Wildlife Photography – 5 Essential Settings

Lilac Breasted Roller Bird

This post in our wildlife photography series focusses on the five essential camera settings, which I call the FIVE KINGS, that are critical to taking consistently good images. This is important. Practice being aware of these five settings, and check them before and during each shoot or game drive:


A good default setting is Aperture Priority (A). Adjust your aperture to the largest option your lens allows, preferably F4 (not F2.8, as that makes your depth of field too shallow). This will allow the highest possible shutter speed for the available light, minimizing blur during a snapped-off shot. You can, of course, use the other modes, but ensure that you know and understand their uses. Program mode (P), or idiot mode, is an option, but be careful not to allow too slow shutter speeds in this case as the camera will compromise if you allow it to!


Based on the old ASA settings from film camera days, this allows you to shoot in low light situations at acceptable shutter speeds, by using higher ISO settings such as 3200. But always remember this does compromise the images in terms of graininess, so the rule of thumb is to use the lowest possible ISO (100 or 200) in the circumstance.


JPEG or RAW? Good question. If you are a budding pro, RAW every time. If you don’t have time for conversions, go JPEG Fine. Just remember, RAW enables you to correct white balance and a number of other parameters without any loss of quality, and you can convert to JPEG or TIFF when you have made any adjustments you may need to. In JPEG, you can’t, and you will be limited to your generic image adjustment program (the best is Adobe Photoshop, in my humble opinion). Fine, medium, or small image quality? Always fine, as you can downsize, but you cannot upsize a low-res image.


Remember, your camera will generally select an average exposure based on the entire frame content, which is fine if everything is equally lit. BUT if you have a backlit or forelit subject, you need to either over or underexpose your camera’s setting to correctly expose your subject. A backlit subject will appear as a silhouette in an averaged exposure, which means you need to compensate by overexposing, and vice versa for a forelit subject. In the case of a backlit subject, use a fill-in flash, which works very well to allow an evenly lit exposure.


You can use Automatic in most circumstances with the more modern cameras, but it is far from foolproof. Try to be aware of the lighting conditions, and use the setting most appropriate for the current situation. White balance works on what is known as kelvin colour temperature, going from the ‘COLD’ (Blue) end of the spectrum, to the ‘WARM’ (Orange) end of the spectrum. It can become complicated, but generally, the defaults supplied on most cameras work well.

Just remember to reset White Balance as often as conditions change. For example, when it goes from bright sunlight to cloudy to shadow, you would adjust three times, or end up with a bluish or orange tint to your images. OR just use the Auto setting, and hope for the best! If you have shot in RAW, you can fix it.

Next up: final post in this wildlife photography series, including 3 key tips to take to heart for your next photographic safari – so stay tuned!

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