great blue heron taking flight at sunrise with orange water marshall point lighthouse sunset bald eagle in flight photo colorado fall aspens photo bald eagle in flight photo
First Light Photography Workshops
Home Workshops Photo Galleries Books / eBooks Online Articles Bio Sponsors


Speed. It doesn't kill but without it a wildlife photographer might as well be dead.  When shooting wildlife, it’s imperative to be quick on the draw or a shot will be missed.  Even with lenses being faster than just a few years ago, if unprepared to take the shot the camera might as well stay in the bag.  Another major element is using fast shutter speeds to freeze the action.

One of the biggest things photographers encounter is determining the right shutter speed for capturing the sharpest wildlife action shots.  When workshop attendees ask what speed I suggest they comment soon after using this how much better their shots look.  Another is taking time getting everything ready and missing THE shot.  It’s important to have everything ready and knowing the equipment when photographing a bird taking flight or baby bears playing.

Equipment Knowledge - Answer these questions: Which way to turn the shutter speed / aperture dial if changing from 1/1000th to 1/2000th or f/8 to f/5.6 because of a change in lighting?  What buttons and how quick can I change the ISO if it needs to go up?  How adepts am I at changing the focus point? How adept am I at changing exposure compensation? If you don't know the answer to these a shot is possibly blurry.  When something special happens you need to know how to work the equipment to get the shot, especially if some clouds move in front changing the exposure just before the action happens.

Shutter Speed - It’s not hard to find shutter speed recommendations for capturing great wildlife images.  One comment is to use double / double the focal length of the lens.  Thus, for a 400mm lens it would be 1/1600th of a second (400 X 2 = 800 X 2 = 1600).  This can be handy but my preferred trigger point is 1/2000th or even more.  This really helps freeze the action.  With also shooting at around f/7.1 or f/8 to increase depth of field, this means bumping the ISO up quite a bit depending o n the light situation.

A good starting point for wildlife ISO is 640, even in sunny conditions.  This is sure to provide the needed shutter speed to capture sharp talons, claws, wing detail or water droplets flying.  As light changes, keep an eye on the shutter speed in the viewfinder so any adjustments can be made quickly.  Cameras today handle high ISO much better so don’t be concerned about pushing it to 3200 or even higher if needed. The highest I've used for wildlife is 6400 for pre-sunrise shots at Bosque del Apache as the geese were coming in.

flower with cluttered backgroundISO 4000, f/6.3, 1/2500th sec.  Because it was a very overcast day, the ISO was bumped way up to get enough shutter speed for these fighting Kodiak brown bears who don’t confront each other in slow motion.

baby mountain goat jumping
ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/2500th sec.  Shutter speed, timing and knowing behavior all came into play for shooting this jumping baby mountain goat.

Tips.  A lot of wildlife shots in motion can be made easier by getting focused on them early.  A good example of this is with birds in flight.  The further away focus is obtained the easier it is to get the shot, especially when using a large lens.  Trying to find a flying bird through a large lens with it close can be fairly difficult because the field of view is very narrow.  If able to focus on the bird at a distance, follow it on its path, keep it in focus and get the shot at the desired location and position.  Over time closer focus becomes easier.  Another thing to keep in mind when doing this is to follow through.  Keep panning with the subject after clicking the shutter button so there isn’t any unnecessary stoppage of the camera causing a blurry image. 

Patience.  While speed is important in getting a lot of shots, some that look like they require all facets of speed also rely on patience.  For these instances just stand there and wait for the anticipated action to occur and be quick on the shutter to get the action, like with being on an egret or other wading bird waiting for a meal to swim by.  The desired shot is of the bird lunging into the water for a fish and coming up with it.

There are a couple of ways to do this.  First, sit there with your eye glued to the viewfinder and finger on the shutter and wait for the action to occur or keep a watchful eye on the bird knowing that certain actions will happen just before it moves into action.  Here is where knowledge of the subject comes into play.  For hunting herons and other similar birds they may make a slight movement of their body position before plunging into the water for a meal.  Some you just have to stay on as they move so fast.

Knowing wildlife behavior patterns helps in getting good action and behavior shots.  Keep a mental notebook while working different species of seeing what they do before doing something else.

Conclusion.  Wildlife action shots are the ones showing behavior.  It's nice to have portraits, but when you're able to bring some behavior into the image it makes for more impactful photographs.  Headshots and profiles do make their way into print often, but when able to incorporate behavior you're able to tell more of a story.  After all, isn't that what photography is all about, telling a story.

flower with cluttered background
ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/2000th sec.  A fast shutter speed allowed for great detail of the shrimp being flipped in the egrets beak.

flower with blacck background
ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/2000th sec.  Skimmers are a must for getting early focus.