5 Mistakes To Avoid When Photographing Wildlife

Cedar Waxwing - 5 Mistakes To Avoid When Photographing Wildlife

Wildlife photography can be extremely challenging. Often times we photographers add to these challenges by making critical errors resulting in missed opportunities. In order to put the odds in your favour for capturing an image of a lifetime, avoid making these common mistakes.

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By having my lens cap off and my camera turned on, I was ready to capture this Bald Eagle as it quickly passed by overhead.

1. Not Being Prepared

If you are not ready for the shot before it presents itself, you are going to miss it. Several things fall into the category of not being prepared all of which will cause you to miss potential images. Preparation should always begin at home the night before heading out for a day of shooting. First, make sure your camera’s battery is charged and your memory card has enough room to accommodate plenty of images. I always charge my battery the night before and have at least two empty memory cards for every shoot. Second, when you arrive at your destination turn your camera on and remove your lens cap. Often times I see people walking around with the power off and their lens caps on in fear of draining their battery or damaging the front element of their lens. The fact is if you have to power up your camera and remove your lens cap before taking a shot, in most cases you are going to miss the shot.

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When shooting in automatic mode, your camera calculates exposure based on available light. Unfortunately, your camera does not know your subject and whether or not it is moving often resulting in a shutter speed that is too slow.

2. Shooting In Automatic Mode

Most photographers start out shooting in automatic mode after purchasing their first camera. In this mode the camera chooses the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO resulting in a decent exposure based on the amount of available light. This is a great way to get comfortable with a new camera, but if you want to up your game when it comes quality wildlife photos the faster you get out of automatic mode the better. The reason why automatic mode is not the best choice for quality wildlife images is the camera does not know your subject and whether it is moving or stationary and only calculates the exposure based on light. This often results in a shutter speed that is too slow to freeze wildlife in action. These slow shutter speeds lead to blurry images destined for the recycle bin. Shooting in either aperture priority mode or manual mode gives you more control of your exposure and allows you to factor in both light and subject to achieve a sufficient shutter speed which will result in sharper final images.

Red Tailed Hawk - 5 Mistakes To Avoid When Photographing Wildlife

A fast shutter speed is required to capture birds in flight. Increasing your ISO will result in a faster shutter speed.

3. Shooting At Too Low An ISO

Increasing your ISO will consequently lead to a faster shutter speed, something that is crucial for capturing sharp images of fast moving wildlife. Granted a higher ISO will result in more digital noise, but I personally have deleted more images due to a shutter speed that was too slow than I have ones that were too noisy. Digital noise can be removed in post production, but shutter speed can never be increased once you return home. I rarely shoot below ISO 800 even on sunny days when photographing birds and other wildlife because this value gives me the shutter speed I need to freeze fast moving subjects. Many folks are afraid to shoot at an ISO above 400 due the increased noise, but bumping this up to 800 will result in sharper images because of the faster shutter speed while the slight increase in noise can be removed in post.

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Choosing a single focus point and placing it on this chickadee’s eye ensured I achieved focus on the subject and not the surrounding branches.

4. Choosing Too Many Focus Points

Many cameras today have sophisticated auto focus systems with as many as 65 focus points. This can be a benefit in some scenarios but can also be a hindrance in others. In many situations when photographing wildlife in their natural habitat obstructions come into play. Branches, grasses, and even human made objects within the habitat can cause your camera to focus on them rather than the subject if too many focus points are selected. For this reason I almost always choose a single focus point and place it on my subject.

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Focusing on your subject’s eye will result in sharper images.

5. Improper Focus

How many times have you taken a photo and when you got home and opened it up on your computer the subject is out of focus? Unfortunately, this happens to a lot of us for many reasons. Sometimes it has to do with mistake #4 where too many focus points were chosen and the camera locked onto an object in the foreground or background that wasn’t the subject. Other times it may have been a case of not holding the focus point on the subject. Placing a single focus point on the subject’s eye will result in sharper final images, because let’s face it, when the eye is sharp the image is sharp.

Next time you venture out to photograph wildlife avoid these common mistakes. By doing so, your chances of capturing an image of a lifetime will be greatly increased.

Good birding,
Paul

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