Cameras typically have four main shooting modes—Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual—represented by the letters P, A, S and M. My photo tour clients frequently ask which are the best camera settings for wildlife photography. “Is shutter priority a good choice?” Or, “Do I always need to use manual?” Since choosing the right shooting mode can mean the difference between capturing a compelling wildlife image and missing the shot entirely, it’s important to know the options.
I choose my shooting mode based on my subject and environment, how quickly the light is changing, and my personal preferences. There is no one right answer, but if you check my cameras, you will find them in either manual mode with Auto ISO enabled or full manual most of the time.
My best results come from being able to adapt to fast-moving subjects and changing weather and light quickly while retaining the control I need to make the image I am envisioning. To do that, I rely mostly on manual with Auto ISO, adding exposure compensation when needed. I switch to full manual for specific scenarios where I want or need full control of my camera. Here’s why I prefer the manual modes for most of my encounters with wildlife around the world.
Manual Mode With Auto ISO
Not every camera offers a manual mode with Auto ISO and exposure compensation, but most of the newer bodies do. I estimate that in 70 percent of the scenarios I encounter, manual mode with Auto ISO is my preference. It lets me control the two parameters that have the biggest impact on the look and feel of the final image—shutter speed and aperture—while still allowing the camera to handle some of the work.
As a wildlife photographer, I typically think first about shutter speed. I can choose a shutter speed fast enough to freeze a breaching orca in the San Juan Islands (around 1/2000 sec.) or slow enough to produce a clean, low-noise portrait of a mountain gorilla in the low-light jungles of Rwanda. I can do this rapidly with just one finger on the command dial for shutter speed, and the ISO will automatically follow to maintain proper exposure. I also use this technique for birds, lowering the shutter speed for a portrait of a perched bird and then quickly increasing to catch the bird in flight.
Next, I think about aperture. Wildlife photographers don’t drag huge ƒ/4 telephoto lenses through the jungle only to stop them down to ƒ/11. We use those lenses because we are dealing with low-light situations during the golden hour or in the deep shade of the forest where we need to shoot with the largest aperture possible. When I have more light, I might choose to open the aperture to get background separation or bokeh, or close it down to maximize depth of field for an environmental shot. I want to be the one making the aperture decision in all of those scenarios.
Having chosen shutter speed and aperture, I am left with ISO, and in this mode the camera decides for me instantaneously. Of course, a photographer’s experience and judgement are still required to properly expose the image, and that’s where exposure compensation comes in. After I have selected my shutter speed and aperture, and my camera has set the ISO, I evaluate the scene and decide if I need to adjust. If I have a bright sky behind a dark subject, I can quickly add a stop or two of positive exposure compensation to ensure the subject isn’t underexposed. Conversely, if I have a white bird in direct sunlight, I can set negative compensation to avoid blowing out highlights and losing beautiful feather detail.
My clients often fear shooting at high ISOs and sometimes ask if they should set a max ISO limit in their camera. While lower ISO is always preferable, modern cameras have remarkable high-ISO performance, and post-processing offers additional noise reduction options. There are no options for fixing camera shake or insufficient depth of field after the fact—yet another reason to take control of the shutter speed and aperture. I recommend against setting an ISO limit. If you hit the max ISO, you can underexpose significantly, and you risk an unrecoverable shot.
Instead, I recommend simply keeping an eye on the ISO in your viewfinder. If it goes higher than you’d like, open your aperture and/or slow your shutter speed if the situation allows it, and the camera will reduce ISO accordingly. For example, every time you cut your shutter speed in half, your ISO will decrease by a factor of two as well. Try shooting at shutter speeds as low as 1/10 sec. for non-moving subjects in low-light scenarios. If that’s not possible, I’m in favor of letting the ISO go as high as necessary. If a leopard steps into the open while on safari in Kenya at twilight, I’ll take a noisy image over no image at all any day of the week.
Manual mode with Auto ISO gets my exposure close to perfect most of the time. With that head start, I can fine tune using exposure compensation. By shooting this way, I have control of the image but less to think about and fewer steps. That translates into quicker reaction time to capture the decisive moment—an essential ingredient for wildlife photography.
Pro Tip: Manual with Auto ISO and exposure compensation shines in those situations where your subjects are erratic and can start and stop unpredictably. I also choose it where light levels are constantly changing. Rather than adjusting ISO for each frame, Auto ISO does the adjustment for you and does it faster.
Full Manual Mode
While manual with Auto ISO meets my needs most of the time, there are situations where I prefer to take full control of my exposure settings in manual mode, ISO included.
One such scenario involves birds in flight. When birds fly in front of a changing background, Auto ISO can cause inconsistent exposure. For example, a puffin might take off from calm teal water, fly over an area of waves with bright reflections, then past a dark island background as you pan to follow it. In that situation, Auto ISO will result in several different exposures of the subject. The bird will be underexposed against bright water and properly exposed or even overexposed with the island in the background, depending on the bird’s tonal value and the light. Instead of trying to hold an exposure lock button (which is one solution), switching to full manual simplifies this equation. You can expose for the bird in manual mode to ensure a consistent exposure for the subject against the varying background.
I also use full manual mode in situations where I have more time to plan, and when I can meter off a consistent tonal value, like a snow-covered landscape. I used this technique to capture a red fox curled up, sleeping on the snow on a recent winter trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Finally, I use full manual mode for macro and flash photography for birds where I am controlling—or at least partially controlling—the light with strobes. Although it is possible to use Auto ISO with flash, it introduces complexity and often gives unpredictable results. If you have time to stop and think, a consistent environment and light, or when you use flash, take full control of your camera with manual mode.
Pro Tip: Full manual mode is my preferred choice for situations involving flash photography for birds, macro and fast-moving subjects with backgrounds that change quickly.
A Note On Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras are providing us with exciting and significant advantages that will change how we shoot. Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) can display a live histogram and a real-time “what you see is what you get” image as you’re shooting.
With that technology, even beginners can easily shoot in complex lighting scenarios without having to guess about exposure compensation or learn complex metering techniques. Mirrorless cameras make exposing difficult scenes—like my image of giraffes against a magical sunrise—a breeze.
I have shot extensively with many of the latest flagship mirrorless cameras, including the Nikon Z 7 and Sony a9. I am excited about the possibilities and technology that each has to offer. Advancements in mirrorless auto-focus and a rapidly growing line of native telephoto lenses, in combination with the advantages of an EVF, have more wildlife photographers making the switch every day.
Pro Tip: Mirrorless cameras make exposing otherwise difficult scenes easy even for a beginner. The live histogram and “what you see is what you get” electronic viewfinders create significant advantages.
Regardless of the technology or the exposure mode we choose, core photographic principles like light, composition and storytelling still apply. Our cameras are the tools we use to capture our creative vision. The better we understand those tools, the more we can focus on our experiences with wildlife and the art form that we all love.
See more of Aaron Baggenstos’ work at aaronstours.com.