Learning wildlife photography – Making sharper images – Part 1

May 31st, 2011 by Paul Burwell
Wilson's Phalarope swimming on a marsh - 1000mm, AI-Focus

Wilson's Phalarope swimming on a marsh – 1000mm, AI-Focus

Making sharper images – Part 1 – A lot of wildlife photography is dependent on the use of telephoto,telephoto-zooms and super telephoto lenses to make reasonable images of small subjects or larger animals off in the distance. When you use a telephoto lens, you need a new set of techniques in order to ensure that you end up with sharp images. Nothing is more frustrating than coming across some desirable subject, actually getting them into your viewfinder only to get home and discover that the images are lacking in the sharpness department.

The first thing to focus on (pun intended or not, you decide) is the subject’s eyes. In nearly all cases, the eyes of your subject should be tack sharp. So, that means that your going to have to put your camera’s focus point onto the animal’s eyes. Or, you can either exclusively use the center focus point and just accept the fact that your going to be spending a lot of time in Lightroom or Photoshop cropping your images to create a usable composition, or you can learn to use your camera’s features to create that composition in the viewfinder.

If the camera/lens combination you’re using allows it, learn to move the focus point around the available areas. Most of the consumer digital SLR cameras and many of the point-and-shoot cameras allow you to select from a number of different focus points. The trick is to practice selecting the currently active focus point until you can do it quickly, efficiently and without thinking. When I was getting serious about wildlife photography, I’d watch television through the viewfinder of my camera. I’d put on a lens that would allow me to have just the television in the viewfinder and then I’d move the focus point to the person who was currently speaking. It took a couple of weeks of practice but I finally got to the point where I could quickly perform the finger gymnastics necessary to instruct my camera where to move the focus point to. Practicing while you’re otherwise relaxing is a great way to learn a new skill so you’ll be ready when that cute little critter pops up while you’re in the field.

Chipping Sparrow perched on a mossy branch - 700mm One-shot focus

Chipping Sparrow perched on a mossy branch – 700mm One-shot focus

Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to move your focus point around. Depending on your camera body, you may lose the ability to change focus points at F5.6 or F8. For instance, when I put my 2.0x teleconverter on my Canon 500mm F4L IS lens, it turns it into an F8 lens and I’m stuck using the center focus point. In that case I’ll have to live with shooting loose enough that there is enough room around the subject to allow for cropping in Lightroom or Photoshop, or depending on the situation, I can use another feature that many cameras have.

While I normally have my camera in AI-Servo mode (Nikon calls it Continuous-Servo AF) when I’m photographing wildlife, I’ll occasionally switch to One Shot focus mode. This allows me to put the camera’s center focus point on the animal’s eye and then recompose the image before I press the shutter to make the image. Again, this is a technique you can practice while watching television. The One Shot focus method only works on subjects that are relatively static. If you’ve got a subject that is moving around a lot and you’re stuck with the center focus point, you’ll just have to accept some extra computer time while you crop the images.

Okay, so now we’ve got our focusing techniques down so we can use our camera’s autofocus systems to make sharp images focused on our subject’s eyes and we’ll create as many images as possible that don’t need extra processing in our photo editing software.

In the next article, we’ll continue the discussion on making sharper images.

You can find out more about Paul at his website and blog: Paul Burwell Photography

Follow Paul on Twitter here:  link

Check out Paul's Wildlife Photography Academy Workshops here:  link



The Outdoor Photo Gear Blog is an outdoor photographer's resource for photo and camera tips about photography in nature, wildlife and other outdoor settings. Throughout the blog you'll find great articles on composition, lighting, general photography and imaging techniques used by professional photographers.

The Outdoor Photo Gear Store sells great photography equipment and accessories for the wildlife, landscape, and nature photographers. If you haven't visited The Outdoor Photo Gear Store to see all great camera and flash accessories for the avid outdoor photographer, you should check out all the great gear we offer.

2 Responses to “Learning wildlife photography – Making sharper images – Part 1”

  1. John Taylor says:

    Maybe use center focus point to focus on eyes and then switch to manual focus (so lens does not refocus) and recompose? Some Nikon lenses have an A/M switch to do this.

  2. [...] you’re interested in the technique, you can read about it in a couple of previous blog entries in part 1 and part 2 of Making Sharper Images.So, if you’ve got one of the good primes in your arsenal of [...]

Leave a Comment