Learning wildlife photography – Making sharper images – Part 1

Posted on 02. Jan, 2009 by in Everything, Instructional, Techniques, Wildlife photography

Wilson's Phalarope swimming on a marsh - 1000mm, AI-Focus

Wilson's Phalarope swimming on a marsh - 1000mm, AI-Focus

Making sharper images – Part 1 – A lot of wildlife photography is dependant on the use of telephoto,telephoto-zooms and super telephoto lenses to make reasonable images of small subjects or larger animals off in the distance.  When you use a telephoto lens, you need a new set of techniques in order to ensure that you end up with sharp images.  Nothing is more frustrating than coming across some desirable subject, actually getting them into your viewfinder only to get home and discover that the images are lacking in the sharpness department.

The first thing to focus on (pun intended or not, you decide) is the subject’s eyes.  In nearly all cases, the eyes of your subject should be tack sharp.  So, that means that your going to have to put your camera’s focus point onto the animal’s eyes.  Or, you can either exclusively use the center focus point and just accept the fact that your going to be spending a lot of time in Lightroom or Photoshop cropping your images to create a usable composition, or you can learn to use your camera’s features to create that composition in the viewfinder.

If the camera/lens combination you’re using allows it, learn to move the focus point around the available areas.  Most of the consumer digital SLR cameras and many of the point-and-shoot cameras allow you to select from a number of different focus points.  The trick is to practice selecting the currently active focus point until you can do it quickly, efficiently and without thinking.  When I was getting serious about wildlife photography, I’d watch television through the viewfinder of my camera.  I’d put on a lens that would allow me to have just the television in the viewfinder and then I’d move the focus point to the person who was currently speaking.  It took a couple of weeks of practice but I finally got to the point where I could quickly perform the finger gymnastics necessary to instruct my camera where to move the focus point to.  Practicing while you’re otherwise relaxing is a great way to learn a new skill so you’ll be ready when that cute little critter pops up while you’re in the field.

Chipping Sparrow perched on a mossy branch - 700mm One-shot focus

Chipping Sparrow perched on a mossy branch - 700mm One-shot focus

Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to move your focus point around.  Depending on your camera body, you may lose the ability to change focus points at F5.6 or F8.  For instance, when I put my 2.0x teleconverter on my Canon 500mm F4L IS lens, it turns it into an F8 lens and I’m stuck using the center focus point.  In that case I’ll have to live with shooting loose enough that there is enough room around the subject to allow for cropping in Lightroom or Photoshop, or depending on the situation, I can use another feature that many cameras have.

While I normally have my camera in AI-Servo mode (Nikon calls it Continuous-Servo AF) when I’m photographing wildlife, I’ll occasionally switch to One Shot focus mode.  This allows me to put the camera’s center focus point on the animal’s eye and then recompose the image before I press the shutter to make the image.  Again, this is a technique you can practice while watching television.  The One Shot focus method only works on subjects that are relatively static.  If you’ve got a subject that is moving around a lot and you’re stuck with the center focus point, you’ll just have to accept some extra computer time while you crop the images.

Okay, so now we’ve got our focusing techniques down so we can use our camera’s autofocus systems to make sharp images focused on our subject’s eyes and we’ll create as many images as possible that don’t need extra processing in our photo editing software.

In the next article, we’ll continue the discussion on making sharper images.

Got something to contribute?  Please feel free to jump in.

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7 Responses to “Learning wildlife photography – Making sharper images – Part 1”

  1. Sean

    05. Jan, 2009

    I wonder in AL Servo mode, does it matter which focus point to choose?
    I think if using spot metering, it uses the center focus point for exposure. so if one choose another focus point, what you focus may not be proper exposed.

    • Paul Burwell

      07. Jan, 2009


      Regardless of the focus mode (Servo versus One Shot) it matters which focus point you use. Whatever focus point is selected is what the camera is going to try and focus on.

      I usually use evaluative metering and have used my camera enough to understand when I need to add in compensation or not.

      If I’m shooting under tough conditions (like a black wolf on white snow), I’m pretty much going to be in manual mode where I’ll meter off the snow and then add the appropriate compensation to get to the exposure I need for my camera. I’m constantly evaluating my histogram to make sure the light isn’t changing.

  2. Sean

    07. Jan, 2009

    ok, thanks, great to know focus point matters since I don’t recall see the red dot in view finder in Al Servo. mode.

    what do you mean meeter off the snow? do you mean you try to expose the wolf , but snow maybe over exposed?

    • Paul Burwell

      08. Jan, 2009

      If you aren’t seeing a single AF point, it could be that your camera is in a mode where they are all turned on and the cameras decided what has the most contrast in the center of the frame and is focusing on that.

      When I say meter off the snow, I mean finding an area of snow that I can use to fill the frame in my camera through whatever lens I’m using. I’ll make an exposure, check the histogram and then compensate. Usually by adding up to 2 1/3 stops of compensation. Otherwise, when you’re photographing in white snowy conditions your camera will tend to underexpose the images (the camera’s meter looks at the scene and determine that whatever is being metered should average out to a medium grey). To compensate for the camera’s meter just not being that smart, you have to purposely tell the camera to overexpose beyond what its natural tendencies are.

  3. Håkan Olsson

    19. Oct, 2009

    Some cameras come with an option to set a button (like af-on, on my 50D) so you can use servo af and then if the animal stops you can push that button to lock the servo af so you can recompose and take the shot. Then you save some time and don’t have to change the af mode to one-shot. I’m sure you know that, but it might help someone else. In my camera you have to set a CF setting to get that function.


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