Best Camera Settings for Photographing Wildlife

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There are a tonne of ways to photograph wildlife, however here are some settings which will help you get great images of wildlife using your mirrorless camera. We will talk about focus methods, camera button lay out and some tips to get some top notch wildlife pictures.

If you ask 10 professional wildlife photographers for the best camera settings for wildlife photography, you might get 10 slightly different answers, so this guide can be used to give you a good idea of where to start and get comfortable with photographing wildlife.

motion blur

Button Configurations

You would have heard about back button focus, and all this means is, a button on the back of the camera will lock focus and separate the focus and shutter release function of the main shutter button. You can change one of the rear buttons to “AF ON” mode using your camera’s button layout options.

Using back button focus has many many use cases and it’s great for wildlife. However new style long lenses from all of the big brands have additional buttons on the lens barrel itself. These buttons can normally be configured to help with many different scenarios, and great for those left and right handed.

Instead of setting the rear buttons to “AF ON”, I set the button on the left of the lens to do the same function, this means I get more options to set a focus toggle on the back of the camera so my lens hand isn’t wasted, doing nothing.

I then set up one of the rear buttons to switch focus modes, or focus areas. For example. Wide Area Large mode and/or wide area Small Focus Area mode work great, making a button to toggle between the two is a great way to be “ready for anything.

The difference is with these modes the focus box doesn’t move unless you move it…but animal/eye/face detect is still working inside the focus box area. If you can track a fast moving object in this mode, the camera will have less surface area to search. I also make a toggle between Wide Area Large mode and/or 3D tracking in the Nikon Z9. Again gives me the choice to easily change when I’m shooting fast moving wildlife or larger slower mammals without diving in menus.

Photography settings for wildlife

Auto Focus

Using the Auto Focus of any camera is vital to getting a successful shot, however there are many many ways to “kick this can” down the road. To get AF to your own personal liking takes some trial and error, just like button layout every pro has their own set up.

Here are a few that I have found to give me a good rate of success.

For large “slow” moving subjects like grizzly bears, the AF-C or even AF-S would be absolutely fine without much chance of your hit rate dropping. Using a basic “large” focus box, or even if your camera has it, Animal AF would do the trick. Now there is also a nice trick using manual focus and not AF and that depends on your f/stop.

If you are a good distance away and shooting at f5.6 and smaller, you can set your AF and switch to manual, focus peaking will help if you have it to make sure your subject is in focus. Why use manual focus ? Well the benefit here is you don’t have to use any back button lock or alike to fire off a shot, which is really helpful for fast moving subjects, such as a grizzly bear fishing in a waterfall or river. For action this is my preferred method. Again this only works if you are fully aware of the distance and any changes that may happen while releasing the shutter. You may have to “ride the ring” and adjust your focus ring slightly and focus peaking can help here, however its best to be fully aware of your focal distance at all times. 

Even the fastest AF system around can or could cause you to miss your shot, so using manual is a brilliant way to override that assuming you’re all set up, and want to ignore any additional button presses.

Another way to avoid the camera AF “breathing” is to set your camera to release the shutter as a priority over the AF system. Almost all cameras in the midrange and above have some kind of override.

wildlife photography guide

Shutter / ISO / Aperture Settings

The trinity of camera settings are all relative to your subject, amount of available light and how fast you need your shutter to be. Locking the aperture to how much light available and checking hyperfocal distances, however there is come creative license here.

In “fluid” situations it’s wise to set an upper limit for your ISO range, normally the most you will be happy with / your camera’s performance limit. Setting the ISO this way is great for situations where the light may change quickly or you are shooting from light to dark. Let the camera do the work so you don’t have to worry about underexposure.

Shutter speed is clearly dependent on your subject, the faster the subject the faster the shutter needed. You can always drag the shutter and slow down if you’re wanting to include some motion blur while panning with your subject. Adds some creativity.

Almost all of these methods can apply to many forms of high pressure photography, such as underwater or even up in the air. I like to use almost all when I have an extreme environment to deal with when I want to think about framing my shot while fighting the elements; less thinking about my camera settings. 

Push Pull Technique

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