6 Tips for Capturing Action in Your Wildlife Photos

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Even with the fastest lenses and top-end DSLR cameras, catching fast movement in your wildlife photos can be tricky. The physical speed of your autofocus may not be able to keep up with and track a moving subject. Away from the limitations of your equipment, you may find that you miss a flutter of wings or fight between two animals.

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Luckily, there are some things you can do to overcome both problems. Here are my top tips for successfully capturing action in your wildlife photos.

#1 Pay Attention to Behavioural Cues

Animals are great at giving away information about what they are going to do next. If you pay real attention to the subjects you a photographing, then chances are you’ll be able to predict the future and have a better chance at capturing something awesome on camera. You can often apply a general rule to a class of animals, rather than having to learn hundreds of different cues from all sorts of different species. For example, when a bird is about to fly off, most will first lean forwards and appear “twitchy” before taking flight.

When photographing this greenshank, I saw it bathing in a puddle in a field. From my experience, I know that birds will fluff their  feathers or shake off water after bathing and preening. I composed the image properly then sat in wait with the subject in focus and my finger on the trigger. Eventually, probably after about 20 minutes of waiting, the bird stretched out its wings and I clicked the shutter.

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Being able to anticipate this behaviour made catching this moment possible. If I had tried to jump into action having seen the stretch, the action would have been over before I could even focus the camera. The same principle applied to the following image. I saw a black-headed gull dipping its head underwater washing itself. Soon after it finished, it threw droplets up into the air. Waiting in position made it possible.

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#2 Don’t Use Live View

The live view mode on your DSLR camera shouldn’t be touched with wildlife photos. It makes tracking very difficult, and whenever you engage autofocus the live view goes off as the mirror flips down. Because of the way you end up holding the camera, things become unstable too. Instead, stick to using your viewfinder. It is so much easier to react quickly and track your subject that way.

Two hooded crows engaged in a scrap.

Two hooded crows engaged in a scrap.

#3 Use a Sufficient Shutter Speed

It goes without saying that if you have enough available light, then you should use a fast shutter speed to freeze movement. A general rule to avoid camera shake is 1 over the focal length of your camera. For example, a 400mm lens should have a shutter speed of at least 1/400th second to avoid camera blur.

However, this rule may not give you a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject. Animals often move quickly, so adjust it as required. 1/1000th second or more is a good bet for fast running or flying creatures. It’ll depend on what you are photographing, and how exactly you are shooting it, as to what shutter speed you should go for.

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1/2000th, f/4, ISO 320

A good tip is to review your images, when possible, to check that your shutter speed is fast enough. Zoom in on the LCD and look for motion blur. If you spot any, then just increase your shutter speed.

#4 Don’t Stick to Your Tripod

If you are comfortable with handholding, then maybe you can ditch your tripod. Some tripod heads, like ball heads, can make things restrictive when you’re trying to follow a moving subject that stops and starts. Having to undo knobs to be able to move the camera slows you down.

Releasing your camera from the grips of your tripod will allow you to move freely. If you have it, then engage vibration reduction on your lens. This will help to get rid of camera shake, but you should be using a fast shutter speed so that shouldn’t prove a problem at all.

A lesser black-backed gull pins down an Atlantic puffin and steals its catch of sandeels.

A lesser black-backed gull pins down an Atlantic puffin and steals its catch of sand eels.

#5 Use Continuous Focus

Switch your camera to continuous focus mode so that you can track focus with a moving subject. If you continually have to refocus manually because your camera locks onto a spot once it achieves focus, then you’ll probably find you’re always one step behind the animal. Continuous focus mode will keep the plane of focus shifting.

Be sure to dive into your camera’s menu and find the setting which chooses whether achieving focus or pressing the shutter gets priority. Set it to the shutter, and then you can ensure you are able to fire off frames at the opportune moments.

#6 Lay in Wait

If you find that your equipment’s focusing motors are too slow and you can’t keep up with a moving animal, then you should change your approach. Look for patterns of behaviour, such as a route an animal may take regularly. Chances are there will be places where they pause. Focus there, and point your camera straight at it. Lay in wait, and once the animal moves into view, fire the shutter.

An Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) coming into land at its burrow on the Farne Islands, Northumberland.

An Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) coming in to land at its burrow on the Farne Islands, Northumberland.

If you’re following a bird in flight, try setting your focus to a plane the bird will pass through. Pan along with the animal (you’ll need to be in manual focus by this point), and hold down the shutter to utilise burst mode as it passes you. Hopefully, one of the shots will be in focus if you’ve timed it right. You’ll need to do this a number of times to adjust the focal plane to the optimum distance, and then have a bit of luck on your side!

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Will Nicholls

is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.

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  • Lovely stuff really! I learn so much by reading these types of posts. I am such an amateur at times since I really am self taught. I utilize a lot of these for my own personal knowledge. Thank you 🙂

  • OldPom

    Tip 4 rings my bell. Tripods are fine – but for spur of the moment birds in flight shots they are near enough useless and very frustrating. The best solution I have found is ” lean on a tree” ! With the left shoulder securely butting on a tree your left arm and hand supporting the camera lens will be pretty stable. At 400 – 1000th of a second and VR engaged camera shake should be conquered and you can pan away to your heart’s content following the subject. If you can, that is if you have pixels enough, make a ‘loose’ frame and crop later to achieve best location in the final crop – that is, to give your bird ‘room to fly into’ . As per the image I have tried to attach twenty times over a half hour – all 272Kb of it.! dPS PLEASE update your upload facility !

  • OldPom
  • JustExploring

    Wonderful tips ! Thanks a lot @Will Nicholls
    Just a question , sometimes autofocus doesn’t work right when there are branches and other distractions in the frame , and the manual focus process might make us miss the moment ! What is the right thing to do?

  • Are you talking about when you are tracking a subject using continuous focus through an environment?

    If just focusing on something with things in front of it, then you can manually focus sure. Depends how big the objects in the way are. Or, move to a new position.

  • JustExploring

    Ya thanks 🙂

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