Over the past few issues, we’ve covered how to use shutter speeds to achieve razor-sharp, in-focus pictures, regardless of whether you’re shooting stationary or moving wildlife either handholding, using a beanbag, or best of all, using a tripod. Now it’s time to discuss several additional tips and techniques to increase the odds that your wildlife photos end up in your “keeper” folder and not pinned under the “Delete” key because they’re out of focus.
Most wildlife photographers already know that the key to a sharp photograph is to have defined eyes on your main subject. In other words, if you have a picture of a grizzly bear, then in most cases, the grizzly bear’s eyes should be in perfect focus to make the photo a keeper.
However, it’s easier said than done to get sharp eyes in all of your photos. While fast shutter speeds are a key component of a focused shot, sharpness is often where depth-of-field can come into play again. For instance, if you raise your aperture/F-stop (often by simultaneously raising your ISO) without lowering your shutter speeds to unacceptable levels, then you’ll automatically get more leeway with how much of your subject is in focus in your photographs.
Unfortunately, increasing your depth-of-field still doesn’t guarantee a sharp image, and it ignores the fact there are often times in wildlife photography where we don’t want to have much depth-of-field (we want a low F-stop) in order to blur out our backgrounds.
So this leads us to two other key components in achieving sharp photographs. First, wildlife photographers need to be cognizant of exactly what they’re focusing on. Just randomly pointing at a squirrel doesn’t mean that the eye of the squirrel will be well defined, so it’s critical that photographers spend the extra millisecond and actually choose an area to focus on. Ideally, it will be the animal’s eyes, but if that’s too small to see through your viewfinder, then you should take great pains to be sure you’re focusing on the animal’s head or its body rather than on the twig that’s beside your subject.
Too many wildlife photographers panic in great situations (“Wowsers, is that an Ogopogo?!!”) and resort to a frazzled point-and-shoot mentality that often results in something other than your main subject being in focus. So take a moment, breathe, and then focus and compose.
Second, it’s important in terms of your quantity of sharp keepers to know exactly how your camera’s auto focus selection points are set up and used. One of the most common mistakes beginner and intermediate wildlife photographers make is to allow their camera to select the AF points for them. Your camera may be a sophisticated tool, but it usually has no idea which AF point it’s supposed to choose from and it’s just as likely to focus on a bird’s butt (or a nearby blade of grass) as it is on its eyes. For this reason, I always maintain complete control over my AF points (I usually just use a single AF point) and have learned to move them around quickly so that I can focus exactly where I want to focus.
If you shoot in fog, rain or falling snow, you will likely discover sooner than later that even the best AF systems can fail in these situations. It can be extremely difficult to pinpoint an eye or head for your AF points to lock onto in difficult weather, so two potential workarounds are to find a nearby edge to focus on (either the edge of the animal or a bright, defined edge of a log or rock that appears to be at the same distance as the animal), or to switch over to manual focus and, if you have time, use Live View to fine tune your focus.
Follow these tips and you’ll have fewer soft images hitting the cutting room floor.
To read more of John E. Marriott's "Wild Side" column, please pick up the January 2013 issue of OPC today!