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With the amount there is to learn in the realm of wildlife photography, there’s no better place to start than with the basics.


Think of the word photography and a million genres will start popping up. Studio, street, sports, fashion, food, portraiture, aerial, landscape, experimental – the list goes on and on, but they all fall under the capabilities of our devices at hand. As such, a camera is an extremely versatile tool that can enable us to capture what happens in front of us and give us an additional creative outlet.

However, with each genre comes its own unique traits and learning curves. A professional photographer specialized in architecture, for example, could not just delve straight into wildlife photography.

  1. The Anatomy of a Camera
  2. Aperture
  3. Shutter Speed
  4. ISO

Also see: The Impact of Photography Volunteers

wildlife-photography-for-beginners

Wildlife photography is no easy occupation. To get those fantastic, award-winning shots we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing through National Geographic and the likes, it requires an insane combination of technical skill, animal knowledge, and a dash of creativity. Oh, and luck. A lot of luck and perseverance.

It’s easy to get frustrated and disgruntled when dealing with wildlife when at the end of a long and hot day out in the bush you’ve encountered next to nothing and your memory card still lies nearly empty. However, it only takes that one sighting and that one image for you to get addicted, and before you know it, you’re hooked.

With the amount there is to learn in the realm of photographing wildlife, there’s no better place to start than with the basic anatomy of your camera.

At the heart of everything, after all, is your ability to use a camera.

The Anatomy of a Camera

Breaking the camera down to essentials, you need a body, a lens, battery, and memory card. Make no mistake that there are numerous extra gadgets and accessories, but these are the key ingredients needed before you can proceed any further.

The camera lens is a device made primarily of different glass elements. Light travels through the lens and into the attached camera body. The camera body is the device which records the light. Memory cards are what store your photographs and batteries are what keep it powered.

Without any of these, you’re not going to be doing anything.

Automatic modes over the years have given birth to a drove of lazy photographers and it’s imperative you know how your camera works with light to better manipulate and work with any situation you’re in.

This is when the exposure triangle comes in. It is a must for any photographer to learn and get to grips with. When your image is too dark or too blurry then you need to know how to correct that, so let’s break it down.

wildlife-photography-for-beginners-settings

Aperture

This is an opening inside the lens that dictates how much light is being let into the camera. We can make this opening bigger or smaller which will give us different results.

For example, a smaller hole gives us a larger depth of field (a larger area of focus) but it lets in less light. A larger hole, however, gives us a much smaller depth of field (a smaller area of focus) but will let in more light.

Now, that may sound as if one image is going to be too dark and the other too bright, but this is when we step into the next part, the shutter speed.

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A larger depth of field was used to get as many birds in focus as possible
aperture-function-example-2
A shallower depth of field was used to blur out the background and focus on the lion

Shutter Speed

Inside the camera body is a sensor that records light and creates your image. In front of the sensor is a closed curtain, which will quickly open and close allowing a certain amount of light to enter and hit the sensor.

We can control how quickly this curtain opens and this is what defines our shutter speed.

The less light we’re getting in, the longer our shutter speed has to be, whereas when we’re getting lots of light, we’ll have to make it quicker.

A slower shutter speed was used in conjunction with panning the camera to blur the background into motion streaks, portraying the speed and energy of the scene
A faster shutter speed was used to freeze the hornbill in flight and get every bit of detail as possible

ISO

The sensor is at the back of the camera, where film strips used to be in the days of analog. It requires light to form an image, which we know we can control, but we can also control how sensitive it is to light.

If, for example, it’s a beautifully sunny day then we know we’re getting lots of light coming into our sensor and can leave the sensitivity to low. This will give us a cleaner and higher quality looking results.

On the flip side, if we’re photographing after sunset or in a dark room, then we’ll have to increase our sensitivity to make more use of the available lighting conditions. This sounds great but ultimately is what causes noise or grain; where images become broken up and dotty.

This sensitivity needs to be adjusted a lot because one setting will never work for different scenarios

You should always try to keep your ISO as low as possible, but as high as necessary.

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The more light there is, the lower your ISO will need to be

Now, how do these three elements work together?

It’s a balancing act. Change one and you inevitably have to change another.

If you bring up your ISO (sensor sensitivity) you will be able to get a faster shutter speed. If you open up your aperture, you will be able to bring your ISO down.

There are no perfect settings, it’s all situation dependent and getting the best performance out of your camera as well as yourself.

It’s a game of repetition, learning through failure (messing up your exposure on a rare wild dog sighting will only help you never to make that same mistake again!), and being persistent.

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For low light settings, you will need to crank your ISO up

Above all else, remember why you started this venture into photography.

It’s easy to get bogged down by the science of light, the restrictions of technology, and the unhelpfulness of wild subjects, but you have to make sure you’re enjoying it. The moment you don’t, you’ve lost.

You need the passion to drive you, to encourage you to develop, to learn, and to improve so that one day you will look back on your beginnings as a completely different photographer and artist.

It won’t take long for you to be making these adjustments on the fly, and changes will be subconscious – allowing you to focus more on what’s happening in front of the camera, rather than inside.

And this is where the real challenge comes in, knowing your subject!


Check out the African Impact Photography page on Facebook to see what our photography volunteers have been getting up to in Africa!