Since using Lumix with the electronic shutter I have taken many stealthily photos of wildlife and street photography shots nobody can hear. Let me go over 5 reasons how mirrorless cameras have helped me get better shots.
1, Know your subject. Anybody can photograph an animal or a bird, but to understand it is something completely different. knowing your subject and how it behaves in its environment is half the battle. It takes time to observe the species, how it reacts by itself and with other animals and birds. We need to error on the side of caution as we never want to stress an animal or bird, specifically if its mating season or migration.
I was in BC and the rain was very heavy inland, I noticed on my weather app that the coastal areas were clear and sunny. I hop in my car and find myself a local park in the Delta region. To my luck there is lots of waterfowl but they are all very skittish of human presence. I do notice that the mallards are not quite as skittish and will come back to the shoreline. The more mallard that would do this made the other ducks feel comfortable. As the sun started to drop the ducks started to swim into that nice golden light. Staying still and low allowed me to get the shots I desired. Not to mention I had it in E shutter, one great advantage of a mirrorless camera
- 2, Understanding depth of field and how it works. Before you get out and shoot in the field make sure you understand just how depth of field is effected with your camera. Many people buy that 2.8 or f4 lens and think it creates beautiful backgrounds. Well I can't say you are wrong at all but what I can say is you need to make sure your subject has the proper portion or important part in focus. Let's give you an example if you are shooting a small backyard bird at F4 on a 200mm lens with a 1.4 converter on a 4/3 camera. At a distance of 20 feet from the camera to the subject your depth of field will be less them 2.5 inches total. This means you have 1.25 of an inch in front of the subject and 1.25 of an inch behind the subject. If a bird is looking at you face on and its 6 inches long you need to figure out whats most important to you. Do you want a subject completely sharp from beak to tip of the tail?. Or do you want the face in focus and the background nice and creamy looking? Let me show you some calculations to show you how different depth of filed can change.
This chart shows @100mm focal length or at 35mm equivalent 200mm what your depth of field will be. The left side of the chart is in inches. The bottom of the chart is the F stop @100mm
This chart shows depth of field @200mm or at 35mm equivalent 400mm
This chart shows depth of field @300mm or at 35mm equivalent 600mm
This chart shows depth of field @400mm or at 35mm equivalent 800mm( Note: I adjusted F6.3 @ 50 feet so the scale could stay smaller, the correct number is 10.7inches)
This chart is made for the 200mm f2.8 with the 1.4x teleconverter = 280mm (35mm equivalent = 560mm)
- 3, understanding shutter speed. Shutter speed is a very important piece of the pie when it comes to wildlife photography. You can use it to manipulate a subject to portray movement or you can freeze a moment in time. Each offer different emotions to allow you to connect to a viewers eye. Every subject will require a different max shutter speed, this depends on how fast its movement will be. If you wanted to stop a bald eagle soring in the wind 1/1000 would likely be fast enough. If you wanted to stop a humming birds wings 1/1000 of a second would not even come close enough to freezing the motion. If you want to freeze a hummingbirds wings try something around 1/4000th of a second. But this begs a question to my eyes, is this natural? I never see a hummingbirds wings frozen in time with my eyes. To me they look like a vibrating ball with a stick body buzzing through the trees. 1/1000 in this case would create motion blur, or even lower of a shutter if you can get them to fly in one spot for a brief moment of time.
Let's go over a few different shutter speeds I use when out shooting wildlife to capture still motion.
- Walking animals 1/500 to 1/1000 of a second
- Running animals 1/1000 to 1/2500 of a second
- Static birds 1/500 to 1/1000 of a second
- Flying birds 1/1000 to 1/3200 of a second
- Whales, dolphins, seals 1/1000 to 1/2000 of a second
Use your best judgement on anticipation of movement with your subject, as well remember a higher shutter speed generally requires a higher ISO. Another important point to remember is, try not to let your shutter speed drop below your focal length. If you do end up doing this make sure you turn on your stabilization in your lens. Generally speaking if you are shooting above your focal length and have steady hands the image stabilization should be turned off or it will actually be destructive to your image.
- 4, Don't underexpose dark subjects. To often I run into issues where clients complain their images are to noisey. The main reason for this is often people choose to underexpose to gain a faster shutter speed. But in reality they have lost all the detail in the shadows of their subject. I wrote a previous article about ETTR, expose to the right. This would be a good time to do this, push those ISO's and keep that exposure bright. Not to the point that you are blowing out those highlights, always be mindful of your highlights by either using a highlight monitor or watching the histogram in your image playback.
Being mindful of the highlights allowed me to pull out details in these images. Exposing for the body in spot meter allowed me to show detail in the hairs of the black bear. Exposing for the snow and shooting 1 stop over allowed me to fringe on the highlights of the bald eagle, showing details in the feathers. Exposing for the sun on the white belly of the puffin ensured there was enough details in the puffin feathers. And last the Humpback tail I exposed for the backlit sun light on the water, went half a stop over and this allowed me to pull the shadows on the underside of the tail that was blocked from the sunlight. When you are shooting try to wait for your subject to end up in a contrast type scene, this may take patience and all the luck in the world, but your images will always stand out!
- 5, Know your gear! Nothing will prepare you more in the field then knowing your camera inside and out. Learn your buttons without looking at them while you have the camera to your face. Test yourself constantly, aperture to the left is a lower f stop. Shutter to the right is a higher shutter speed as an example. If you have more then one camera, try to assign the dials all the same if you can. This will create muscle and mind memory so when the situation arises you will be ready to change settings on the fly without taking your camera away from your face.
I hope these tips help you out in the field, remember the more you know the better you will be once the situation unfolds in front of you. Happy shooting!