Making Sharper Wildlife Photographs - [Part 2 of 2]

Making Sharper Wildlife Photographs – [Part 2 of 2]

House Finch perched on a spruce tree branch: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS lens, 1.4x Extender II and 2.0x Extender II @1400mm, 1/400th of a second at F10, ISO 800, Gitzo 3541 Tripod with Jobu Design BWG-Pro gimbal head

House Finch perched on a spruce tree branch: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS lens, 1.4x Extender II and 2.0x Extender II @1400mm, 1/400th of a second at F10, ISO 800, Gitzo 3541 Tripod with Jobu Design BWG-Pro gimbal head

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.

Tripod Heads

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.

Shutter Speeds

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.

Muskrat pauses while eating: Canon 1Ds Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS lens, 1.4x Extender II and 2.0x Extender II @1400mm, 1/500th of a second at F10, ISO 640, Saddle-shaped bean bag from vehicle window

Muskrat pauses while eating: Canon 1Ds Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS lens, 1.4x Extender II and 2.0x Extender II @1400mm, 1/500th of a second at F10, ISO 640, Saddle-shaped bean bag from vehicle window

The Eyes Have It…

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?

Squeeze the Shutter Release

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.

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Paul Burwell is a professional photographer, writer, educator and enthusiastic naturalist with over twenty years experience working with and educating adults. In addition to being the owner of the Burwell School of Photography, he is a contributing editor and regular columnist with Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Paul has been a finalist in the Veolia 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year' worldwide competition in 2009, 2010 and 2013 and was named a 'Top Wildlife Shooter' by Popular Photography Magazine in 2010.

Some Older Comments

  • Paul Sarab March 10, 2013 08:50 pm

    Thanks Paul for all your wonderful insights.

  • Scott Murray March 10, 2013 01:20 am

    Paul thank you for all these tips, I am off to Africa in 5 days for 2 months and I think these tips will be invaluable. I am still up in the air about my VR on my 80-400mm lens and whether or not to use it at shutter speeds above 1/500 as I have been told its best to switch it off at these shutter speeds. I have two spare days before I fly out so will be hammering my camera to see what things affect sharpness regarding the VR.

    Thanks again.


  • Paul Burwell March 9, 2013 09:57 am


    Cable release and lenses where meant to be used when you are locked down on a tripod head. For me, that never happens with wildlife because they are live and moving (or have the potential to move).

    So, given that the tripod isn't locked down, you need to stabilize the lens in much the same way a sniper stabilizes their rifle. And that's with body contact. Essentially, you use your body mass to help stabilize the camera/lens. I press one hand down firmly on top of the lens, my shutter hand is on the shutter button where it squeezes (not stabs) the shutter button and my eye (or glasses in my case) is firmly mashed up against the eye cup. Again, this is to use my body mass to stabilize the camera/lens as much as possible. When you're shooting with big lenses (400 and larger) and it really the only way to go.

  • Paul Burwell March 9, 2013 09:53 am


    I can't speak for Nikon lenses as I'm a Canon shooter, however, I know that some of the newer Nikon lenses can handle being on a tripod with VR on. I have students on my workshops use just that setup with VR turned on and they get great shots.

    With my Canon lenses, they handle being on the tripod just perfect. Like I mentioned, I'm never fully locked down on a tripod and so there is always movement for the stabilization system to try to help with.

  • Dennis Darvin March 9, 2013 08:54 am

    Just read ytour article, it seems to suggest using VR when camera is mounted on a tripod. From what I've always been told, you should turn VR off. Does it matter that it is a loosely set gimbal head which allows some movement?

  • marius2die4 March 9, 2013 06:28 am

    Is a good ideea to turn of image stabilization, mostly in case you use a fixed tripod. I had times when I missed shots because of stabilization (body stabilization).If you shoots wildlife, a short time is a must and then, you dont need anymore the stabilization.If there are no good conditions for a pics, the best ideea is to keep the camera in the bag and try another time.

  • Paul Burwell March 9, 2013 02:28 am


    I can't speak for other manufacturer's equipment, but with my Canon lenses (100-400, 70-200, 500) I always leave image stabilization turned on when the lens/camera is mounted to a tripod.

    The whole issue with tripods and stabilization deals with when you have a lens/camera locked down tight on a tripod. I shoot with gimbal heads and I never have them locked down tight (so that I can react to a animal that decides to move) so there is always some movement going on that the image stabilization system is happy to correct for.

    I use stabilization with moving subjects as well and if I'm panning to photograph them, I make sure I have mode 2 active as it handles that type of movement better.

    I always use continuous autofocus (Canon calls it AI-Servo) because in my world of photography stuff moves. I don't photograph a lot of rocks and so more often than not, my subject is moving or at least has the potential to move. I use different focus points for composition and keep an active focus point (or points if I'm using focus point expansion) on the eye of the subject. I'll use back-button focussing on occasion but not as a rule.

    I hope that helps you out.

  • Duke March 9, 2013 02:14 am


    1) Do you recommend turning off stabilization on a tripod?

    2) Do you recommend turning off stabilization of subject is moving (and relying on BBF/AF-C)?


  • Paul Burwell March 9, 2013 01:02 am


    I just realized I left out part of your answer.

    The other thing you need to do to get sharp shots when stacking teleconverters is to use a high enough ISO setting that you get a reasonable shutter speed and then make sure you are stopping down from wide open. I find I need to stop down about 2/3 of a stop in order to bring back the sharpness I look for in my images.

    Hope that helps you out.

  • Corinna March 8, 2013 09:15 pm

    Your advice has helped me improve my bird _-- and now, squirrel -- shots. I take them through the window, sitting at my desk. Very convenient!

  • frank March 8, 2013 07:38 pm

    I thought using a good, solid, tripod was to help eliminate body contact with the camera. I realize pressing the shutter creates movement that can't be avoided (well, it can if you have time to set a 2 second delay...but wildlife isn't going to let that happen often). I guess my question is what positive results come when you "brace your body against the equipment"? I don't see how a moving body can be more stable than a non-moving tripod. Thanks for any input.

  • Paul Burwell March 8, 2013 12:24 pm


    It just depends on your lenses. With my Canon lenses, they all support being used on a tripod very well and I virtually never turn off IS.

    Image stabilization only has real problems (if the lens doesn't support being on a tripod) when the lens is locked down dead solid. That's rarely the case with wildlife photography and so even when I use my 100-400 lens with the first generation image stabilization, I always leave IS turned on as the camera/lens are never truly locked down.

    I hope that helps you out.

  • Paul Burwell March 8, 2013 12:22 pm


    Yes, if you are going to stack both teleconverters than you'll need to manually focus.

    Or, if you have Live View on your camera, you can switch to Live View mode and then focus there. The autofocus in Live View mode is very slow but can be workable.

    I hope that helps you out.

  • Paul Burwell March 8, 2013 01:15 am


    Unfortunately with the newest version III Canon teleconverters (or what they call extenders) you cannot stack them.

    I have the older version II extenders and they stack fine as long as you put them on in the right order.

    One way to get around that issue is to get an extension tube to put between the two converters. You can spend some money and get Canon's well engineered (if expensive) tubes, or get something much less expensive like the Kenko extension kit of three extension tubes. One thing to note with using extension tubes is that you'll lose the ability to focus at infinity, but I suspect that if you're trying to stack these teleconverters together that what you're trying to focus on isn't at infinity anyway.

    I hope that helps you out.

  • Richard March 8, 2013 12:00 am


    In your picture you indicated that you stacked a 1.4 III and a 2.0 III Canon
    extender together with a 500 mm lens to arrive at 1,400 mm.

    I have the same extenders & tried what you described, but was unable
    to physically attach the two extenders together. How did you accomplish
    this? Canon's physical construction of the extenders prohibit it.

    HELP !!!!!!!!!!!

    Thank you,


  • Barry E. Warren March 7, 2013 04:17 pm

    I'll have to try this with my wildlife photography, I mostly free hand the camera, D5000 Nikon, 70 -300 lens, and all focus is manual.

  • Dave March 7, 2013 02:18 pm

    Just curious, you mention benefiting from stabilized lenses, ostensibly on a tripod. I was always under the impression that stabilization should be turned off when the camera is tripod mounted...

  • Scottc March 7, 2013 12:47 pm

    It's amazing how much wildlife is around us, I've started to think more about photographing it as a result of these articles.

    A far cry from the point & shoot days in Africa.

  • Scottc March 7, 2013 12:38 pm

    I'd recommend a look at this photog's work, his wildlife photography is the best I've ever seen.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 7, 2013 10:11 am

    I'm hoping to make it to Yellowstone and the Tetons this summer for some wildlife opportunities. I can't wait for spring to get here!

    We are lucky enough to have a pretty good rest stop for Bald Eagles not far from here so I get the opportunity to shoot them each winter. Here's some from a couple of weeks ago:

  • Brooke March 7, 2013 10:03 am

    This is all good information... I'm pretty much doing this already. My question has to do with the 2 photos in the post. Both say that they were taken with stacked teleconverters--1.4x AND 2.0x. I didn't know you can stack them, and I'm assuming you need to focus manually. Losing a fair amount of light by stacking teleconverters, what are your tips on getting decent photos this way?

  • Paul Burwell March 7, 2013 05:53 am


    It's all a matter of practice and if you're having difficulty, make sure you've got a tripod with the specifications to hold the weight you're going to be putting on it.

  • Mridula March 7, 2013 03:15 am

    I am hopeless even with a 300mm I shudder to think how to keep things stable at 500.