I am often asked what the key factors are in capturing high-speed action of wildlife with either a stills or video camera. The logic to both is very similar, as we’ve experienced through the privilege of enjoying many safari adventures over the last 20 years or more in remote locations varying from the Masai Mara in Kenya and the iconic Okavango Delta, to the unpredictable beauty of the Central Kalahari Desert, pictured above.
Capturing photos of static subjects is where it all starts, and this is how you get to practice and ultimately master what we call “The Big 5” of camera settings and techniques, required to create interesting images. This is the first step because stationary subjects normally allow more time to set up your shot and apply your technical knowledge in using the optimum settings on the lens and camera body to achieve great results.
“The Big 5” of Camera Settings & Techniques
1. APERTURE SETTING controls exposure, but most importantly depth of field. Use the largest available aperture (my favourite is F/4) to create a shallow depth of field and to “blow” the focus of the background (out of focus), to attract the viewer’s eye to the intended focal point of the image.
2. SHUTTER SPEED controls exposure, but more importantly intended blur. This determines the degree to which you want to allow for camera shake (the higher the speed the less affected by camera shake) and in action photography, the amount you want to freeze or blur the background (the slower the shutter speed, the greater the blur effect). Here is where the real art of action photography comes into play!
3. ISO SETTING controls sensor sensitivity in bright or low light conditions. This is a very useful tool on modern cameras as the perceived “noise” in high ISO images becomes far less obvious as sensor technology advances. The rule of thumb is to use the lowest ISO setting possible in any given circumstance to minimise “noise”, but to allow sufficient shutter speed to avoid blurring the image.
4. PICTURE QUALITY is determined by the resolution you choose in your camera settings. The higher the resolution, the better the quality and ability to print large images, and vice versa. My best advice is for you to always shoot in the RAW format of your camera. The reason for this is that it gives you a lot more latitude in post production to adjust settings and to convert to various formats (JPEG, TIFF etc.). The down side to this is that shooting in RAW uses a lot more memory than shooting in JPEG, but the trade-off is always worth the requirement of using bigger memory cards.
5. WHITE BALANCE is a critical consideration when shooting in varying lighting conditions such as Sunny, Cloudy, Shadow, etc. This dramatically affects the colour cast of your image, and if you do not allow for this you will end up with varying degrees of blue or yellow colour cast. I always use specific White Balance settings to achieve accurate colours, but you can set your camera to Automatic White Balance, which gets it right most of the time, and more so as technology advances – but even more reason to shoot in RAW if you chose to use AUTO settings, as they are always a compromise.
Once you understand and are applying the “Big 5”, you can get more adventurous and start deliberately shooting moving subjects such as a leopard chasing down an impala, a martial eagle swooping in on unsuspecting prey, or springbuck racing past. The key with wildlife action photography is to master the skill of panning left or right, up or down, at the same speed as the subject, and using progressively slower shutter speeds to blur the background and fast-moving parts of the subject, but tracking the focal point of the subject, normally the eye, which should be focussed perfectly with no blur.
If you can master that, after mastering “The Big 5”, you will have your friends and family really being “WOWED” by your consistent talent and skills.
Some of the key steps in learning this skill are to exercise passion and persistence, especially when the process can be challenging, to be humble in learning from others who are more experienced and accomplished, and to develop your creative talent into your own signature style. Enjoy the journey!