How To Get Sharp Wildlife Photos Everytime – Free Lesson 2
There are many variables that go into creating super-sharp photos with your camera. Read on for some tips!
We’ll start with lens selection.
WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY LENSES
Some lenses are sharp, and some are not. That’s a general statement, that is sometimes true, but getting even more in-depth on the subject…
Probably the lenses you use are sharp at certain apertures, and not at others. Really. Even if you do everything “right” the photo could STILL be unsharp because the lens just isn’t up to the task at a certain aperture.
Telephoto lenses tend to be unsharp at the high-end of the zoom. Meaning, your 70-300mm zoom lens can work fantastic at 70-200mm, but then get increasingly less sharp as it moves toward the 300mm limit.
That’s unfortunate, but that’s life. That’s lenses, I mean. J
This is why ‘prime’ lenses are considered sharper than zooms. A prime lense is optimized to be as sharp as possible at all apertures. Zooms are infinitely more convenient, but there’s still a use for prime lenses for some photographers, some photography.
OK, just so you know that. Let’s keep going…
It’s a general rule that a person can hand-hold a camera and shoot a sharp image if the shutter speed isn’t slower than one over the focal length of the lens being used. (1/focal length).
Example – Shooting with a 30mm lens (on FX or 35mm) you can probably hold the camera still enough to take a decently sharp image at 1/30th of a second shutter speed.
Some people can, some can’t. Some can hand-hold at 1/15th or even 1/8th of a second and get a reasonably sharp image. Most can’t. There’s a range. The rule helps, but it isn’t definite.
Example #1 – Camera Shake
So, you’re shooting (hand-holding – no tripod) a sleeping cow on a cloudy day and you’re at maximum zoom on your 300mm lens, shooting wide-open (maximum aperture) of F/5.6. The fastest shutter speed your camera is telling you is possible is 1/125th of a second.
Is it likely you’ll get an ultra-sharp image?
What can you do to avoid Camera Shake?
1.) Use flash. If flash works with the subject, and you don’t mind, use it. If the subject is within the reach of your camera’s flash, you’ll get a sharp image.
2.) Brace yourself. Let your elbows (both) rest on your chest to steady you a bit. That might be enough. It’s worth a try. Then, to get steadier, sit and brace your body and camera if possible, against a tree or other solid object. This can help a lot. If nothing around, Sit down and use your knee or knees to brace the camera. Even better, lay down prone like you’re shooting a rifle, and prop your elbows on the ground… or better, put the camera on the ground and put fingers under the lens to raise it up the required distance to frame the shot.
These are all good ways to gain some stability, and sometimes it’s enough to pull off the shot and get a clean (sharp) image.
3.) Tripod or monopod. Nobody likes to lug them around, they’re heavy and inconvenient, but they help tremendously – especially for telephoto lenses. Especially big telephoto lenses. If you absolutely MUST get the shot, the tripod or even a monopod is invaluable.
4.) Increase the ISO. If you were shooting at ISO 400, crank it up to 1600 to be able to shoot with a 1/500th shutter speed. Your image may suffer some quality loss, but not nearly as much as not getting a sharp image!
5.) Turn on Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS). Maybe your lens has it. Look for the switch! This can instantly save you and you’ll get the shot. Some lenses claim to be able to reduce camera shake by 2-4 stops. That means you for a shot where you think you need 1/500th – you could actually hand-hold it steady down to 1/30th of a second. Nuts, right? Gotta love technology. This is a strong hint that VR or IS is well-worth getting on your telephoto lenses.
6.) Shoot the photo at 1/500th anyway, knowing it will be underexposed. Later as you edit, you can brighten the exposure of the shot. If you’re shooting RAW – like you should be, the image can tolerate a 2-stop exposure change and still look good. Depends on the camera, lens, and many things, but worth a try!
Example #2 – Subject Motion
You’re shooting a moving animal. Let’s call it a squirrel. You have a 300mm lens and shooting at F/8. The squirrel is in the sun, running across the grass in front of you. The camera is set on ISO 400. Your camera is telling you it can get the shot at 1/2000th of a second.
Assuming the camera can focus on the moving squirrel quickly (tip – focus on the grass where it is about to jump onto) – will 1/2000th of a second be fast enough to freeze the motion of the squirrel?
Ahh, That’s the Question!
Probably. Almost surely. I can pretty well freeze the blades of a helicopter at 1/4000th. A squirrel isn’t all that fast.
At what point will the squirrel start to noticeably blur? I wouldn’t want to shoot at less than 1/2000th to be safe.
At 1/1000th, you might get some slight blur.
This is all guessing – maybe you have superfast squirrels where you live. Here in Thailand – I’d go with my guesses!
Other Tips for Keeping the Camera as Steady as Possible:
1.) Touch the shutter button lightly. You’re not squeezing a stapler, you’re just touching the shutter. The more force you use than necessary, the greater the camera shake. We all know people who take photos and jam the shutter button like they’re trying to poke a hole through a plastic wrap. Worse are those who move their hands, arms, and shoulder to click the button. It should be a micro-movement – and the slightest touch.
2.) Hold your breath. People do this a couple ways. I do it like I’m shooting a gun. I breathe out and hold it. I feel my heart moving the blood through my body – that’s the little jerk about once a second. After the jolt of blood moving, I squeeze the shutter gently – all the while trying not to move the camera at all.
3.) One hand on the camera body – and reaching the shutter. The other hand on the lens. Elbows braced against the chest.
4.) If you have the time, set up the self-timer. There isn’t camera shake when the camera fires the shutter.
5.) If you can, choose a shutter speed way over what you think you need. It’s possible to take a sharp image with a 35mm lens set at f/8 and 1/2000 of a second on a sunny day even if you’re moving the camera in your hand like you’re hitting a heavy bag in a gym. Try it. At 1/2000th or faster – it’s hard to get a blur if you’re moving – even wildly, or the subject is moving.
Stopping Subject Motion
Stopping the motion of your subject is a guessing game. As stated, around 1/2000th of a second, nothing living moves that fast except maybe that shrimp that cracks snails! (Harlequin shrimp?) You’re probably safe shooting at 1/1000th for most animals. A cat walking might be stopped in the image at 1/125th reasonably well. You’ll have to experiment. If not sure, go for the highest shutter speed you can get!
This image was taken as Tom Charlton and I was shooting photos of one of the most dangerous and deadly snakes in the world – the King Cobra. He was holding the camera in one hand and holding the snake’s tail until it came back at him, and then he’d try to squeeze off a photo. In this case, the shutter speed was set too slow to freeze the motion (I think it was 1/125th of a second). The image still ‘works’ in some way because the blur shows the speed at which the snake was coming back at us – but a razor sharp image would have been considerably better!
Noise vs. Blur
Blur is always the worst. You can’t correct blur in post-processing (editing). A blurred photo is a lost photo – you know, assuming the blur isn’t supposed to be there. That said, there are some amazing blurred photos that really show action. The cobra photo above is still pretty damn good, though horribly blurred.
When in doubt, crank up the ISO to ridiculous numbers, and shoot in RAW so you can edit as well as possible later.
The Nikon D500 has ridiculous low-light capability – and can shoot with ISO at 25,600 and higher with acceptable results in some cases. That’s ludicrous, but the tech is advancing at such a fast rate that magic is happening for photographers. Take advantage of it by getting a camera with great low-light capability.
Noise may be visible when you zoom into your photo 100%, but when you print or display your images online, it is much less visible. Most people will never get to see your shot at 100% magnification.
Noise in Editing
Noise in an image can usually be seen in the shadows, or in the skies of your sunset photos. It’s the grainy sand look. Sometimes noise can set the mood. It’s sometimes acceptable and sometimes people shoot to make noise because they like the effect. Most of the times you don’t want it.
You can reduce noise with software such as Photoshop, Lightroom, and even the simple Photos application on a device running Mac-OS. I use Photos on my MacBook for editing everything I do. It’s only rare that I open up Lightroom.
Keep in mind, editing software is advancing at breakneck speed too. A grainy (noisy) image today, can potentially be edited in 5 years and it will be absolutely perfect just due to gains in the software optimization we have available.
Also, downsizing your images (making smaller) – from say 5,000 pixels wide at 300 dpi to 800 pixels at 144 dpi will remove so much of the noise that nobody will even realize it’s there.
While you can trust focus to your autofocus camera in many instances, there’s still something you have to pay attention to – Depth-Of-Field (DOF).
With telephoto lenses, and at larger apertures (lower f-stop numbers) your DOF shrinks.
Shooting in macro with my 100mm F/2.8 lens at any aperture is always a guessing game as I am trying to figure out how much DOF I have to shoot a snake, a lizard, a centipede, whatever the subject is.
When I’m very close to the subject – I have millimeters or fractions of centimeters of DOF. It’s sometimes impossible (usually) to get the entire subject in sharp focus. Usually, I must focus on the eyes, or eye, and see what happens.
Here’s an example of missing the focus because the depth of field was so miniscule:
When I go on field trips at night, I can use F/16 a flash, and low ISO to shoot around 1/200th of a second. Still, I get little DOF.
DOF can affect you in the daylight with your 200mm shooting a bird in the yard too. Do some tests with your lenses and see what sort of DOF you get at various apertures. I’ll be you’re surprised how little it really is.
My Nikon cameras allow me to adjust focus for each lens with “AutoFocus Fine Tune” which it remembers when the lens is used. These micro adjustments help a lot for macro shooting. Canon calls the same feature “AF Microadjustment”. Canon 70D, 80D, 5D, 6D, 7D, and 1D have this available as an option. Here’s the free PDF download instructions on how to do it: Download PDF here.
What Else Can You Do to Ensure You “Get the Shot”?
Take MANY photos. I remember having my mind blown back in 1988 working for a well-known fashion photographer in New York City. I was the assistant, so I had to load 20 or so Hasselblad camera backs with film before each shoot. I wondered why when he was teaching me, that he emphasized doing it very quickly and efficiently – perfect every time.
Then I found out. He was clicking off photos at the rate of 3-4 a second in these huge bursts. We were going through loaded cameras in just seconds! For a simple image in a catalog, he probably shot 200 images on average. No joke.
Well today, we can do that too because photos don’t cost us anything. We can shoot 6,000. We’ll definitely get one. I remember we used to call it the “Spray and Pray” method. Like spraying shots of a machine gun to hunt rabbit… one of them will probably hit it. Poor example, I know, I don’t hunt. I just couldn’t think of what else the saying relates to!
Sharpening your images is something that is easy to do, and highly advised if the images coming out of your camera are soft.
You know, in modern cameras you can also adjust the sharpening in-camera so it sharpens the JPGs before writing them to the memory card. Nikon for instance, allows me to change
Sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue in the camera settings under “Set Picture Control” menu in the “Shooting Menu”. Canon has a similar feature.
Also in-camera, you can change the quality of your JPGs in some cameras. My Nikon D610 allows this, and I think the D500 does, though I haven’t checked yet. My Nikon D5100 doesn’t allow it. Check your camera – you may be able to choose highest quality JPG recording, or optimized for file size. Always choose the highest quality setting when given the chance!
Post Processing (Editing)
With your editing program, you can sharpen your images a bit as a final touch. This can help a very slightly blurry image seem sharp when posting online as you shrink the image down to maybe 600-800 pixels wide – and sharpen it a bit too. Nobody is the wiser.
There is a lot you can get away with online that doesn’t hold when you’re printing book covers, magazine photos, or large-format printing.
I’ll offer a complete class on post-processing using the free apps that come with Apple computers. There is a lot you can do with these free programs, and if you’re not producing images for professional publication with a magazine or some other professional use, you can probably get by using these free apps.
I hope these tips for shooting sharp images helped you today!
If you have any questions, feel free to write me: