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#Howto setup your camera for wildlife photography; the base settings

Wildlife photography is a process of learning numerous skills and gaining experience to apply the right skills at the right moment. It takes time to master this process. For a starter desiring more control than the automatic modes of the camera, it can be frustrating. I personally found the learning process fascinating. 

Often people ask me: “What settings did you use for the photo?”. I am always willing to share. However giving the settings of my “final image” is not very useful. The process towards the final image is. 

The optimal settings depend on many factors. A photo at night for example has a different approach than a photo in bright daylight. Also during the day it can be cloudy, sunny or you can be in a dark forest. There are many variables when it comes to light. Other factors can be how fast the subject is moving and even the gear you are using. A full frame body might need another aperture than a crop body and then there are so many possible lenses to use. All of my example images were created with a full frame camera. 

To make this guide more practical I will provide base settings to start with. From there you can follow steps to adapt to the situation, and work towards the final image. This is the process. I have two base settings for different situations. I will explain an “available light base setting” and a “night (or artificial light) base setting”. 

Asp Viper – ISO 100 – 100mm – F11 – 1/200

Goals

The goals of this guide are to provide base settings to start with, give insights in the effects of changing settings and get you started with “your own process towards the optimal settings”. Ultimately I hope this will help you to become a better photographer.
This guide is divided in two chapters.
#1 The base settings
#2 The process

The lenses 

For wildlife photography, focussing on amphibians and reptiles, there are some “most favourable lenses”. This guide focuses on a telelens for in-situ images and a real macro lens. I use a 100mm macro myself. 

In my gear guide I have put a comprehensive list of recommendations . 

#1 The base settings

Available light base setting

Available light means that the photographer uses the light that is given. This is also called natural light. In wildlife photography this often means using sunlight. 

Most of the time I use available light for skittish wildlife, like many lizard species. For this kind of photography I prefer my telelens. Sometimes an animal allows me to come within close-up or macro distance (closer than 50cm). Often I will change to my macro lens and controlled light (flash). Naturally available light is also an option at macro distance. 

Western Green Lizard – ISO 1600 – 400mm – F5.6 – 1/200 

Using available light can be very challenging. Every situation is unique and can change rapidly. 

Clouds, for example, diffuse the light and improve the quality of the photo. However it makes the photo darker if you do not change the settings. Shadows of trees also reduce the available light significantly. Not changing the settings makes the photo underexposed, which means that your photo is too dark. 

Another challenge of available light photography is that wildlife might surprise you by a sudden appearance. You might have to respond quickly or the moment might be gone. 

A natural behaviour is that animals, like lizards, move into the shadows. Thinking of the right ISO, shutter speed and aperture will take too much time, unless you have an exposure meter in your brains. 

Caucasian Agama – ISO 500 – 400mm – F5.6 – 1/320

Having the right exposure in changing light, with wildlife appearing and disappearing is nearly impossible. Responding instantly is mandatory. Therefore I use my “available light base setting”. 

The settings

Mode

Use the manual mode (M). This gives all the control over the aperture and shutter speed you need. As a photographer I want to control as many variables as possible. This is not possible in one of the automatic modes. 

Ocellated Lizard – ISO 400 – 400mm – F5.6 – 1/320

ISO 

Using auto-ISO in the manual mode (M) is the key to a fast response. Auto-ISO makes sure the exposure is still right when you change the aperture or shutter speed. 

Having the ISO set too high is not desirable. At higher ISO noise will appear. Noise looks grainy, especially in the darker parts of the photo. This is not noticeable on small screens, but at full screen or on large prints it might ruin the image for you. 

In the camera menu there is an option to setup the range of the auto-ISO. Search for the auto-ISO settings in the menus. This can be different for every camera model. Use the manual of your camera for specific instructions. 

Guyanan Red Howler – ISO 100 – 400mm – F5.6 – 1/400

How to choose the right range of your auto-ISO

Choosing the right range depends on the camera model. The range I choose always starts with the lowest ISO of the camera. The lowest ISO, also called “base ISO”, has the best sharpness, details and the least noise. 

To choose the maximum of the range you will have to find out the highest ISO that still gives good results with your camera model. 

To help you find out the “maximum of the range” I recommend you to go to the sensor database of DxOMark. Search for your camera and check the number they give for sports photography. The number indicates that this ISO gives acceptable results on a fairly large print. Setup the maximum of the range below the “sports photography ISO” DxOMark gives. I prefer an even lower maximum ISO, like ISO 800.

ISO 100-800 is my preferred auto-ISO range. My camera can handle much higher according to DxOMark, but the image quality worsens significantly above ISO 800 (like most cameras). Newer cameras than my Canon 5D Mark 3 might do it better at higher ISOs. However the most advanced cameras of this moment also perform optimal at the lowest ISO setting. The higher ISOs are just more “acceptable” in newer cameras. 

In critical moments, when in need of extra sensitivity, I can increase the maximum ISO of my range to the number DxOMark gives. 

If you decide to push the ISO even higher, find out what ISO is still acceptable to you. In the end you are the photographer making the choices. 

Source: DxOMark – My Canon 5D Mark III scores 2293 ISO. That means that the images with ISO 2000 would still be usable. On the popular Canon 7D Mark II it is 1082. That means that ISO 1000 on your camera would be usable.
Source: DxOMarkThe higher the ISO, the more noise appears. What is acceptable noise is personal. DxOMark gives an indication.

Aperture 

Use F8 as the base setting. This aperture makes sure you will have most of the animal in focus. If you have an acceptable photo (very subjective), and you want a more blurred background, then choose a lower F-number (to F5.6 for example). If you want less blur, the increase the F-number (to F11 for example).

When I use my telelens and the scene is dark I start with the widest aperture as base setting. On my Canon 100-400 II the widest aperture on 400mm is F5.6.

Sand Lizard – ISO 500 – 100mm – F5.6 – 1/400
This photo is from 2016. Back then I strictly used available light for in-situ photography. I also gave priority to the shutterspeed. Now, in 2019, I would have chosen a slower shutterspeed to have a lower ISO.

When all other settings remain the same a lower F-number will overexpose (too much light) the photo and a higher F-number will underexpose (too little light) the photo. The auto-ISO will compensate for the change in exposure caused by changing the aperture. 

When the image becomes too dark, at dusk for example, you can increase the maximum of the auto-ISO range. It is better to choose a lower F-number first, if a blurred background is fine for you. Increasing the ISO will reduce the image quality. 

Tip: The optimal aperture setting of your lens

All lenses have an optimal aperture setting. On this aperture setting the lens has the best image quality in the center and corners of the image. Images are much sharper with less errors. 

To find out the optimal aperture visit DxOMark again and look for the lens database. Find your lens, and combine this with your camera (if possible). Look for the aperture with the highest rating for sharpness and the best for errors. Most lenses have the optimal performance at F8. The apertures around F8 are still close to optimal. I recommend using a range between F6.3 and F11. Use lower apertures, if the lens allows you to, when you need to capture more light (because it gets darker) or if you want more “blur”. A blurred foreground or background is a creative decision you could make. 

I personally only go above F11 at macro distances with artificial light or with my wide angle for landscape photography. With a telelens higher than F11 apertures are unnecessary. You will capture far less light and the quality for the lens will reduce significantly (because of what is called diffraction). Only creative long exposures justify the use of those high apertures. 

Source: DxOMark – The reason I prefer not to go higher than F11 on my macrolens is that the sharpness reduces and aberrations appear above F11.
Source: DxOMarkThe same principle applies to my telelens. Under F11 it performs the best. Most of the time I use this Canon 100-400 II between F5.6 and F8.

Shutter speed 

The preferred base setting for shutter speed depends on the focal length. When I use 300mm I have my shutter speed set at 1/300 or faster. When I use 400mm my shutter speed starts preferably at 1/400 or faster. 

When the image is too dark, even at the maximum of your auto-ISO range, adjust to a slower shutter speed. There will be a risk of unsharp photos because the effect of your own movement becomes noticeable. Modern lenses have very good image stabilisation to compensate for the movement of the photographer. This ensures sharp images with slower shutter speeds without having to use a tripod. 

Sand Lizard – ISO 100 – 188mm – F7.1 – 1/80
On this photo I used 1/80 to use a “creative effect”.

When an image is too dark, it is preferable to lower the F-number first. If the image is still too dark, you can choose a higher ISO (if you want to “freeze” a moving animal) or a slower shutter speed (for static wildlife). If this is not sufficient, increasing the ISO and lower the shutter speed at the same time is an option. At some point it is too dark for available light photography and changing to artificial light is recommended. A tripod can postpone that moment.

Burrowing Owl – ISO 2000 – 400mm – ISO 2000 – F5.6 – 1/160
This photo was taken without tripod, but with image stabilization on.

Autofocus

The base setting for autofocus is the SERVO or AF-C (continuous). Wildlife is unpredictable and this af-setting allows you to follow a moving animal. This af-setting is also helpful to keep focus on a static animal when you are moving forwards or backwards.

Tip: How to get the ISO as low as possible with auto-ISO with static wildlife 

The lower the ISO the higher the quality of the photo. When the camera is set on auto-ISO, the camera decides the ISO based on available light. 

I will illustrate this tip with an example. In this example I am photographing a static lizard. He is basking on a rock and I am using my telelens on 400mm. My base settings are F8, 1/400 and auto-ISO. I can read the ISO on top of my camera. It says ISO 800. 

After getting some initial photos I have decided to change my settings for the better, because the static lizards allows me to. I want a lower ISO, because at ISO 800 noise begins to appear. I have two options to achieve this. 

The first option is to open the aperture. This means a lower F-number. I can change this to F5.6 and more light will reach the sensor when pressing the shutter button. While turning the wheel the ISO gets lower. A disadvantage could be that more of the fore- or background is blurred because of the reduced DOF. But if enough details of the lizard are still in focus it is a perfect way of reducing the ISO. 

Another option is to lower the shutter speed. The lizard is static so you don’t need to freeze the animal. I have started with 1/400 and with image stabilisation I can reduce the shutter speed to 1/300 and even 1/200. There is always a risk of an unsharp photo because of my own movement. That’s why I make sure that I make a lot of photos. There is always a sharp photo. 

Reducing the shutter speed is only useable for static wildlife. Reducing the aperture is usable for both static and moving wildlife.

Night (or artificial light) base setting

Most amphibians and reptiles can be found at night. At night there is no natural light and you will depend on artificial light. Using artificial light is a controlled situation with less variables. To get the best results with artificial light I recommend you to read my guide about flash photography. 

Demerara Falls Treefrog – ISO 100 – 100mm – F11 – 1/200

At nighttime you usually get closer to amphibians and reptiles than at daytime. At night I naturally use my macro lens. 

Needless to say this base setting also works for macro photography at daytime with artificial lightning. Sometimes wildlife allows you to come within macro range. 

Asp Viper – ISO 100 – 100mm – F5 – 1/200

The settings:

Mode

Use the manual mode (M). This gives all the control over the aperture and shutter speed you need. As a photographer I want to control as many variables as possible. This is not possible in one of the automatic modes.

Transcaucasian Long-nosed Viper – ISO 100 – 100mm – F14 – 1/200

ISO

ISO 100 is always the best choice for night photography. Every camera performs at its best at its base ISO. If the base ISO of your camera is lower, use the lower ISO. 

A reason to use a higher ISO than the base ISO in this controlled setting is to show more of the background at daytime for example. With ISO 100 the background is usually black, except when the sun is very bright and illuminates the background.

Sand Lizard – ISO 100 – 100mm – F11 – 1/200

Also here reducing the shutter speed, to make the background lighter, is still the favourable solution. If the shutter speed becomes too slow a tripod is recommended. 

Aperture

Use F11 on a full frame body and F8 on a crop body. At these apertures you have good depth of field and therefore enough parts of the animal in focus. 

Tiger-striped Leaf Frog – ISO 100 – 100mm – F11 – 1/200

From here you can adjust to get a bigger (higher F-number) or smaller (lower F-number) depth of field. 

The aperture setting determines the depth of field (DOF), and how much of the animal is in focus. 

The possible aperture changes also apply to available light photography.  

White-lined Leaf Frog – ISO 100 – 100mm – F14 – 1/200

Tip: Where to focus and DOF

Always (auto)focus on the eye of the animal, the eye should be in focus (sharp). Everything in front of the eye is out of focus (blurred) and everything behind the eye is out of focus (also blurred).

Everything that you put in focus is, “in line”, at the same distance from the camerasensor. Increasing the F-number makes this line thicker and more parts of the animal are in focus. Decreasing the F-number makes this line narrower. More of the animal will be out of focus (blurred).

Hoogmoed Harlequin Toad – ISO 100 – 100mm – F5 – 1/200

Tip: How to get a light background with artificial lightning

In most situations you use flash when you need more light. This means that the surroundings are often dark. This can make daylight photos with artificial light look like photos taken at night. This can be “creative” but not always desirable.

If you want a light background there are some options.
– Open the aperture. A lower F-number means more light on the camerasensor. This also means that you have to adjust and make the flash less powerful.
This was used on the above photo of the Hoogmoed Harlequin Toad.

– Use an higher ISO if you need the DOF (you want a sharp and non-blurred background). This also means that you have to adjust and make the flash less powerful.

– Use a slower shutterspeed. The image stabilization can handle slower shutterspeeds, but a tripod is often recommended.

– Use an extra off-camera flash to illuminate the background.

Asp Viper – ISO 100 – 100mm – F8 – 1/200

Shutterspeed

The best shutter speed is 1/200. This is the fastest Canon can do in normal flash modes. Nikon for example can do 1/250. The maximum speed can be found in the user manual of your camera. In high speed mode even faster shutter speeds are possible. This is not necessary. 1/200 compensates your own movement perfectly when using a macro lens. 

Anolis sp. – ISO 100 – 100mm – F4 – 1/500
On this photo I had to use a fast shutterspeed to compensate for the bright background. I had to use my flash to get some details on the head of the lizard.

Autofocus 

Use the “single shot”/AF-S mode on your camera. This mode seems to focus faster and more accurate in dim light. 

In some tricky situations, with many obstacles in the way, manual focus is recommended. 

#2 The process 

The base settings are a starting point. It gives a higher success rate of getting a sharp and well exposed photograph. However I recommend adjusting the settings to the situation after having an initial result. Adjusting the base settings to improve the photo is a process. Some wildlife gives you more time to try and adjust the settings to the situations. Other wildlife is gone after the first try. At least you will have a result by using the base settings.

Finding the optimal setting for the given situation is a process. Check your images on the back of the screen (and learn to read your histogram). This gives instant feedback on how to improve. 

Available light process 

  1. Setup the “available light base setting”
  2. Get some initial photos. 
  3. Review the photos to check the exposure and sharpness. 
  4. Adjust the settings if needed in this order a. aperture, b. shutter speed c. ISO. 
    This means that you first adjust the aperture, if that is not sufficient the shutter-speed, and if that is still not enough the ISO.
  5. If the animal is still there, make more photos with the improved settings. 
  6. If the animal allows you to, try different compositions. 

You might have to repeat step 4 and 5 until you get it right. The more experience you have the faster you get it right. 

Night (or artificial light) process

  1. Setup the “night base setting”. 
  2. Get some initial photos. 
  3. Review the photos to check the exposure and sharpness.
  4. Adjust the flash settings if needed. If you want the image to be lighter or darker adjust the power of the flash. Keep all other settings the same. 
  5. If the animal is still there, make more photos with the improved settings. 
  6. If the animal allows you to, try different compositions.

You might have to repeat step 4 and 5 until you get it right. The more experience you have the faster you get it right.

Pristimantis rasadoi – ISO 100 – 100mm – F18 – 1/200

I hope this guide helps you to become a better photographer and empower you to create images you weren’t able before. I hope that starting with the “base settings” and developing “the process towards the optimal settings” contributes to this. If yes, the goals of this guide have been achieved.

If you have questions about the “base settings” or if you want to go further and go “advanced”, feel free to contact me.

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© 2019 Nature & Wildlife Photography by Ronald Zimmerman

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