Wildlife Lesson #1 – Getting Tack Sharp Shots

Over the years, I’ve received numerous emails from amateur wildlife photographers disappointed in the sharpness of their wildlife images and wondering what my secret is. I can clearly remember how frustrated and disappointed I felt when I started shooting wildlife, so I thought this would make an excellent topic for a Monday post.

To begin with, let’s go over the basic settings I use on all my Canon DSLR cameras when photographing birds. In the past eight years I’ve used many different Canon DSLRs (and the Nikon D300 for a short time) from their “Digital Rebel” series (350D) to their “prosumer” series (40D, 50D, 60D) and their high-end series (5D, 5D Mark II, 7D and 5D Mark III) and even their professional series (1D Mark V) and the basics for shooting birds are all very similar on all Canon DSLRs.

Birds in Flight
Shutter Priority (Tv)
Shutter Speed 1/500th or faster
Center AF Point
Evaluative or Spot Metering
ISO 100 – ISO 400 to obtain a 1/500th minimum shutter speed
AI Servo Mode using Back Button Focus (allows me to switch between One Shot and AI Servo)
High Speed Burst
Image Stabilization turned ON – Mode 2 (Panning)

Birds in Water
Aperture Priority (Av)
Aperture Between f/5.6 & f/7.1
Center AF Point
Evaluative or Spot Metering
ISO 100 – ISO 400 to obtain a 1/250th minimum shutter speed
One Shot Mode / High Speed Burst
Image Stabilization turned ON – Mode 1 (Normal)

Camera and Lens Stability
Most out of focus or “soft” focus images are caused by camera shake. This is very common when shooting with telephoto zooms racked out all the way, even if the lens has an image stabilization system. It is rarely caused by subject movement unless you are shooting birds in flight. In my opinion (after shooting with telephoto lenses for the past 35 years) that it’s almost impossible to hand-hold a shot using a lens over 300mm and come away with better than one in fifty shots in perfect focus. However, a good camera/lens support system can really help. I generally use a Gitzo Monopod / RRS Monopod Solution setup when shooting birds on the water or flying below tree-top level. This simple setup allows the image stabilization system in the lens to do its “magic” and get me about 20% – 30% of my shots in perfect focus.

Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction Lenses
Almost all telephoto zoom lenses include some form of image stabilization built in these days and this technology has become essential to achieving tack sharp wildlife images. cameratechnica published a great article about this topic entitled The Science of Image Stabilization Technology a few years ago which includes one of the best explanations and video demonstrations of this technology that I’ve ever seen. It’s well worth a quick look!

Depth of Field
The second largest cause of “soft” focused images is due to insufficient depth of field. Most folks don’t realize that the depth of field of a 500mm lens at f/5.6 (even when used with a crop-body camera like the EOS 50D or the new EOS 7D) is about 3 inches. This means that you can focus perfectly on the center of a duck’s body in the water and the eye facing you may not be tack sharp. Due to this factor, I switch to Aperture Priority (Av) mode when shooting birds on the water and place the focus point directly on the bird’s eye. I will also shoot at f/7.1 to provide more depth of field and increase my ISO setting to compensate. By the way, shooting birds is exactly the same as shooting portraits. If the eyes are in perfect focus, you’ve “technically” achieved a good shot. If the eyes are not in focus, no one will look at your image.

Two Examples
Before we go any further I want to illustrate just how difficult it can be to get a high percentage of tack sharp shots of wildlife, especially birds.

The first shot below is the same image I posted a few years ago of this solitary Teal swimming. I took this shot with a Canon 7D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender with the lens mono-pod mounted with image stabilization set to Mode 1 (normal). The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/160th of a second at ISO 200. The first image was the third of six shots taken during a one second high-speed burst.

Tack Sharp Teal

Image #1: Looks Sharp and Is Sharp

The second image was the fourth of six shots in the same sequence, taken less than 1/6th of a second later and it too “looks” sharp but in fact, the Teal’s eye and head are blurred slightly.

Not So Sharp Teal

Image #2: Looks Sharp But Really Isn’t

Here are the 100% crops from both images and as you can see the first image really is tack sharp while the second image, taken less than 1/6th of a second later isn’t.

Tack Sharp EyeNot So Sharp Eye and Head

Even with the best technique and the latest cameras, most wildlife photographers only get a 20% – 30% hit rate for perfectly focused shots of birds. Birds are perhaps the most difficult subject to photograph and it takes hours and hours of practice to perfect your techniques. A simple method to get more bird shots in focus is to take more bird shots. Use your camera’s high-speed burst mode when photographing birds. The more shots you take, the better the odds are that you’ll come away with a few really nice images.

Resources
Arthur Morris (BirdsAsArt.com) is probably the best bird photographer in the world today using Canon gear and his web site, books and blog are full of great information on photographing birds. Moose Peterson, a Nikon shooter, is also well known for his wildlife photography and his blog and books are exceptional resources for any wildlife photographer.

Final Thoughts
When reading any blog about photography, remember that most authors generally post their best images. You don’t get to see the hundreds or thousands of shots they culled though to find the really nice shots they finally posted. So don’t be discouraged when you return home from an outing to find that 90% of your shots aren’t great. Neither are 90% of ours!

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4 thoughts on “Wildlife Lesson #1 – Getting Tack Sharp Shots

  1. Very informative article. I am wondering if you shoot in .RAW or .JPG, or both? I have the Canon T2i and 6D. I generally use the T2i and a Sigma HSM IS 150-500mm, f/5-6.3, for bird photography. I prefer the EFL (800mm) of the crop sensor with that lens over the 6D.
    I am a novice to photography (little over 1 year), so I chose the most difficult subject, birds, as a way of challenging myself. Because I am still perfecting my skill level, I shoot .JPG. I have tried .RAW but due to the large file size and the number of rapid continuous shots I take, the buffer in the T2i gets bogged down and I end up missing shots. I am interested in your thoughts on .RAW vs .JPG, specifically for bird images. Look forward to you reply. Great blog, BTW.

  2. Tremendous article Jeff! I especially appreciated the tip about focussing on the eyes! Now .. what if one has a lens withoit image stabiiization – such as a non IS EF-300? 🙂

    All the best,

    Matthew

    • Matthew,

      The same principles apply but your shutter speed is critical. The old rule of thumb for sharp images was to keep your shutter speed equal to 1/focal length. For example using a 300 mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/300th of a second.

      Jeff

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