Wildlife Photography: 3 Techniques from Professional Photographers

Technique 1:
Use Single-point Spot AF to focus on wild birds in a dark forest

In low light conditions, it can be increasingly difficult to set focus with autofocus (AF).

This is indeed true when in the forest and uses the AF mode which carries out operation in a wider area, can produce focus that is "disturbed" by branches and leaves in the foreground, or in other areas that are not expected.

However, even though the center AF point with Single-point AF is very accurate, using this mode will limit the way you arrange shots.

This is when Single-point Spot AF becomes practical, because it provides greater freedom in your composition, while ensuring focus stays locked on your subject.

In the photo below, I position the bird slightly to the right edge to unite the attractive tree branch layout. The AF point is moved two points to the right to produce this shot.

EOS 7D Mark II / EF500mm f / 4L IS II USM + Extender EF1.4 × III / FL: 700mm (equivalent to 1,120mm) / Aperture-priority AE (f / 5.6, 1/40 sec., EV-0.7) / ISO 1600 / WB: Auto
Photo by Gaku Tozuka

Suggestion 1-1:
Change the AF settings to match the situation

In landscapes that cannot experience errors, or if you want to capture moments that can be lost in an instant, the approach in this theory is to focus by using a highly accurate center AF point in Single-point AF while aiming in succession.

If wild animals don't move much, you will be more flexible.

Try setting a Single-point Spot AF, which will make it easier to change your composition.

However, if you want to take photos of fast-moving subjects, such as birds flying in the sky, I recommend settings that cover a wider area.

EOS-1D X Mark II / EF500mm F4L IS II EF2 × III / FL USM + EXTENDER:

1000mm / Aperture-priority AE (f / 8.0, 1/1600 det., EV ± 0) / ISO 800 / WB: Auto
Photo by Gaku Tozuka

If you use Single-point Spot AF to photograph birds that are floating in the sky, it is possible that the camera focuses on the background if the subject moves outside the focus area.

It might be more ideal to use AF mode which covers a wider area.

Read the following article for advice on how to use AF for photography of wildlife / wild bird life:

Capturing Birds Floating in the Sky
Capturing Dynamic Bird Shots in Sky
Catching Moments, When Birds Will Fly
Pro Techniques for Using the EOS 7D Mark II - Wild Life

Think about photography equipment? Read Gaku Tozuka's review of the abilities of the EOS-1D X Mark II in wild bird photography:

Focus Accuracy and Tracking Performance Astonishing AF
Dual Pixel CMOS AF — Perfect Focus, Even in Dark Scenes


Technique 2:
To maintain the atmosphere of the night, aim at negative exposure compensation in the Aperture-priority AE mode

In the latest Canon cameras, the low light range for Live View shooting has been improved until the focusing stage can be performed, even in situations that are difficult to see in plain view, for example, at EV-4.

When photographing wild animal species that are active after dusk, I think about how I can show the world of darkness around animals.

Digital cameras have a tendency to aim as they do during the day, even in dark locations, so, I use Aperture-priority AE with exposure compensation set between EV-1.0 and -2.0 to suppress this effect, and describe night scene in the shot.

This is a shooting technique that I call "Night mode", which is effective for use when the color temperature is low, after sunset and before sunrise.

EOS 5D Mark IV / EF70-200mm f / 2.8L IS II USM / FL: 70mm / Aperture-priority AE (f / 2.8, 1/5 det., EV-1,3) / ISO 10000 / WB: Daylight
Photo by Yukihiro Fukuda

Suggestion 2-1:
Shots in Live View from behind a photographic blind

To capture a photo of this brown bear in northeastern Finland, I aimed from a blind made specifically to photograph a brown bear.

I insert the lens through a small gap in the blind to aim, and can tighten the tripod head in the blind, making it easier to shoot.

Be careful, do not lose sight of the subject when using Live View AF when shooting. This technique is effective if the vision is minimal.

Suggestion 2-2:
Set white balance in "Daylight" to capture changes in color temperature, immediately after sunset

By setting the white balance in "Daylight", you can take photos that maintain successive changes in color temperature, before and after sunset.

I recommend this technique, because you can capture changes in color that occur when the night becomes even more intense.

The reddish color is present 7 minutes before the sun sets

EOS 5D Mark IV / EF70-200mm f / 2.8L IS II USM / FL: 200mm / Aperture-priority AE (f / 2.8, 1/60 det., EV-1,3) / ISO 3200 / WB: Daylight
Photo by Yukihiro Fukuda

Bluish color increases, 13 minutes after sunset

EOS 5D Mark IV / EF200mm f / 2L IS USM / FL: 200mm / Aperture-priority AE (f / 2.0, 0.4 det., EV-1) / ISO 12800 / WB: Daylight
Photo by Yukihiro Fukuda

You can find out from the lighting level indicator, that darkness drops faster after sunset.

By setting white balance, the bluish color will naturally increase with sunset. There is no difference in the post-processing settings of the two photos above.

The only parameter that changes during post-processing is increased contrast. You can see that taking pictures at different times can produce images that give a completely different impression.

For more options on how to deal with color temperatures, read:

How to Make a Color with the White Balance Correction Function

Other ideas for photographing wild life:
Super Telephoto Lens Technique - Wild Silhouette in the Sun's Blazing
How to take pictures of small animals with crowded but beautiful backgrounds?

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