Imagine this: You’re on a photo tour with me in British Columbia, soaking in the gorgeous early morning light as we search a Chilcotin lake for grizzly bears. We round a corner on the still waters and there she is, the beautiful golden grizzly we photographed the night before, meandering along the shoreline in the distance with her three big cubs in tow. Since we’ve already got so many great shots of the family, you manage to contain your excitement this time around and secretly congratulate yourself on not prematurely firing off a hundred frames while we’re still a half a kilometre away. Instead, you calmly eye up the scene and begin getting your gear ready in the hopes that the bears will once again let us get closer in the boat.
Suddenly, you hear me exclaim, “Oh, that’s nice!” And you’re startled to see my big lens rise up, despite being half a kilometre away, and start machine-gunning off a series of shots. You suddenly realize that the mom and cub have sauntered out into the water in front of a drop-dead beautiful backdrop of golden poplar trees and within seconds you’re firing away alongside me.
The next day, after a fun night of downloads and “oohs” and “aahs” at the sweet portfolio of new pics you’ve accumulated in the first three days, you casually mention to me that you’re happy with your shots, though those “long distance ones with the great background” didn’t turn out.
I take a second and momentarily consider banishing you from the rest of the tour, but instead decide to pull you aside and go over a few of the tricks and techniques I use for long distance wildlife photography. If any of you have done much shooting of animals at a distance before, then you’ll know just how hard it is to get your subjects sharp in the photo. This is primarily because even our most advanced auto focus systems have difficulty distinguishing a little bear family from a big tree 30 metres behind them or from a shadow in the water 20 metres in front of them when everything is far away (at “infinity” in camera terms).
The most obvious technique for capturing sharp shots of objects that appear small at a distance is to increase your aperture as much as you’re comfortable with and as much as the conditions allow. Ideally, we want an aperture range of ƒ8-ƒ11 with our big lenses to noticeably increase our depth-of-field and provide some leeway in case our auto focus points don’t lock on to the subject accurately. It can be difficult to determine if your AF points are locking on to a small subject when you’re squinting through a viewfinder, so any additional depth-of-field is a big bonus. However, as I’ve stressed numerous times in previous columns, you have to make your shutter speed your first priority in wildlife photography, normally aiming for a minimum of 1/250th-1/400th of a second to compensate for an animal’s subtle movements even when it appears to be motionless. In the case of shooting long distance subjects, shutter speed takes on even more significance because any tiny movement from the animal or from you gets magnified even further. As a result, when I’m photographing wildlife at a distance I always bump my shutter speeds up to a minimum of 1/500th off a tripod and at least 1/800th while hand-holding or shooting from a boat.
Another trick of the trade that I often employ for long distance shooting involves changing my AF Area Selection mode to the finest AF point that I can choose, which is called Single-Point Spot AF on high-end Canon cameras (for lower-end models use Single-Point AF) and Single-Point AF on Nikon cameras. This allows me to pinpoint a very specific spot to auto focus on, rather than a broader area or series of AF points in your viewfinder that can trip up your AF and cause it to focus on a rock or branch instead of the wild beast you want to capture. For those of you shooting high-end Canon cameras, the difference between Single-Point AF mode and Single-Point Spot AF mode is substantial when shooting subjects at a distance, so make yourself familiar with how to change to Spot AF mode quickly and easily.
If I think my camera is still having trouble focusing correctly — for instance, if I’m photographing an animal at a distance in a field and notice that the camera’s AF system is having trouble distinguishing the subject from the surrounding grass — I will quickly zoom in on the image on my camera’s LCD screen and check the focus. If I find that it’s not sharp, then I sometimes switch to Live View mode and manually fine-tune the focusing on my subject. Alternatively, I also occasionally try focusing on an object in the same focus plane as the animal if the AF is having trouble picking up the animal itself. For example, I’ll focus on a tree off to the left in the field that looks like it’s in the same plane of focus as the animal, recompose my shot, and then take it.
Generally the more steady you can make your lens, the better chance you’ll have of capturing sharp wildlife at long distances. Whenever possible, I pull out my tripod and use it as a solid base to ensure I’m not getting any movement from my lens or camera that can affect the crispness of the final image.
And while all of these techniques are critical in combination to get sharp shots with your big lens when you’re photographing long distance creatures, you’ll also find them invaluable when you’re shooting with your smaller telephoto zoom lenses (the 70-200s, 80-400s, etc.), particularly if you’re trying to place an animal in some habitat and are making them a less significant part of the shot. In such cases, increasing your aperture and changing your AF Area Selection mode will result in a much higher ratio of sharp shots versus out-of-focus ones.