Why Semi-automatic Mode is the Best Choice for Wildlife Photography

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There is a mindset that a lot of photographers seem to have around anything but manual mode is cheating. Not only does this frustrate me as a statement, but it’s just bad advice, that hinders the photographic progress of others. I would argue that there’s no cheating in photography, and that using your camera in fully manual modes actually makes it harder to achieve the photo you’re looking for – so let’s take a look at why semi-automatic modes are a good choice for wildlife photography.

Tracking this puffin in flight, I'd never be able to change the settings quick enough if I was in full manual mode.

Tracking this puffin in flight, I’d never be able to change the settings quick enough if I was in full manual mode.

Now I’d never recommend anyone use full automatic modes. They are a pain in the backside, to be frank. The camera focuses wherever it sees fit, seemingly changing its mind on a day to day basis. The setting are often wrong, since you have no bearing over how the exposure triangle is balanced (other than a little bit of exposure compensation). For wildlife photographers, this is a pretty poor choice of mode.

However, what I do recommend is that you run with a semi-automatic mode. Because with wildlife, everything is so unpredictable that there is little chance you can spin the wheels, and react to changing conditions fast enough in manual mode. Picture this: you’re photographing an eagle swooping down from the sky to catch a fish from the water. It’s moving through many different ambient light conditions, from looking up towards the sky, all the way down to the water, and away again. You can’t accurately change the settings quick enough.

semi-automatic modes

Northern Gannet

So what can you do? Use a semi-automatic mode. It’s definitely not cheating, and is a choice favoured by almost all wildlife photographers in the industry. It’s not to say that we can’t run the camera in manual mode – and that’s definitely something you should learn to do – but rather that there is no point putting such a simple task as adjusting the shutter speed, in the way of you composing a stunning wildlife image.

Choosing a semi-automatic mode

There are a few choices you can make here when it comes to semi-auto modes. Let’s take a look at the best choices.

Aperture Priority Mode

This is my personal favourite. Aperture priority mode allows you to set the aperture you require, leaving the camera to adjust the shutter speed automatically, in order to balance the exposure. You can increase your ISO should the light become a limiting factor, letting the camera increase the shutter speed as a result. But you still have total control really, because all you need to do is adjust your exposure compensation to fine-tune the resulting photo.

DSC_2260

Exposure compensation allows you to retain control and properly expose a photo, even in a partly automatic mode.

A wide aperture often favours wildlife photographs, as it allows for a nice, soft bokeh, that isolates the subject from the background. This is what often gives a wildlife image a sense of quality, although I am a big believer in breaking the rules and actually including the background in your shots. For this reason, aperture priority often makes sense as you are able to control the setting that can make or break a photo.

Shutter Priority Mode

This is definitely not the mode you want to be in, if you’re going to involved in wildlife photography. Chances are you’ll be setting your shutter speed high – and probably too high at that. Wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk, and while you may find it relatively easy to see, it is surprising how little light is available to the camera, especially if you’re shooting with a lens slower than f/2.8. With a shutter speed dialed down, the camera only has so far it can go in increasing the aperture before the photo starts to become underexposed. Conversely, with aperture priority mode there is no real limit to how fast or slow the shutter speed can go – the worst thing that may happen is you get a blurred image, although this can sometimes come off artistically.

Note: Stay away from shutter priority mode for wildlife photography!

Two hooded crows engaged in a scrap.

Two hooded crows engaged in a scrap.

Manual Mode with Auto ISO

This is a popular choice amongst wildlife photographers too, although I have yet to use it myself. By sticking the camera into manual mode, but leaving the ISO set to automatic, you retain control over both aperture and shutter speed, allowing the camera to adjust the ISO to balance the exposure. Personally, I like to have control over the ISO, as I feel this can ruin an image.

This mode does allow you to ensure you have the desired aperture and shutter speed for proper effect, but consequently you may not notice that your ISO is increasing quickly as light conditions drop. The worst thing to find is a photo that looks fantastic on your camera’s LCD, until you return to your studio and find it is peppered with digital noise.

Even so, getting into a good habit of checking the ISO settings periodically during a shoot, will mean this is no longer a problem. With experience you’ll learn what the limits tend to be for certain ambient conditions, before the ISO gets ramped up.

semi-automatic modes

You still have full control in semi-automatic modes, allowing you to achieve more unusual images.

You also still retain the ability to use exposure compensation while ISO is set to auto. This allows you to fine-tune the exposure, just like with aperture and shutter priority modes.

So which mode should you use?

Now we’ve looked at three different semi-automatic modes you’re probably wondering which you should go for? Well, you know what I think about shutter priority mode. Other than that, it’s essentially up to you. If you want to be entirely confident in your aperture and shutter speed, then opt for manual with auto ISO.

Thanks to a semi-automatic mode, I was ready for action when this woolly monkey surprised me in the Amazon rainforest. Manually mode would have rendered my efforts useless in such a fleeting moment.

Thanks to a semi-automatic mode, I was ready for action when this woolly monkey surprised me in the Amazon rainforest. Manual mode would have rendered my efforts useless in such a fleeting moment.

If, like me, you find the prospect of an unacceptably high ISO speed creeping up on you, then stick to aperture priority mode. Professionals use both modes, and either can result in great success with the right photographer behind it. It’s just getting used to the mode of choice, and playing to the relative advantages each one brings with it.

You’re going to feel the limitations of either mode as light drops, but I always say that a slightly blurred image (or risk of one from a slow shutter speed) is better than a photo rendered unusable thanks to digital noise.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • DD877

    I use auto iso on my d750…
    I set to 3200 as the max.
    I use manual and aperture both wit this configuration

  • What’s wrong with shutter priority with auto ISO? Especially for cameras that don’t have a minimum shutter speed setting and aperture priority becomes a recipe for blurry photos?

  • I find that a lot of people using this end up with underexposed shots, or with auto ISO engaged then extremely noisy images. It’s very easy to let the ISO get too high accidentally in this mode. It’s personal preference obviously, but that’s my opinion.

  • EvilTed

    You can set limits to auto ISO, you know that right?
    Manual mode with capped auto ISO is way more reliable for fast changing action and light, including street photography…

  • Yes, sure. But then you run the risk of having images underexposed because your shutter is set too high (or your aperture too narrow). For me, and many, AV seems to be the best overall. Although for some situations I do go for full manual with auto ISO.

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  • EvilTed

    Nonsense.
    If you have a good modern camera, such as the Sony A7s/A7s II, A7r II, Nikon D4s, D5, then capped auto ISO is the way to go.
    These cameras can go very high, into the 25K+ range without having significant noise – depending upon the lighting and the subject, you can get to 100K without issue.

    I currently own A7r II, D4s and D5, but have owned and shot all of the others.

  • Simon Geard

    Capped ISO is a must for me. Sure, the downside is underexposure – but I can detect that more easily when I’m shooting, unlike too-high ISO which often isn’t obvious until you see the photo on a larger screen.

    As such, I usually default to AV mode with the ISO capped to around 800, and tweak things if the light isn’t good enough…

  • axelpix

    That’s funny. I just ended up exactly the other way around. Using solely shutter priority for bird photography. Of course with Auto ISO capped to 1600. Aperture priority way too often results in shaky blurry pictures. I set up my 1/500 and let it go. Aperture ends up wide open most of the time anyway, letting ISO control the exposure.

  • James

    Don’t know what camera you use but any of the Nikon Pro or Semi Pro bodies you can set the ISO upper limit in Auto ISO

    I use aperture priority.

  • Mark

    Not sure I got the point as I’d have thought shutter priority would be best to avoid blur in combo with an ISO cap. Guess one issue would be missing the shot as the shutter is too fast, you hit the ISO cap and can’t open any wider whereas aperture at f2.8, ISO cap and variable shutter would have gotten it by maybe lowering to 1/250. Depends also on how your particular camera plays with the variables as I’m not sure they all do quite the same thing when they can vary ISO + one other.

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  • I’d have to disagree there about the noise performance of high end DSLRs. 100K without issue? There is no offering from Nikon or Canon that can do this. Particularly for wildlife when you’ll be shooting in lower light anyway, so noise is even more apparent.

  • Nick Reignger

    For Wildlife Photography I like to use Shutter Priority Mode. Time 1/250s or faster with Auto ISO. That guarantee you get sharp picture when you need it. Also in Manual mode there is not Auto ISO – it’s manual. I would rather say noise created in high ISO adds to beauty of the picture and not blurry one. And noise always can be corrected in post production, if you don’t like it.

  • Tim Driman

    Hi Guys: While your sentiments on semi auto modes is correct, it doesn’t mean that you will learn anything new…

    Photography is a constant leaning process and unless you challenge yourself to improve, you will eventually fall into a rut and then probably just stop using your camera at all!

    I totally agree with AUTO ISO but cap it at no more than ISO 800… This will force you to think more about how you shoot..

    May I suggest that you start out by setting the depth of field / aperture that you wish (AV) and see what speed the camera suggests, then switch to manual and set that speed and keep the same aperture..

    Shoot a test frame and check what the histogram says… Then just adjust the speed to move the “little mountain” into the centre or a little to the right if possible…

    This will teach you to understand how you got that shot, rather than just let the camera know what had to be done…

    This is a lot more simple than you think….

    I recently spent a month teaching game rangers (Most of which had never used a DSLR before) how to use a camera and to understand what constituted a “Good image”…I had most of them using Full Manual settings and understanding light meters ( I never used the term histogram and the guys all felt more comfortable with the term “Light Meter”.

    Photography is all about learning which makes it so much fun…

    Keep up the great work Your articles are always most interesting and useful.

    http://www.timdrimanphotography.com

  • Wings_42

    Excellent advice and supporting logic.

    My passion is photographing birds and other wildlife. With the summer heat we find ourselves getting out late afternoons when it cools down a bit here in San Diego. I shot in Aperture Priority for years but switched to full Manual about two years ago to control shutter speed to capture birds in flight, or lessen the aperture to get a deep enough depth of field for close ups of insects or several birds interacting. What makes me want to change now is how many photos are too noisy for use, yet they look good in my Nikon D7200 LCD display. Your posting is just the urging I needed to make the switch.

    It seems that a good compromise will be to shoot in Manual mode in bright light like at the sea shore where I want a fast shutter speed to capture flying birds or scurrying crabs, but switch to Aperture Priority in shade, sunrise or sunset or dark cloudy days.

  • Wings_42

    Good advice for fairly stable shooting conditions but when walking on a trail in forest or high chaparral the lighting often changes radically as you move in and out of shade. For shooting birds and wildlife Aperture Priority insures that you get enough light if enough light is available.

    Capping ISO to 800 in poor lighting often yields very dark photos that are noisy as can be in processing. I cap the ISO to 1200 which my Nikon D7200 seems to handle pretty good in iffy lighting.

    As I commented elsewhere, I’m going to try Manual mode in good light (following your advice on setting Aperture), switching to Aperture Priority in poor light or variable light.

  • EvilTed

    Noise is noise.
    Lower light increases ISO, which increases noise.
    You have a D5 do you, because I do and it’s the best low light machine out of all of them (Sony A7s, A7s II, A7r II).

  • Bill D

    Well I’m just now learning the ropes and trying to understand everything. Currently I shoot a lot of bird photos and have always used shutter priority for pretty much everything with an auto ISO of 3200. I mainly shoot late mornings and afternoons so lighting is generally not an issue. I feel that being able to adjust the shutter speed gives me better control. For example if I want the wings of a bird in flight to be crisp and sharp I set the shutter speed high, if I want a bit blurry wings I lower the speed and I let the ISO manage its end. I rarely ever use aperture priority. I feel I’ve gotten some really nice photos using this method but according to this article I’m doing a bad thing. Any thoughts?

  • pete guaron

    Will, in your article you refer to “the prospect of an unacceptably high ISO speed creeping up on you”. Several comments have suggested the answer to that is capping the maximum ISO. You have responded by suggesting lighting conditions in various locations can change too rapidly for that to be the “optimum solution” (putting words into your mouth).
    I do a lot of available light stuff, and I don’t find this to be a major issue.
    It was, once – in the early digital cams – but modern digicams can happily produce quite good shots with relatively high ISO readings. Readings that were unimaginable in my youth, with the analogue films we used then.
    The resultant “noise” is quite minor, if you practice a bit and take the trouble to familiarize yourself with the limits of your camera’s sensor/processor.
    Of course, that depends what cam you have – mostly, I use a Nik D810 for that work – I should shut up, until I follow my own advice and see what I get with my D7200 – but certainly with the D810 I can push the ISO up as high as 4000 for some shots, without kamikazi-ing.

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