In the second part of this three part series, you'll learn how to optimise your camera for wildlife photography, and how to tackle some of the basics of composing a great shot

Beginner

Part 2 Camera settings and composition


Part 1 of this introduction to wildlife photography series explored the basic gear and some ideas for getting out and finding wildlife close to home. The premise was making sure you were geared up and ready to head out into the field to start making some great wildlife images.

In part two you are going to dive into the camera settings - metering, shutter speed, and autofocus setup, to ensure your camera is well-optimised for wildlife photography, before tackling some of the basics of composing a great shot.

So let's get started...

Camera settings:


Now, when it comes to “camera settings for wildlife photography” there are many guides and videos that will give you numbers to dial into your camera. However, as with all photography, if you really want to be able to make great images consistently, you’ll need to understand the reasons why you choose certain values for different images.

Ultimately this will inform you, as the photographer, how to interpret and then output the style of image you are after - there isn’t a one method fits all approach to this!

Digital view of camera settings on top of a DLSR camera
Set up your camera before heading out. And be sure to sit and practise changing settings and adjusting the F stop (aperture), shutter speed and ISO, while looking through the viewfinder. This will help you get the best settings for your shot

Modes

Modern DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras offer a plethora of possible shooting modes, however for wildlife photography the two I’d recommend are the 'aperture priority' and ‘manual mode’.

Aperture priority is great for fast-action work when getting started in wildlife photography, as it gives you manual control while also having the assistance of the camera to maintain the exposure. In this mode the you will pick the aperture and ISO settings (discussed below), and the camera will adjust the shutter speed automatically to shoot a correct exposure.

In manual, you guessed it... it’s manual. You have to do everything yourself, evaluating and then deciding on your shutter speed, aperture and ISO for a correct exposure.

It might seem a pain, but for the total control of your images in regards to the exposure, manual is the only way. It might seem daunting, but understanding how to take full control of the camera in any situation will open up huge possibilities for your images. Just be prepared to take many bad images when you’re starting out - it's all part of the learning process!

Camera mountain to a tripod for wildlife photography
There are a number of auto camera modes that are excellent for wildlife photography. However, if you take the time to learn the manual settings for your camera, you'll get much more control over the final image

Metering

An important part of the process of making an image is metering, this refers to how the camera measures the brightness of the subject.

Modern cameras do a great job of being able to interpret the light for a correct exposure, and most often photographers these days use matrix or evaluative metering for settings exposure. This is when the camera measure information such as colour, brightness and shadows to set what it believes will be the correct exposure. The camera will read the light of the scene and then output a value for the middle grey.

If aperture priority is set, the shutter speed will be automatically changed to the correct exposure, whilst in manual mode the exposure indicator in the bottom of the viewfinder will help guide your choice for shutter speed.

Not being faultless, sometimes modern cameras will still require some assistance in certain circumstances, and this is where exposure compensation in aperture mode, or simply adapting your exposure in manual mode, is required.

Photograph of a heron with a shallow depth of field
When working with wildlife sometimes exposures can be tricky, matrix metering often works well, but in scenes like this when the bird is well lit and the background is dark, spot metering can be advantageous. Spot metering is where the camera will evaluate exposure on the subject rather than the background
Two small birds on a telephone cable
Exposing for the highlights is best practise in digital work. Here working with matrix metering I over exposed the scene slightly to make the whites white

Aperture

Now, one of the most important aspects of photography is understanding aperture and how it relates to your images. The f number selected defines the amount of focus within our frame. A small number indicates less in focus, with a larger number more so. For example, f2.8 will have very limited depth of field, with only the area specifically focused on being in focus, whilst f11 would allow for much more to be in focus.

Often with wildlife photography you work at the wider end of the scale - using shallow depth of field to isolate subjects in the frame and also allow for more light to enter to allow faster shutter speeds and sharp images. Often I’ll be set the aperture on my camera somewhere between f2.8 and f5.6.

Fox on a lawn with a shallow depth of field
Using a shallow aperture allows to blur out foregrounds for pleasing and simple images. This image was captured with an aperture of f4 and a shutter speed of 1/640s

Shutter speed

The shutter speed is quite simply the speed at which the shutter opens and closes. This is really important for wildlife photographers when it comes to making tack sharp images of moving subjects.

The faster the shutter speed, the less movement there is in a frame. A 1/1000 sec speed allows you to freeze action and ensure moving subjects are captured sharply. Another reason fast shutter speeds are important for wildlife shooters is because of camera shake.

Long telephoto lenses amplify any movement in the camera and so to counteract this, using a fast shutter speed ensures that none of that movement is visible in the final image. Of course sometimes, adding a little movement into the frame can work. Slowing down the shutter speed and panning makes for some super cool results, but in most cases you are looking for fast shutter speeds above 1/1000sec.

Flying osprey with a fish in its claws
This incredible osprey shot was captured at a super fast shutter speed of 1/3200s, f6.3 0 in order to freeze-frame the exact moment of the catch. Image from Conor Molloy

ISO

The ISO setting of your camera dictates its sensitivity to light, and is another important factor to consider when shooting wildlife photography. However, ISO can also have an impact on image quality.

Low ISO settings (such as ISO 100/ 200) are where you mainly want to be when the light is good - such as on sunny days or bright overcast conditions, where you have enough light to allow for fast shutter speeds. Lower ISO settings give the best quality and dynamic range that your camera’s sensor can provide, and therefore offers the best image quality.

A mountain hare against a white snowy background, Scotland
The bright, snowy conditions in this beautiful mountain hare shot allowed for an ISO of 160 and a 1/1000s exposure. Meaning the image could be taken at a fast shutter speed (essential for capturing fast-moving subjects) while keeping the ISO low. Image by Colin Black

When the light starts to drop, or conditions are duller, you may need to increase your ISO in order to let more light in, and also maintain your shutter speed at a level where you can still capture sharp images. Most modern cameras are far superior to those a few years back, meaning that you can, shoot up to ISO 1600 without it having too much of an impact on the overall quality of the image. Meaning you can maintain a fast shutter speed in most circumstances. ISO 3200 or 6400 for many cameras still produce great results and are great for low light situations, it’s just good practice to only use these when you need to do so, in order to reduce the amount of noise (colour fragmenting and grain) in the image for a higher quality result.

Two marmots looking at each other on a rock
The slightly darker conditions in this scene of chattering marmots warranted an ISO of 800 and a shutter speed of 1/100s in order to get the correct exposure. Even though the ISO was at a higher setting and the shutter speed slower than usual for wildlife photography, the result is still fantastic! Image by Nikita

The three parameters above are the basics of photography and the exposure triangle, and although at first it can seem confusing, you’ll soon get the hang of how they interact.

A quick example:

If you shoot at an aperture of f4 and let a large amount of light into your camera, and you have a fast shutter speed of around 1/1000 sec at ISO 200.
If you want more depth of field (so you can get a larger subject fully in focus) and you change your aperture to f8. Doing this will mean you lose two stops of light and also means you will need to down your shutter speed to 1/250 sec - which means a potentially less-sharp image. So by increasing your ISO from 200 to 800 you can rectify this and get back to 1/1000 sec. It’s just simply compensating for your adjustments.


You can also learn more about ISO with the dedicated beginner's guide here.

Autofocus

Of course if you want to get your subjects in focus you’ll need to master the AF modes in your camera, especially for erratic and fast-moving wildlife! The most important setting is to make sure you’re in AF continuous or Servo mode. This basically means the camera will continue autofocusing whilst you have your finger half pressed on the shutter button or AF-ON button. An essential for wildlife that is constantly moving.

The next choice takes some experimentation to find what works for you. Personally I work in single point AF for most of my work, selecting a single AF point that I move around the viewfinder to focus. Choosing to manually move the point myself with the joystick allows for compositional control, and having worked like this for years I can use it for everything from static subjects to birds in flight.

If I’m working with consistently flying birds or fast-moving subjects I will sometimes move into a group AF mode, utilising multiple points of the AF system to provide a larger area for tracking. Modern cameras do these modes very well with some even offering eye tracking for birds and animals, helping to keep the AF locked on. Learning to switch fast between different AF modes is certainly worth investing time in as it will help you make the most of different situations and nail the focus. Some cameras offer the chance to program your buttons to quickly recall different AF modes without needing to use any menus, and this is highly advisable as it means you can swap modes without taking your eye from the viewfinder.

Close up of a DLRS with the AF-ON button
Understanding autofocus is key to nailing moving subjects, be sure to experiment with different modes to get the best from your camera

Composition:


The art of photography, composition is a key skill that takes time to develop. Having an eye for your subjects, and framing and capturing images that draw viewers in is a huge part of photography, that builds on the basic technical knowledge to really make impressive images. Understanding some basics will get you started.

Rule of thirds

Probably the “big one” that every photographer needs to know, the “rule of thirds” looks at breaking your images into two sets of thirds for an aesthetic composition guide. Simply four lines, two horizontal and two vertical, break the image into 9 equal parts. On the crossover points of these lines are the areas you should aim for your subjects to be positioned, looking into or towards the larger space on the opposite side of the image. This gives a 1:2 ratio that looks pleasing on the eye and makes for a simple but effective way to compose.

Falcon on a branch with a shallow depth of field
Placing subjects in the third line is a great way to start with composition, with the animal looking into the frame

Leading lines

Another great way to draw a viewer into a frame is using lines. Be it a path leading towards your subject, a fence line or a rope, lines allow the viewer to follow a path into your image, and when combined with a convergence on your chosen subject, make for a great tool for interesting and powerful compositions.

Bird on a branch
Using leading lines in your composition is a great way to guide. your viewer to the subject. The leading lines in this shot come from the pattern in the tree bark

Odds rule

When it comes to composing, look for odd numbers. Be it three trees, five birds or a single fox, they will almost always look better than even numbers due to the fact the viewer has a final place to rest within the composition. Two subjects for example will cause the viewer to bounce between areas of an image, often resulting in a frame that just doesn’t seem so pleasing to the eye.

Macro shot of mushrooms on the forest floor
Always look for odd numbers in compositions. This will help guide the viewer to a resting point in the scene - ideal for wildlife photography

Natural frames

A great little technique for wildlife photography compositions is that of using frames. This may be shooting through a small gap in a hedge, a window frame or between dense areas of vegetation, but the surrounding frame focuses the viewer on the intended subject for a simple, yet effective style of composition.

In summary, preparation is everything for wildlife photography. In order to be in a position to make great images in the field, be sure to get to know your camera and settings before heading out.

Portrait of a deer photographed between a natural frame
Working through natural frames is a great way to compose your images, focusing on the subject for powerful shots

Next steps


Understanding the dials and buttons in order to react quickly as your subjects come into frame is paramount, enabling you to focus on the other important aspects like composition and action.

By practising at home in the garden, or even just with random subjects around the house, you’ll soon be able to make adjustments on the fly and be able to make all the adjustments you need without taking your eye from your subject.

In part 3 you're going to learn how to hone your new skills and track down some wildlife subjects in your local area - Read on here.

All images by Tom Mason unless otherwise stated.