Speed freaks: Capturing wildlife action (Part one)
This is the first part of a two part series on capturing wildlife action. Watch out for part two next week.
Getting a pin-sharp animal action shot’s a lot less of a challenge these days with modern digital cameras’ excellent focus tracking, fast frame rates and high ISO capabilities. New tech that locks focus on a subject’s eye before you locate it yourself, or starts recording an action sequence before your reflexes fully react to it, is already looking to make once blue-ribbon nature shots of explosive interaction or the frozen-in-time wing-beats of fast-flying birds the stuff of everyday.
But while it’s certainly miles easier to achieve technically perfect images of a speeding creature than when we started out using film, it’s now becoming a lot more difficult to make your audience look twice because there’s such a slew of successful action shots around.
A ‘spray and pray approach’ might net okay results, but is unlikely to bag awards. Little more than a speed-record, a fine, crisp-as-toast animal action picture on its own is not quite going to cut it today.
So while it’s really great that today’s cameras have our backs when shooting wildlife action, we still find ourselves looking hard for that elusive wow factor to ensure our action images pack an extra punch.
Become a speed freak
Speed is of the essence. Don’t skimp on it when you’re shooting wildlife action. Animals and birds almost always move more quickly than you count on, so if your results aren’t sharp routinely it’s most likely you didn’t have enough shutter speed to start with.
Go for a higher speed than you reckon you’ll need rather than undercooking it when you start out. Shoot at wide apertures, even in bright conditions, and don’t be afraid (or forget!) to increase your ISO as light levels fall, to increase the shutter speed available to you – especially at the ends of the day.
When you get more proficient it’s always tempting to cut corners; you’re confident in your panning and tracking techniques and reluctant to increase ISO because you’re bothered about noise in your pictures.
In our experience on safari with other photographers there’s a bit of resistance to utilising the excellent capabilities at high ISO of leading DSLRs to the full, despite this being a feature they’ve shelled out for.
That can prove costly in more ways than one when you consider how few top-notch action sequences in nature are dress rehearsals. Rather a sharp shot with a bit of noise you can tweak in post processing than no photograph at all.
The big question of course is how fast is fast enough? Clearly, it’s going to vary according to your subject and the situation, but it’s obvious that the faster the subject the higher your shutter speed needs to be. A sprinting cheetah is Usain Bolt compared to a large raptor hovering, almost motionless, on the thermals.
While you can sometimes nail a super-sharp shot of slower moving subjects at shutter speeds of around 1/500sec, we’d recommend speeds of 1/800sec or 1/1000sec for a better starting point. For turbo-charged subjects, including small birds with fast wing-beats, you’ll need to be thinking more in terms of at least 1/2,000sec or 1/2,500sec.
Our own approach? Well, because we need to be on the alert for sudden action pretty much all of the time we’re out in the field we generally shoot wide open in aperture priority mode most of the time with our ISO at 800 (we will then adjust it down, or up as we go).
We use just a few centre-weighted focus points so we can keep better control where the camera locks on a moving subject – we’re aiming for the head or eye. And we use back-button focusing so we’re ready for a sudden burst of action even when shooting static subjects. We hand-hold too for most of our action shots so we can pan smoothly all around us; wherever the action breaks out.
A final word of caution. Never rush things – you’re much more likely to fumble and fluff it. You need to be smooth, calm and steady for the best results.
Predict the future
Successful wildlife photography’s all about anticipation. You’ll never nail great action shots if you don’t know what to expect next from the subject you’ve got your camera trained on. Handily there’s tons of stuff you can do to increase your chances of success without leaving home.
Read up and research your subject so you know its behaviour traits and characteristics. There’s lots of info online – including video - to brief you how your chosen subject looks and behaves when it moves; whether it’s flight patterns, wing motion, hunting strategies, attack modes and running strides, for example.
Pay particular attention to the behaviour cues that precede animal action – a perched bird will often ruffle its feathers and defecate before taking to the air, for example. If you can learn to read the signals your subject gives that it’s just about to move you are much more likely to get the shot.
A male lion drenched in a summer thunderstorm, for example, will almost always shake out the droplets from its mane when the shower stops, or leap over small water courses and puddles rather than get its paws wet. Antelope species are active early morning, leaping about and chasing and locking horns in tests of strength a bit like in a boxing gym…hippos yawn more towards sunset…raptors fly down to drink in the middle of the day…kingfishers have their hunting perches… Reading up on these things helps you discover where to look for the action and when it’s likely to happen.
Good fieldcraft will also alert you to other helpful factors like wind direction which is crucial if you’re serious about photographing birds in flight. Birds generally take off and land into the wind which gives you a helpful steer about which direction they’re likely to go. You can lock focus faster and compose your shot accordingly. It may mean seem a bit nerdy but you’re less likely to waste time on a subject that’s going to give you a bum shot (literally) when it flies off away from you.
Use the heads-up your subject gives you wisely. Be focused on it and ready to start firing on burst almost immediately after you’ve got the signal – but no sooner. This should allow you to capture the full sequence of behaviour. You can then hopefully sit back with a warm-glow at the editing stage deciding which frame best captures the peak of the performance.
Take the easy route
Given that nailing perfect animal action can still be tricky, even with today’s camera technology to assist you, we suggest you grab all the extra help you can to make things easier for yourself. You can dramatically increase your success rate, and get lots of important practise, by putting yourself in situations where animal action is plentiful and guaranteed rather than investing too much time in one subject that may or may not perform.
Wildlife-watching reveals many fascinating dynasties and dramas that play out in these situations providing you with a rich seam of potential for winning action shots. Breeding colonies and waterpoints, for example, where jostling crowds of animals or birds are likely to mass and come into direct conflict can be goldmines. Here you should find lots of busy wildlife behaviour from outright aggression to energetic or comic playfulness.
The aftermath of a lion kill when we’re on safari, for example, attracts a crazy cast of carrion-eaters to the stage once the big cats have departed. Each has its niche in the natural cycle of things and plays a scripted part you can soon learn to recognise and be ready for. It might start out mild-mannered, but like many a bar-room brawl it usually kicks-off royally sooner or later.
Situations like this make photographing action a whole lot simpler with abundant opportunities for great action pictures – and space enough to make mistakes while still coming away with keepers.
Make a beeline in these wildlife melees for the bruisers, bullies and all-round alphas that are likely to want to throw their weight around. Identify the young pretenders that want a piece of their action.
Watching animals over many years has shown us that there are lots of larger-than-life-personalities out there in nature and some individuals just want to make trouble or boss the show. Even if you come away with few pictures, which is unlikely, your appreciation for the animal kingdom will increase tenfold.
In particular tune into the action around you that’s repeated – whether it’s birds tracing the same flight path back to their colony or a bad-boy baboon continually tormenting its elders in the troop.
These ‘repeaters’ stack the odds in your favour because you can perfect your techniques as more or less the same piece of action runs through over and again as if on a loop.
Don’t be too ambitious when shooting action. We know from bitter experience that trying to nail your subject so it fills the frame perfectly can be hugely frustrating when you keep clipping off wing-tips and tails etc. Make life easier for yourself by giving your subject enough space in the frame so you get it all in comfortably.
You can always crop later if you want to, and besides, action images tend to work better if you leave subjects room in the frame to move into.
About the authors: Ann & Steve Toon are a UK-based, husband and wife team of award-winning, professional photographers with a specialist interest in the wildlife and wild places of southern Africa where they spend several months each year photographing and running photographic safaris.
Their work is published in a wide range of magazines and national newspapers, both in the UK and abroad, and they are reprepresented by several leading photographic libraries. They've also written three books, two on wildlife photography and one on rhinos. You can see more of their work on their website at toonwildlife.com and follow their African adventures on on their 'Beat about the Bush' blog at toonphotoblog.com.