April 13, 2024

The Best Camera Settings For Wildlife Photography

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Wildlife photography is a rewarding genre, and camera settings are critical. Wild animals are unpredictable, some are dangerous, and they are often most active when the light is less than ideal. Setting up your camera to photograph erratic creatures is a challenge.

Animals tend to be on the move. It might be a deer running across a meadow or a butterfly flitting from one blossom to another. Capturing an image of this with the subject in focus, a shutter speed that stops the action, and proper exposure is a balancing act.

In addition, you may find these animals in bright sunlight, shadows, or the golden hour of morning or evening. Each situation calls for different camera settings in order to bring home stunning wildlife photos.

In this article, I’ll go into the details for setting up your camera in various lighting scenarios to photograph animals in motion or at rest. The settings that I recommend are merely a starting point. From there, you should tailor your wildlife photography camera settings to your own preferences and circumstances.

Grackle jumping. Photo taken in aperture priority mode.
Boat-tailed Grackle: Aperture Priority, Center-weighted Metering 1/1600 sec, F/6.3, ISO 100.

Set Your Camera To RAW Format

You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating. Shooting RAW delivers more data than a compressed JPG file. This is especially true if you’re shooting in low light conditions. You’ll have more information to work with in post production. That is, you can recover lost detail in the shadows and highlights, improve image quality, and maximize dynamic range and color tone.

Find an Efficient Shooting Mode

Many wildlife photographers set up their cameras according to conditions, what they are photographing, and personal preferences. I try to simplify things so that I can concentrate on composition, making minor adjustments along the way. I have missed shots because I was fiddling with the settings.

My suggestion is that you shoot in one of three modes for wildlife: Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority Mode, or Manual Mode. This is highly subjective. Find what works best for you in the conditions you find yourself in. Avoid Auto Mode unless you want to give up control of how your images look.

Shooting modes on a digital camera.
Shooting Mode Selector on a Digital Camera.

Manual Mode

Let’s start with Manual Mode. This is M on the camera’s mode dial. Set the camera to its widest aperture and set the shutter speed. The general shutter speed rule is 1/lens focal length. So, if you are shooting with a 300mm telephoto lens, the lowest handheld shutter speed is 1/300 sec. I suggest you double that to 1/600sec; photographing wildlife calls for a faster shutter speed. 

Set the camera to Auto ISO with a maximum ISO of 8,000 to 16,000, depending on camera model. I work with a Nikon Z5 and an ISO of 10,000 is my ceiling. And anything above 4,000 means serious noise reduction in post processing. Set White Balance to Auto and let the camera do its work.

This is a simple setup, and it will serve you well in a variety of scenarios. However, you still have two variables of the exposure triangle – shutter speed and aperture – to keep in balance.

Sandpiper on beach shot with camera in manual mode.
Sandpiper: Manual Mode, Spot Metering, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Aperture Priority Mode

This is the preferred mode for many professional wildlife photographers. In Aperture Priority Mode, you set the aperture to take creative control over the image. Aperture, A on Nikon and Sony cameras, and Av on Canon, plays an important role for professional wildlife photographers. It determines the depth of field.

A wide aperture, f/2.8 for example, creates a shallow depth of field. That is, a narrow range around the focus point will be in sharp focus. The background and maybe part of the animal will be in soft focus. With a narrow aperture such as f/11 or higher, the depth of field for a sharp image is wider. The entire animal and perhaps the background will be in sharp focus.

Set the camera to Auto ISO. Then, select a maximum ISO. Keep in mind that increasing the ISO is not a silver bullet for shooting in low light. As you boost ISO, noise increases and image quality deteriorates. Also, set the camera to the lowest native ISO available. Finally, set a minimum shutter speed. I set that at 1/1000sec. You may prefer slower shutter speeds if your subject is stationary or moving at a leisurely pace.

In Aperture Priority, once the f-number is set, the camera’s internal metering establishes a balance between shutter speed and ISO. If you need to make the exposure brighter or darker, you can dial in some exposure compensation.

The image of the alligator (below) was shot in Aperture Priority at f/5.6. It’s a bit soft at the back of the gator’s head. I would have done better with a setting of f/8.

Alligator.
Alligator: Aperture Priority, Center-weighted Metering, 1/90 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter speed is one of the most important camera settings for wildlife photography; however, many photographers recommend against Shutter Speed Priority Mode for wildlife. But for birds in flight, I use Shutter Priority: S on Nikon and Sony and Tv on Canon models.

I shoot flying birds with a minimum shutter speed of 1/2000sec and trust the camera to take care of the rest.

In addition, a fast shutter speed mitigates the effect of camera shake and motion blur.

I set the camera to Auto ISO; however, I keep an eye on aperture and ISO values. In bright light, this mode can push the aperture toward the high end (narrow aperture) and create more depth of field than I want. But if I’m shooting birds against a clear sky, that’s not a concern.

In low light, the camera may push the ISO into a higher range and you get too much noise in the image. In this case, I might choose a slower shutter speed or switch to Aperture Priority.

Great egret in flight with nesting materials. Image taken in shutter priority mode.
Great Egret in flight: Shutter Priority, Center-weighted Metering, 1/2000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100.

Custom User Camera Settings

Most digital cameras offer a feature to save your personal set-up or several set-ups: MR for Sony, U for Nikon, C for Canon. Usually accessible on the Mode dial, you can instantly dial up a group of camera settings that you used before and saved. For example, you start with Aperture Priority mode. Set your starting point for aperture. Then dial in ISO, metering, focus mode and area, along with other settings. Save those settings, and you can dial them up quickly when you’re out shooting wildlife. 

My camera has three user settings and I set up two of them for wildlife photography. One begins with Aperture Priority, which I use for stationary animals. A second saved setting is in Shutter Priority for birds in flight.

These settings can be refined and resaved as you continue to shoot wildlife and gain experience.

Dolphin fin.
Dolphin fin: Manual Mode, Center-weighted Metering, 1/2000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 500.

Choose a Metering Mode

Understanding your camera’s metering system is one more step toward becoming a skilled wildlife photographer. A digital camera evaluates the light to help you balance the exposure triangle. That is a suitable combination of shutter speed, aperture setting, and ISO to create proper exposure in the image.

Four metering modes are common in modern digital cameras:

  1. Matrix Metering (Nikon), aka Evaluative Metering (Canon) and Multi-Pattern (Sony): the default metering mode for many cameras. The frame is divided into zones or areas, which are analyzed and averaged based on light and dark tones.
  2. Center-weighted Metering: assesses the light in the middle of the frame and its immediate surroundings, disregarding the corners.
  3. Spot Metering: evaluates light and calculates exposure at the focus point, neglecting everything else.
  4. Highlight-weighted Metering: preserves the highlights in your shots, especially bright areas that tend to overexpose.
camera menu metering mode settings for wildlife photography.
Metering selection menu of a Nikon camera.

Photographing wildlife requires a metering mode that quickly adapts to changing conditions. Center-weighted Metering works in many situations. But, if the main subject is bright compared to the background, Spot Metering or exposure compensation are good options.

In the photo below, I used Highlight-weighted Metering. The bright white plumage of the Egret makes it difficult to get the exposure just right, which can lead to blown out highlights and loss of detail.

Great egret with mating plumage.
Great Egret in courtship: Manual Mode, Highlight-weighted Metering, 1/400 sec, f/6.3, ISO 800.

Autofocus Settings

Wildlife photography without autofocus cameras would be very difficult. Most cameras of recent vintage feature fast autofocus and eye detection, giving wildlife photographers an advantage when shooting fast-moving subjects. Autofocus is engaged by pressing the shutter button halfway or by pressing the back button focus if you have that enabled.

For animals in motion, use Continuous Autofocus (AF-C). As the name implies, the camera continues to focus and re-focus as you track the moving animal within the frame. I generally pair this setting with Shutter Priority for shooting birds in flight.

When shooting stationary animals, use One-shot or Single Autofocus (AF-S). The camera focuses once for each time you half-press the shutter button or press the Back Button Focus. This locks the focus, so that you can recompose the shot and maintain focus. I like to use this with Aperture Priority when I am most concerned with composition and depth of field.

Eastern fox squirrel.
Eastern Fox Squirrel: Manual Mode, Spot Metering, 1/500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1000.

I don’t recommend Manual Focus (M) for wildlife photography. But if the animal is still and you have the time, this mode allows you to have total manual control over focus.

Choose an Autofocus Area

Single Point AF denotes one focus point. This point can be moved around within the frame. This is most useful when you are shooting through vegetation or other distracting elements and when you want tack sharp focus on part of the animal, such as the head.

Dynamic Area AF varies with the camera, but this mode has multiple focus points. The camera picks the initial focusing point, and if the subject moves away from that point, then surrounding points activate and acquire focus. Use this mode for quick, erratic animals that are difficult to track. This mode works best when you have a clean background, such as a bird flying in a clear sky.

Auto Area AF relies on the camera to detect the subject and select between Single Point or Dynamic Area. This is useful when photographing a stationary subject that may take flight or start running suddenly.

Shooting Wildlife in Burst Mode

This also varies with camera brands. With Nikon and Canon cameras, it’s called Continuous Shooting Mode. Sony labels it Burst Shooting Mode. Shooting in burst mode means the camera takes a series of images in rapid succession. The more affordable cameras offer a burst rate of 4-6 frames per second (FPS). Cameras intended for professional use feature a burst rate of 20 FPS or higher.

Some cameras have the option of a low burst or high burst. And with others, the photographer dials in a specific number of frames per second. Check your camera’s owner’s manual to guide you through the setup process.

Shooting in burst mode increases the chance that you’ll get at least one image that is in sharp focus and with good composition.

Brown pelican landing.
Brown Pelican: Manual Mode, Center-weighted Metering, 1/2000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 280.

White Balance Settings

White Balance is critical to capturing accurate color. With accurate white balance, what looks white to your eye looks white in the image. It won’t have a yellowish or blueish tint, which indicates an unnatural color.

Correct white balance also ensures accurate color throughout the picture.

When shooting outdoors, you can set white balance for Daylight, Shade, or Cloudy. However, I recommend you set the camera to Auto White Balance. Let the camera handle this so you can concentrate on composition, focus, and exposure. If you shoot in RAW, you’ll have enough data to adjust the white balance and color temperature in post production.

Mechanical or Electronic Shutter

Many mirrorless camera models now offer a choice of mechanical or electronic shutter. The mechanical shutter functions by opening two curtains at exactly the same moment, giving consistent exposure on the camera sensor. The electronic shutter records data from the sensor line by line, top to bottom.

If the subject moves during exposure, the result is a type of distortion called rolling shutter effect. This is a stretching effect between the upper and lower portions of the photo. It is less of an issue at fast shutter speeds. Some of the newer cameras feature a universal electronic shutter, eliminating the rolling shutter effect. 

I have experienced some of this rolling shutter effect with the electronic shutter, mostly photographing action. I recommend the mechanical shutter for fast action. If the subject is at rest or moving slowly, I might go with the electronic shutter and try a slow shutter speed.

shutter type settings in camera menu.
Shutter selection menu of a Nikon Camera.

Adjusting for Light in Wildlife Photography

You don’t have control over the light when you shoot outdoors. On a dark, overcast day, you can’t just flip a switch and get more light. So you adjust your camera according to the light you have. Bright sunlight, especially when the sun is high in the sky, casts harsh shadows. This can be distracting and can obscure details in the animal or background. In this situation, you may want to dial in some exposure compensation to avoid blown-out highlights.

I like to shoot when the sky is overcast. This diffuses the sunlight, so the lighting is cast evenly across the frame. In addition, clouds create a neutral hue, and the camera can capture the natural colors of the animal and its surroundings. An overcast sky or hazy sunshine eliminates or subdues the shadows and helps bring out the details of fur or feathers. You might boost the ISO to get a properly exposed image.

The golden hour of early morning or late afternoon casts a warm hue across the entire scene. Since the sun is low during these hours, the light passes through more of the atmosphere, resulting in vibrant colors and a tawny shade that brings out the texture of animal skin and hair. With the reduced light, select an aperture value that will allow the most available light to reach the camera’s sensor.

Canada gosling.
Canada Gosling: Shutter Priority, Spot Metering, 1/500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1600.

Summary

When you have the opportunity, get out there and shoot. Adapt to whatever the light or weather may be and you just might capture a unique shot.

Whatever camera you use, get to know your gear. Invest some time in learning the functions and how to adjust the various settings. Then, apply them in the field. With experience, you’ll discover the combination of automatic settings and creative control that works best for you.

I like to keep it simple. That enables me to concentrate on honing my wildlife photography skills, such as capturing a unique moment and lining up a lovely composition. When I don’t have to worry about the technical aspects, I can direct my attention to creating compelling wildlife images.

I hope this article makes you a better wildlife photographer. If you have any experience you’d like to share, comments or questions, please submit them in the space below.



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