• Charlie’s Wildlife Photography

The Best Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography (Complete Guide)

Updated: Oct 11, 2021


Best camera settings for wildlife photography

When it comes to creating great wildlife photography, getting your camera settings right is so important.

This is my list of the best camera settings for wildlife photography and some alternative techniques as well.

The Best Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography…


Auto Focus

Focus Type


There are two main types of autofocus, single and continuous. These will be called different things depending on what brand of camera you have.


Nikon: AF-S & AF-C


Canon: One Shot & Ai Servo


Sony: AF-S & AF-C

So what’s the difference?

Continuous focus is when your camera will continuously reanalyse and refocus rather than staying in one spot.

Continuous auto focus

This mode is used for moving subjects as the camera will readjust its focus as your subject moves.

Single focus is when your camera will focus on a point and not move from there until you press your focus button again.


Single auto focus

This can be used if an animal is very still as you can focus on your subject and then recompose your image as you like.


In summary…


Continuous focus is for moving subjects.


Single focus is for static subjects.

Focus Area


Next up is the focus area, this is what the camera uses to know which part of your frame to focus on.

The focus areas range from a single point to your whole screen. So which one should you use?


If you are photographing a slow moving fairly predictable animal, that you can easily focus your single point on I would use the single point.


Single focus point for wildlife photography

(Bonus tip, always put your focus point on the animals eye if you can. The eye is the most important part to be in focus)


If the animal is moving a little faster and less predictably and you think you will struggle to keep your point on them easily, then go for a slightly bigger area.


Focus area for wildlife photography

And if you have an animal coming in and out frame faster than you can get any sort of aim on them, you can let the camera do the work by having it in auto AF area mode.


Automatic auto focus for Wildlife photography

Back Button Focus


So now I have told you the difference between single and continuous focus and when to use them, I am going to tell you a technique which means you don’t have to choose between the two (typical haha).


So what is back button focusing?

Well, usually when you focus a shot you will half press the shutter button. Back button focusing is essentially separating the focus and shoot functions so they have their own buttons.

So why is this useful?

The first reason is that it stops the camera refocusing when you press the shutter button. Sometimes you will attain your focus, recompose and then when you press the shutter button the camera will refocus again.


By using back button focus this is not an issue, you only use the shutter release when you want to take a photo.


The main advantage of back button focusing however is you are essentially combining single and continuous focus modes.


When you press the focus button once, your camera will focus on your target and won’t change this focus until the button is pressed again.


If you want to continuously track a subject just simply hold down the focus button.


So how do you engage back button focusing?

Back button focus

Most new cameras have an AF-ON button that is specifically designed for back button focusing. If this is the case simply remove the focus function from the shutter release button.


If your camera does not have an AF-ON button all you need to do is create one. This is done very easily by going into your button configuration settings and changing an existing button’s function on the back of your camera to auto focus.


Burst Mode


This one is very short and simple, have your camera in burst mode. (High speed continuous)


This is an essential setting to have on as wildlife can be gone within a few seconds so getting as many shots in that time is crucial.


Burst mode for wildlife photography

It’s so important that when choosing a camera the FPS (frames per second) is one of the first things wildlife photographers will look at.

Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO


These 3 things make up what’s called the exposure triangle. Knowing what they do and how to balance them correctly is essential if you want to take excellent wildlife photographs.


Let me give a quick explanation of what each of the three elements are and then we will discuss how to use them.


(If you already have a full understanding of what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are you can skip this part and scroll down to the how to use them section)

Shutter Speed


Shutter speed is how quickly your shutter closes. If you think of your camera as an eye, it is how quickly it blinks.

The faster the shutter speed the less light the camera lets in and the slower the shutter speed the more light will be let in.

Shutter speed for wildlife photography

Fast shutter speeds are used to stop motion and are used for moving subjects. The faster the subject is moving the faster your shutter speed will need to be.

Aperture


The aperture is the opening in your lens that allows light in. The wider the aperture the more light is let in and the narrower the aperture the less light is let in.

Aperture is expressed using f numbers e.g f/2.8, f4, f5.6 etc… You can think of the f standing for how fat your lens is if that helps.


The confusing part is the lower the number the wider the aperture and the higher number the smaller the aperture.


Put very simply…. Low f number = more light and High f number = less light.

So apart from more or less light how does aperture affect our photos…


Well the wider the aperture (lower f number) the shallower your depth of field will be. This means less off the image will be in focus.


Having a wider aperture can create some beautiful blurry backgrounds but be careful as sometimes things you want in focus like an animals ears or nose can become blurred.

A narrower aperture (higher f number) as you have probably guessed means you will have a larger depth of field. This means more of your image will be in focus.


Aperture for wildlife photography

A lot of time in wildlife photography people will have a very wide aperture, especially in low light situations.


The reason for this is letting more light in by having a wide aperture allows you to have a faster shutter speed, which as we have discussed is often essential for wildlife photography.


Having a really wide aperture is not always the right choice though. As I mentioned before it can leave part of an animals face or one of a birds wings out of focus. You will have to judge each situation individually.


It’s about balancing what you think is more important. Do you need a faster shutter speed more than you need that other wing in focus?


The only way to get better at judging this is practice, practice and more practice.


ISO


ISO is how sensitive your cameras sensor is to light. In situations where you have a lot of light hitting the sensor you will be able to have a lower ISO.


In low light situations or when there is less light hitting the sensor you will need to raise your ISO (making it more sensitive)


So how does ISO affect your images…


Having a lower ISO number means you will have the least amount of noise/grain in your photo.


The higher your ISO the more noise/grain your photo will have. This is especially noticeable towards the top end of the ISO’s capabilities.

ISO for wildlife photography

In an ideal world you would always have a low ISO but this not possible, especially in low light situations or when you need to have a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture.


Again, it comes down to what you think the most important thing is for that particular image.

In my opinion if you have to choose say between having a higher shutter speed and higher ISO or lower shutter speed and lower ISO.

(Essentially picking between motion blur or noise) I would pick a noisy photo 9 times out of 10. Just my opinion though.

So now we know what the exposure triangle is and what each element does lets talk about how to use them…


How to use them?

There are three different modes in which you can control the exposure triangle from. Let’s discuss them and which are best for wildlife photography…


Shutter speed priority


Shutter speed priority

(Expressed as Tv on Canon cameras)

Shutter speed priority is when you decide the cameras shutter speed and the camera will in turn decide your aperture to make sure your photo is properly exposed.

As we discussed shutter speed is probably the most important thing to get right in wildlife photography. Surely then being in shutter speed priority would be the ideal mode? Well not exactly, let me explain...


Like I said, in shutter speed priority mode you control the shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture. The problem is lenses have a maximum aperture.

This means if you put your shutter speed too high, your camera can’t open the lens wide enough to let an adequate amount of light in to properly expose the image.


You can of course then adjust your ISO to achieve correct exposure but it means if you don’t get it right the photo will be under exposed.


So this is why I think aperture priority is a better option...


Aperture Priority


aperture priority

(Expressed as Av on Canon cameras)


Aperture priority, as you have probably guessed, is when you change the aperture and the camera decides the correct shutter speed to properly expose the image.


In my opinion this is a better option than shutter speed priority because there is no limit to how slow your shutter speed can go, meaning your photo will never be under exposed.


If you feel you have your aperture as wide as you want it and your shutter speed is not fast enough, just increase your ISO and this will in turn increase your shutter speed.


(Bonus Tip)

Your shutter speed should be equal or more than your focal length. For example 400mm lens means 1/400 shutter speed.


In terms of animals a general rule for minimum shutter speeds would be…


Walking: 1/250


Fast Walking: 1/500


Running: 1/1000


Birds in Flight: 1/1250+



Manual Mode


Manual mode for wildlife photography

Manual mode is when you are in control of everything. This is by far my favourite mode to shoot in and the one I use the most.


I would also say using your camera in manual mode is the best way to learn how to use it properly.


When I would not suggest to use manual is if you have one chance to get the shot and you aren’t confident in your settings.

If you have say, a 50% chance of getting the shot in manual and a 70% chance if you use a semi automatic mode then use the semi automatic modes for sure.


Also if the light is constantly changing and so is the speed of your subject then changing all the settings in manual is not practical and a semi automatic would be better.

One technique that people use is having their camera in manual mode but the ISO in auto. This means you will control the shutter speed and aperture while camera changes the ISO to make sure the photo is properly exposed.

This method can be useful however, I feel sometimes if the camera is controlling the ISO it can get pushed higher than necessary and create a lot of noise/grain.


Each situation is different but if I had to pick my top 3 shooting modes in order it would be…


1) Full manual mode

2) Aperture priority (Manual ISO)

3) Manual mode (Auto ISO)


So those are my best camera techniques for wildlife photography. This is not a one size fits all though, try all of the settings in different situations and see what works for you. I hope you found the post useful, please like and share if you did.


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