Digital Focus: Photographing Wildlife, Part 1
Safaris are somewhat pass
Traditional wildlife photographers--you know, like the ones that shoot for magazines like "National Geographic"--have a lens as long as the party sub sandwich that your office ordered for the last holiday party. There's a good reason for that: It's insanely difficult to get close to most kinds of wild animals, and even if you could get really close, you probably wouldn't want to. So the alternative is to stay far away, but pull in the action with a powerful zoom.
This is where digital SLRs like the Nikon D50 or the Canon Digital Rebel have a real advantage. Because you can swap lenses, you can invest in a 200mm, 300mm, or even a 500mm lens and snap it into place when you head to the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
If you don't have an SLR, then you're stuck with whatever zoom level is available on your point-and-shoot. That can be okay; just remember to turn off your camera's digital zoom mode, because it isn't particularly useful. Digital zoom magnifies the pixels in the middle of the frame to simulate more zoom. In other words, it does the same thing you could accomplish with an image editor just by cropping the picture.
Shutter Speed Is Key
The longer your focal length, the more susceptible your photos will be to camera shake and blurry images. In addition, wild animals move quickly and unpredictably, further necessitating a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. That makes wildlife photography the perfect storm for blurry photos--if the long lens doesn't blur your shot, that lion darting around at the last moment almost certainly will.
As a result, my advice for wildlife photos is simple: shoot at the absolute fastest shutter speed you can muster, all the time. Take no chances. I tend to set my camera to aperture priority mode and set the aperture to the highest setting available, which forces the camera to use the fastest shutter speed.
For tips, read my August column, "Making the Most of Aperture Mode."
Crank up the ISO
ISO, which measures the camera's sensitivity to light, is an essential ally when shooting wildlife to eke out a little more shutter speed, and thereby freeze the action. Most people tend to increase ISO only at night, but I've found it essential to increase the ISO even in the middle of the day when stalking wild animals. Last year, for example, I was photographing wolves on an overcast winter afternoon. At 3 p.m., I had to push my camera all the way to ISO 3200 just to get exposures around 1/60 second. Yes, higher ISOs will introduce more digital noise into your photos. But it can be worth it, this shot attests.
For more on using this setting, read my January column, "Use ISO to Take Low-Light Photos."
Tune in next week for some more tips on shooting wildlife.