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In my last article I discussed the sort of equipment the average person might afford and use for wildlife photography. We discussed lenses and teleconverters along with tripods and monopods. This time, we’re going to look at how you use that equipment to come away with the sharpest possible images.
My first piece of advice is to learn how to use your tripod along with whichever type of tripod head you have. My recommendation for wildlife photography is to use some sort of Gimbal head like the excellent models sold by Canadian company Jobu Design.
These heads allow you to balance the lens/camera over top of the tripod while providing finger tip control. If you’re using a monopod, I’d mount the lens either directly to the monopod or use a quick release plate. At the risk of sounding like a children’s piano tacher, and not meaning to pester, but you do need to practice with this gear to become proficient. Photographic opportunities in the wild are often fleeting and you’ll need to rehearse so that when the time comes you’re making great images and not fumbling with knobs and latches.
Another aspect of making sharp images is using a fast enough shutter speed. As a rule-of-thumb when photographing off of a tripod or monopod, you’ll want your shutter speed to come close to matching 1/2 of your focal length. This rule means that if I’m photographing at a focal length of 400mm, I’ll want to make sure that I’ve got a shutter speed of at least 1/200th of a second to make a sharp image of a stationary critter. If there’s a lot of action going on and you want to freeze the motion, shutter speeds of 1/500th of a second or quicker may be required. I’m also not afraid to use my camera’s higher ISO settings to get a higher shutter speed if required.
There is little doubt that today’s lenses with their built-in gyroscopes to help stabilize the image go a long way in letting photographers get away with slower shutter speeds than the one over the focal length rule of thumb would allow for.
Many of today’s stabilized lenses claim that they can save three or even four stops of shutter speed and still return sharp results. My experience has been that these lenses (IS for Canon users, VR for Nikon shooters, OS or some variation thereof for the rest) do make a tremendous difference and are especially useful in low light shooting conditions. Look at many of my pictures and you’ll see I’m a big beneficiary of this new technology.
Another trick for making sharper images comes down to the connection between the camera and your body. While it might seem to make sense to just lightly rest your eye against the camera’s viewfinder, I suggest you do the opposite. When I’m photographing using telephoto lenses, I physically push my eye as firmly as possible against the viewfinder (or in my case glasses which leaves them very greasy at the end of a photo session).
This technique allows the mass of my body to help dampen vibrations the camera might be experiencing. Next, I hold the camera with my right hand positioned to press the shutter release and make adjustments to the camera’s settings. My left hand gets draped over top of the lens. Again, we’re trying to use our body’s weight to help dampen vibrations and steady the rig as much as possible.
Now that I’ve got my camera equipment mounted on a suitably weight-rated tripod or monopod, I’ve chosen a suitable shutter speed AND I’ve positioned my body against and on the camera to ensure steadiness, all I’ve got to do is shoot away and I’m good, right?
Not quite. The next trick is to learn how to press the shutter release. If you were a casual observer watching just my finger on the shutter release, I’d wager you’d never be able to accurately guess when I’d made a photograph. And that’s because I’ve practiced my technique to the point where, much like the way a sniper squeezes the trigger on a rifle, I can release the shutter on my camera with the same controlled almost indiscernible action.
While I’m photographing, my shutter finger never loses contact with the shutter button and I’m not so much pressing it as I am squeezing it. Remember to squeeze and never stab the shutter button. When photographing wildlife at the longer telephoto lengths, you need to keep all of your actions as smooth as possible and the way you press the shutter is a huge factor in making sharp images.
To summarize these techniques, get your camera gear supported in the best way possible, choose an appropriate shutter speed, brace your body against the equipment so that you almost become part of it and finally squeeze the shutter button with the most subtle of movements. Remember to utilize the three P’s of wildlife photograph (Practice, Practice, Practice) and you have my guarantee that you’ll be well on your way to producing sharper images.