On Wednesday my wife Claudia and I rose early and drove down to the nearby San Joaquin Valley. We spent most of the day photographing birds with some friends, and had a wonderful time. The human company was great, and we found lots of my favorite bird subjects – the white Ross’s and snow geese.
While composition and light are always vital, some aspects of wildlife photography are very different from landscape photography. With wildlife the subjects are moving, placing greater importance on anticipation, timing, and the ability to make quick decisions about framing and camera settings.
With moving subjects, one of the most important camera settings is, of course, the shutter speed. Fast shutter speeds are great for showing patterns and details, like in the photograph above. That was taken at 1/250th sec., which wasn’t quite fast enough to freeze the wingtips, but I don’t mind that, as that little bit of blur helps to convey some sense of motion. But if you want to completely freeze the movement of geese you need 1/500th sec. or faster. And smaller birds have quicker wingbeats, which require even faster shutter speeds.
Using slower shutter speeds is more difficult. You have to pan smoothly at just the right speed to keep some of the birds relatively sharp, and hope that the birds and background arrange themselves into a harmonious composition. I end up throwing out many more of these images than I keep. But if everything comes together, the blurring can convey the motion and commotion of these birds better than if the photograph were tack sharp. The slow shutter speeds also create a soft, impressionistic, evocative mood that I like.
I usually use 1/15th sec. for panned images of geese. Faster shutter speeds don’t give enough blur, and with slower speeds it’s difficult to keep any of the birds sharp. I typically hand-hold these (I know, that’s a rarity for me!), and try to turn my shoulders and upper body smoothly as I’m following the birds. Sometimes I’ve used a tripod with an inexpensive video panning head for panning.
Another challenging aspect of wildlife photography is… editing! You have to take a lot of frames to get a few good ones, and it can be hard to sort through them and pick out the best ones. Let me know if you have a favorite from this group.
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.