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

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

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.

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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.

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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.