Georg Hofmeyr | Photography blog

wildlife – nature – travel

Tips for default camera settings for wildlife photography

For a typical wildlife shoot, it is necessary to prepare ones camera equipment to be ready for the unexpected - the next image could be of an ant or an elephant, of a bird flying, fighting or fishing. One needs to be able shoot in varying types of light, be able to follow subjects moving rapidly from full sun to deep shadow in a single sequence. The most dramatic wildlife shots inevitably involve fast unfolding action, the bee-eater, for example catching an insect in flight after an erratic chase. One seldom finds oneself in the privileged position where you have your kit mounted on a sturdy tripod ready for anticipated action at a known location, (think wildebeest crossing the Mara River). More often than not one will be walking or driving when you stumble across a dramatic moment, and you will have no option but to shoot quickly, often out of hand.

By taking time to set up our cameras appropriately, we can at least improve our ability to control some uncertain variables and so improve our chances of getting a decent shot or two. The settings presented below is my own personal default starter set, developed over time, and adjusted when necessary to accommodate model differences when I change cameras. My objectives for decent wildlife shots are to, in a consistent and repeatable manner, take pictures that are well exposed, with pin-sharp subjects, and which are adequately isolated from busy backgrounds.

To achieve this mixed bag of objectives, I need default settings that will provide me with the ability to:

  • control depth of field
  • freeze movement - of the subject as well as the camera
  • control exposure
  • control the point of focus and frame the subject

These settings are of course not cast in stone, and I do change any of them as the situation warrants. However, I also try to be disciplined, and return to the same starting position once the current action is over. It really helps to have solid ground to return to, a known and familiar baseline, from where it is easy to again change settings as circumstances change.

My default settings

My starter set of default wildlife camera settings are:

Exposure related settings:

  • Exposure metering - matrix
  • Exposure compensation - (-0.7) EV as a default starting position in good light- this is one of my most frequently used controls. Please see my comment below on my recent change of heart on this setting as well as the Auto Iso setting below.
  • Exposure Mode - aperture-priority auto
  • Aperture - selected as the day unfolds, within the capabilities of the lens - wide open in falling light, otherwise as depth of field dictates - keeping in mind the diffraction limits of a high megapixel camera.
  • Shutter speed - “selected” through ISO settings
  • ISO - Auto ISO with minimum shutter speed set at Auto / fastest or - which on a Nikon delivers a shutter speed of about 4 times the focal length, namely 1/2500 sec for a 600mm lens.

Focus Related settings:

  • Autofocus mode - continuous
  • AF-Area mode - Default 9-point-dynamic-AF - I will sometimes change to 3D tracking when shooting birds in flight against the sky.

Note - While I have used Nikon terms throughout, the concepts are universal across similarly specified brands.

For those of you interested in a more detailed discussion of my reasons for choosing the above starter set, please continue to read below.

 NIKON D600 f/8 1/4000sec ISO-1800 500mm

NIKON D600 f/8 1/4000sec ISO-1800 500mm

Auto-ISO explained.

Before we continue, we first need to consider how the auto ISO function works. When I first encountered this function way back in the Nikon D80, it was already quite useful. One would specify the upper limit for the ISO, and if the camera was set on aperture priority for example, the ISO would be bumped up automatically to maintain an acceptable minimum shutter speed (roughly 1/ focal length) in deteriorating light. In other words the ISO would remain at the lowest value provided that the minimum shutter speed was achieved, and only then would the ISO be increased automatically. In deteriorating light, a slower shutter speed will only be selected once the upper ISO limit has been reached. In the more recent auto-ISO implementations one is also able to specify a minimum shutter speed, for instance 1/4000 sec, or one can select the shutter speed to be selected automatically. The automatic setting has a further menu which allows you to specify whether auto will select a slower or faster shutter speed. The “faster” setting delivers shutter speeds of about 4 times the lens focal length, namely 1/2500 sec for a 600mm lens, for example.

My target shutter speed for wildlife

When I first started shooting wildlife with a DSLR, I was very reluctant to set my ISO above 200, based on the prevailing advice at the time. This of course resulted in very soft, or outright out of focus images, because of too slow shutter speeds. My first DSLR lens was the venerable Nikon 18-200mm VR, and I soon learnt that VR was not really helping in improving my success rate, especially with shots of birds. A talk at our local Pretoria Photographic Society, by two world renowned bird photographers, Albert Froneman and Chris van Rooyen opened my mind with a message - focus on achieving those very high shutter speeds necessary to freeze the fast movements of birds, which will result in must sharper images and live with the consequences of the resultant ISO. They were talking of shutter speeds of 1/2000 seconds and more!

This lesson was further reinforced when I joined Lou Coetzer on a workshop on the Chobe River in Botswana. Lou advocated shutter speeds in excess of 1/4000 if your camera and the light allowed it and I was getting magnificently sharp shots using a Nikon D700 from a fast moving boat on a river!

Another lesson learnt from Lou was “don’t bother with VR, provided that your shutter speed is high enough”. I have proven the value of this truism each time when I rented the cheaper non-VR version of the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 or the Nikon 500mm f/4 for my trips into Africa.

So what shutter speed do I target - at least 1/2500 sec as a starting baseline setting, especially since I retired my trusty D80, which was notoriously noisy above 800 ISO with its out-dated CCD sensor.

OK, why not then select Shutter-Priority Auto

I could have considered Shutter-Priority Auto if it were not that we also want to control depth of field. Depth of field control is crucial in wildlife shots where we are often challenged by busy fore- and backgrounds and where we need narrow depths of field to help isolate subjects. Depth of field control is also essential on long telephoto lenses, where wide open might result in too narrow in focus areas, leaving us with parts of the subject too out-of-focus. A further complication arises when shooting with very high megapixel cameras (such as the 36MP Nikon D800, and Sony Alpha 7R) where refraction comes into play and softens images at aperture settings over f/8 or so. This means that it is crucial that I have full control over aperture at all times, and hence it leaves us with either manual or aperture priority settings as exposure mode options.

OK, so why not Manual, like real pro’s do?

Manual exposure control (and similarly manual focus) is fine for static or slow or predictably moving subjects, in controlled or slow changing lighting conditions. However, for the uncertain, complex and rapidly unfolding and changing wildlife environment, it is, in my humble opinion, really silly to insist on using manual exposure settings when using a modern DSLR. Doing so will only significantly and unnecessarily increase complexity at a time when I can least afford it. I need to free up my mind to concentrate on the scene unfolding in the view finder and to try to anticipate behaviour of the subjects to capture that unexpected moment. This argument also goes for manual focusing. As a keen amateur, I am more than happy to leave shooting wildlife action using manual settings to the real pro’s!

Naaldekoker NIKON D600 f/5.6 1/3200sec ISO-3200 600mm

Naaldekoker NIKON D600 f/5.6 1/3200sec ISO-3200 600mm

So do you leave exposure entirely up to the Camera’s processor?

No, of course not! This is where the Exposure Compensation button comes to the fore. Its surprising how many animals have some white somewhere, antelopes, large cats and especially birds. Because these areas are relatively small, the camera's exposure meter will mostly not take them into consideration. In order not to over-expose and wash-out the detail in these white areas, I normally dial in quite a bit of under exposure as a norm. My personal preference is for low key images, and as a result, I often do not need much exposure adjustment in my raw processing.

I normally check the set up of my camera on arrival at the gate to the game reserve, after each set of photographs taken and each time before I set out for a walk or a drive. I also made it a habit to take a few test shots each time, just to confirm all is in order and working as expected.

I trust that the above will assist you in choosing your own starter set of default camera settings for wildlife photography.

Happy shooting and take care out there - its lion country!

Georg Hofmeyr
February 2015; Pretoria
South Africa

4 responses to “Tips for default camera settings for wildlife photography

  1. Richard Wentzel says:

    Very interesting and similar to my settings. Have never used EV -0.7 but will try. Often I use + 1.0 as the birds are on a branch with bright sky behind. Also enjoyed your comments on the TC with your long lens. I have a Nikon D7200 and use the Nikon 80-400 AFS for my wildlife shots. Very happy with this combination for animals but often find it a bit short for birds and have to do a lot of cropping. Have thought about a TC but in a normal game reserve situation one shoots frequently animals/birds/animals.Not too keen to keep swapping the TC on and off. Your comments appreciated. Thanks for the interesting articles.

    • Georg Hofmeyr says:

      Hi Richard,

      I have recently reconsidered my approach in light of the very interesting noise-related articles published by the DP Review team. It made me wonder whether I may not have been overdoing the shutter-speed bias, and end up with unnecessary high shutter-speeds, resulting in higher than necessary noise level – thus more work in post production. I have therefore consciously stopped reducing the EV in camera, set my ISO ceilings lower, and set the auto-ISO shutter speed multiplier lower. This has resulted in a slight shift to the right on the histogram, and I find I can easily recover any blown highlights in lightroom (more easily than trying to recover the noise!)

      Let me know what your findings are.

      Kind regards

  2. Mac Mirabile says:

    Thanks for this guide! This is very similar to my approach with the D600 and Sigma 150-600 S. Great minds think alike.

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