Sharp Shooting

Tips and gear recommendations for achieving maximum sharpness in your wildlife portraits

In wildlife photography, our subjects can be erratic, fast movers and often only active in low light. It’s of great benefit for a genre with many unpredictable variables to have various strategies in mind for ensuring sharp photos.

Image of burrowing owl to illustrate the importance of sharpness in wildlife photos.

Burrowing owl on the beach in Great Inagua, Bahamas.

Equipment Considerations For Max Sharpness

The quality of your lens is paramount. Investing in good glass is more important than the camera body. You may hear people talk about “sharp lenses,” as some are particularly recognized for this. Dig around in photography forums online to find out which lenses for your camera system are well-known for their sharpness.

Ditch the UV filters. Filters on the end of your lens degrade image quality and affect sharpness. You don’t need a filter to protect your lens. That’s what your lens hood is for.

A high-quality tripod and head are critical for big or heavy lenses. The “high-quality” part is key. All too often, when people purchase camera gear, they spend a good deal of money on the camera and lens and skimp on the tripod. In time, they discover a budget tripod is useless, as it won’t have the sufficient stability to hold a rig perfectly steady. And then they have to purchase a high-end tripod. Do yourself a favor and buy the quality tripod first. Trust me, I speak from experience.

Keep both rear and front lens elements of your lenses as clean as possible. Also make sure to clean any insertable filter elements, as they, too, can pick up dust.

Teleconverters are a great accessory for wildlife shooters, extending the reach of our lenses, but they can definitely cause a decrease in sharpness. This is more marked with some brands than others and can even vary within brands. I use my Nikon AF-S 1.4x teleconverter attached to my 600mm f/4 almost all the time but almost never reach for the 1.7x or 2x, as they rarely result in sharp shots. (Admittedly, this may be partly due to user error.)

Camera Settings & Techniques

With wildlife, it’s really all about rendering your subject with a sharp eye. The eye is the window to the soul, and successfully connecting viewers to the soul of our wild subjects makes for a powerful image. Use single-point focus as much as you can and target the eye. If you’re having a hard time focusing on the eye, choose a part of the body that’s on the same plane but offers better contrast or a larger mass, such as the neck of a distant heron feeding in a lake. If you’re focused on a spot on a slightly different plane and are shooting wide open at, say, ƒ/5.6, stop down to a smaller aperture like ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 to increase the likelihood the eye will be sharp.

Of course, if you’re shooting a bird in flight or some other fast-moving subject, a single point can be too challenging to fix on your target; at these times, you’ll want to expand your focus area to an array of points.

Some lenses aren’t at their sharpest when set to their widest aperture. Experiment with your lens to see if it performs better with a smaller aperture.

Shoot at the highest possible shutter speed, given your available light. The faster your animal moves, the faster the speed you’ll want to dial in. For birds in flight, for example, I try to use at least 1/1600 sec., but ideally, I am shooting at 1/3200 sec. or faster. Fast shutter speeds make a huge difference.

Don’t be afraid to use a high ISO! Noisy and sharp are way better than clean and fuzzy, and noise removal software has improved to become incredibly powerful.

Use continuous focus mode and keep your AF engaged the entire time. This will ensure your camera keeps adjusting focus as your subject moves. Even a bird on a branch that seems to be sitting still is making constant, sometimes barely perceptible movements—as are you!

Shoot longer bursts. The more shots you take at once, the greater your chances will be of getting one that’s perfectly sharp. It’s a numbers game.

If you’re shooting hand-held, perfect your skills by using your body like a tripod. Keep your upper arms pinned to your body. Rotate smoothly at the waist as you pan with a bird in flight. Hold your breath as you press the shutter.

Image of a brown bear eating grass.

Young brown bear eating sedge grass, Lake Clark, Alaska.

While you’re on a tripod, consider using a cable release device to trigger the shutter without touching the camera. This will reduce camera shake caused by your body, especially if you’re using a longer exposure. In a pinch, if you don’t have a cable release, use your camera’s self-timer. With a DSLR, try shooting in Live View, where you’re essentially in a mirror lockup mode and can thus eliminate any issues with mirror bounce. Live View also offers the advantage of allowing you to zoom into an area of the image and then manually focus on that spot.

If your lens has image stabilization, turn it on. If there are a couple of different modes offered, read the manual to determine which works best for your style of shooting. These days, it seems the conventional wisdom is to leave it on with tripods, as most modern lenses can sense the tripod, but check to be sure this is true for your particular lens.

If photographing from a car or house, be aware that the heat differential between a warm interior and the cold outside can create heat distortion that makes it impossible to get a sharp image. Cool the interior down before shooting into a cold outdoors.

If your gear is superb and your technique is terrific but you still find that your images are missing critical sharpness, you may want to consider fine-tuning your autofocus (also known as lens calibration). Some cameras have this ability built in. There is also a host of available software that can assist you with this, or you can send your lens back to the manufacturer for adjustment.

It’s critical as a wildlife photographer to know the tools and techniques that will help you achieve a sharp shot in camera, but I want to conclude by saying that it’s also essential to look beyond technical perfection. Don’t overlook a marvelous storytelling photo or a uniquely artistic style simply because it might exhibit less-than-perfect crispness. As the famous quote goes, “Know the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.