Georg Hofmeyr | Photography blog

wildlife – nature – travel

Wildlife Photography Basics: Part1 – Camera master class

How to guide for aspiring wildlife nature and travel photographers - Part 1: Get to know your camera backwards - every button, every dial, every setting.

Graceful landing juvenile Jacana, Chobe River Botswana. 1/1600sec f/9.0 ISO 1600 Nikon D700 @ 850mm. Tripod mounted on a boat.

Graceful landing
juvenile Jacana, Chobe River Botswana. 1/1600sec f/9.0 ISO 1600 Nikon D700 @ 850mm

Wildlife Photography Basics - a multi-part tutorial

I've often been asked by many friends and colleagues for tips and guidance on how to get started as an aspiring wildlife photographer so, in line with my pay-it-forward philosophy, herewith the first in a series of articles on the basics of wildlife photography. Of course, many of the basic principles will be equally applicable to most other types of photography as well, but our focus here, will where necessary remain on those skills and techniques which will assist in reducing the particular uncertainties and challenges one might encounter in photographing wildlife.

This series of articles will typically follow the workflow of  photographer from getting the equipment sorted until the final images are ready for publication and archiving. Therefore typical topics to be covered in future articles will be: setting exposure, focusing and composition; reducing risk; practicing and honing your skills; mastering editing; choosing your gear; finding your style; the discipline of a workflow, and how to continue to grow as a photographer.

We will also include articles to discuss the differences and similarities when changing from wildlife to nature or travel photography, as these three types of photography are related in the sense of opportunity, albeit that they differ considerably in respect of technique and gear. In Part 1, we will discuss how to go about learning to operate and master our complex modern DSLR cameras.

Part1: Mastering your DSLR camera

I love my camera. In fact I love all cameras. They are technological marvels. A modern DSLR camera is a beautiful mix of the finest mechanical precision instrumentation, electronic wizardry and pure optical perfection, robust enough that we can drag them across deserts, over mountains and through jungles, in extremes of heat and cold, but when we touch the shutter button, they keep on firing away frame after reliable frame. Just imagine what transpires in those micro seconds between when your brain says "thats the picture I want" until the digital ones and zeros are frozen onto the memory card - pure magic. There’s the autofocus system, the exposure system, the optical stabilisation system, the image processing system - all complex systems in their own right, but when integrated in the hands of an expert, they all work together to reliably produce images that quietly pleases the photographer and stirs the emotions of those who enjoy the impact and message of the finished product.

But therein lies the challenge for us novice photographers at the start of our relationship with our cameras - each of these different systems have multiple settings, which can be adjusted in many ways; all impacting on each other and conspiring to confuse and confound us. EV, f/stop, aperture,shutter speed,  ISO speed, lens speed, auto focus mode, focus point, auto focus area mode… and so much more! So how do we go about learning how a camera works and remembering when to do what, especially if our goal is wildlife photography when opportunities for perfect shots presents themselves randomly and fleetingly, often accompanied with pumping adrenaline and seldom a second chance.

Here in Africa we have a saying: How do you eat an elephant? Well … bite by bite. It’s the only way. Get started and get to know your equipment backwards, sideways, up and down, but do so systematically and step by step. Keep on practicing until you can strip it in the dark, until you can assemble it under pressure, until your muscle memory kicks in and you can automatically, without conscious thought, let your fingers slide over exposure and focus controls, fine tuning settings while your mind is anticipating the next twist of the action unfolding in the viewfinder.

The goal

Remember the goal of photography is to expose the sensor to the right amount of focused light reflected from our subjects.

Therefore the core systems we have to master and understand early on are exposure and focusing. Whereas we can also practice composition or framing, it's more of an art and a skill, which we'll learn once we examine the outcomes. So, start by experimenting with exposure related settings, buttons and dials. For those of you who had the privilege of being exposed to film, concepts such as f/stop and film speed won't be completely foreign, and you will recognize the digital equivalents easily. If not, your learning curve will be a bit steeper and you will have to find ways to familiarize yourselves with the strange aperture scale and its relationship with shutter speeds, ISO and exposure values (EV). It is easy (and in my opinion it helps) to memorize the full f/ stop scale. Do so by thinking of it as two alternating, doubling series - 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 1.4, 2.8, 5.6, 11, 22 - order them in sequence and that's it, you've memorized it. A good place to go for further reading is A Tedious Explanation of the f/stop. Now memorise the shutter speed and ISO scales as well, easy by comparison, and tell me it has not made life just that tiny bit easier!

The mastering process

Step1  -Take your camera, set it to manual exposure and manual ISO and play with it - watch how the light meter needle can be centered for different combinations of apertures and shutter speeds, bring manual ISO into the mix and watch how that affects exposure settings...concentrate on getting familiar with the dials and buttons needed to change the settings. Go back to your manual regularly and try and really understand what the purpose and function of every single control is.

Step2 - Find the histogram and the exposure meter and point your camera at different light combinations - pure sunlight on light coloured pavement; a mix of harsh sunlight and deep shadows, deep shadows only. Centre the needle each time and study the image. Observe the light areas and dark areas and try and understand. Google whatever confuses you, check the manual and observe again until you are certain you understand the principles. You are of course more than welcome to post questions and start discussion topics in the comments area below. I'll try and respond whenever I can within the constraints of my day job.

Step3  - change to auto ISO and watch how nothing happens when you move the aperture or shutter speed dials! What has just happened? Think it through and remember the effect for later use.

Step 4 - find the exposure compensation adjustment controls and use them. Take a series of shots of the same subject at different levels of compensation. Observe the effect on the image and the histogram.

Step 5 - change from manual to shutter speed priority auto and repeat steps 1 to 4, then change to aperture priority and repeat steps 1 to 4  again. Finally do it for Programme auto mode.

Step 6 - find the various buttons, switches, dials and mechanisms that adjusts, controls and manages everything related to focus - some are on the camera, others on the lens. Start with the focus points set to auto-selection, observe what it does and never ever  use it again! I'm serious. Explore the various auto-focus modes, learn the difference between what initially sounds like the same thing, and practice changing between single point, 9 point, 3D etc. Find the control to select continuous focus, find out how focus lock works.

Step 7 - Study the cameras' menu - really study it with the aid of the manual and the internet if needed and familiarise yourself with the key settings related to exposure and to focus.

Typically choose a topic for your practice session, google it, read your camera's manual, find the relevant menu settings, try out each in turn, study the resultant effects on your camera's display, on your computer screen and on the histogram. Experiment, practice, play and learn from it, but most importantly let your fingers do the learning! It is essential that you become so familiar with the exposure and focus related controls that you can adjust EV for example up or down ⅔ of a stop without taking your eye from the viewfinder.
Spend a day or so inside your viewfinder - yes you heard right, inside. It's astonishing how many long-time photographers don't bother to use the many indicators available around the focus screen. Learn what those dots, bars and numbers are, learn what they tell you and learn how to adjust them without removing your eye from the viewfinder. Master this and you are well on your way to move up the ladder from a novice to an keen amateur.

Rehearse what you've learnt previously every day and devise simple little exercises to practice the concepts over and over again. Pets, your kids at play and the action at your local sports field are perfect opportunities to practice and hone the skills you need for wildlife action. Take hundreds of practice shots, study the exposure and especially the focus. Keep on practicing until you are able to pick up the camera, adjust the exposure and  fire of a sequence of frames which are all in focus and all well exposed. Keep your camera in your hand whenever you can, test yourself by finding without looking, the various controls related to exposure and focus. If you are fortunate enough to own more than one lens, don't forget to practice changing lenses and do the above exercises with each of your lenses.

Don't run before you walk

At this early stage don't lock yourself into a specific school of thought, keep an open mind and if you stumble across contentious issues in your research, such as the expose to the left / expose to the right debate for example - try and remain neutral for now and just figure out how to do both. Later when you are out with your camera try-out and master both approaches, and only much later determine which approach works best under what circumstances. Always keep an open mind, apply your own logic to information posted on the web. If you cannot figure the logic out from first principles, go back and research the basic concepts again. Just be careful on the Internet and be aware that it often contains information that is just plain wrong or often represents the views of people with narrow interests or insufficient understanding of the basic underlying concepts. Therefore, especially until you have sufficient own experience to recognize nonsense, stick to reputable sources and authors. In this regard it's important that you understand the type of photography a specific author specializes in before you blindly follow their advice. Personally I'm happy to learn from the many many master photographers who willingly and freely share their vast knowledge and experience while I avoid sites that charge membership fees or begs for donations. Check out this site's info page, link on the nav bar at the top,  where I've provided a few useful links to sites I find useful.

Be an Owl, not a Parrot

The best advice I can give you is not to try and memorise pages of settings. Sounds strange but it's true. If you memorise settings by rote, you often do not understand why and how things work and you cannot ever remember settings for all possible variations. It's much better to spend a bit more time at first to struggle with and master the underlying concepts, and then you have the ability to apply logic to a situation and adjust settings accordingly. Understanding the basic principles will also assist in understanding the limitations of your equipment, which in turn will allow you to work on the edge of what is possible and so to extract that extra bit of performance from your kit that will astound your friends with much more expensive gear, but without the skills to use it properly.

However, at the risk of contradicting myself, there is one set of settings you should try and remember - I call them my baseline settings, and it's the solid ground I return to every time I've had to radically change settings for whatever reason. I have dedicated  a whole post to this topic - see here.

What to expect in Part 2

In the next post in this series we will discuss the wildlife photography basics relating to exposure, focusing and composition in a bit more detail.

In the mean time have fun and remember to take care out there - it's lion country.
Kind regards
Georg Hofmeyr
April 2015; Kruger National Park
South Africa


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