Learning wildlife photography – Making sharper images – Part 3

June 2nd, 2011 by Paul Burwell
Chipping Sparrow perched on a branch

Chipping Sparrow perched on a branch

Learning wildlife photography – Making sharper images – Part 3 – In this final installment on making sharper images, we’ll discuss a few more things to think about when you’re trying to make the sharpest possible images.

Shutter Speed – You need enough shutter speed to have a reasonable chance at making a sharp image. The general rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should match the focal length you’re shooting at. E.g. For an image made at 220mm you should be shooting at a minimum of 1/200th of a second. With an image stabilized camera or lens, you can generally get away with a shutter speed that’s a couple of stops slower (1/50th of a second in this example).

  • If your subject is moving around, you need enough shutter speed to freeze the motion. In most situations, you probably need shutter speeds of 1/250th of a second or faster to freeze the motion.
  • One of the big advantages of digital photography is that you have the option of boosting your camera’s ISO setting in order to achieve a higher shutter speed. Of course the trade off with the higher ISO settings is increased noise in the images.

Camera Support – Many photographers are not accustomed to making images with the aid of a tripod. They find them cumbersome to use but instead enjoy the flexibility that hand-holding their camera gives them. However, I am a strong advocate for using a tripod whenever it is practical. Even with today’s advanced image stabilization system and cameras capable of reasonable images at high ISO settings, it is still generally advisable to use a tripod to enhance your image quality.


Cinnamon colured Black Bear sitting in the tall grass

Cinnamon colored Black Bear sitting in the tall grass

Hand Holding - If you insist on hand-holding your camera, learn how to properly brace yourself.

  • When standing, have one hand supporting the lens from underneath while the other hand operates the camera’s controls and shutter.
    • Keep your elbows tucked tight against your body to provide extra support.
  • When kneeling or lying prostrate on the ground, look for ways to brace yourself against your own body or another structure in order to enhance the camera’s stability.

Tripods – When considering a tripod, look for one that is over-engineered and built to withstand at least a 1/3 more weight than the heaviest equipment you plan on perching on top of the tripod.

  • I personally prefer Gitzo carbon fibre tripods. I really appreciate the light-weight of the carbon fibre when I’m carrying the tripod on my shoulder. I use the Gitzo 3540XLS. It’s the first tripod I’ve had that I can walk under when it is fully extended and that’s a bit of trick given that I’m over six foot tall.
  • I understand that not everyone can afford a Gitzo tripod. A tripod that is well engineered and available for quite a bit less than a Gitzo are the tripods from Induro.


Puma kitten running across the snow - CA

Puma kitten running across the snow – CA

Tripod Heads – Gimbal Heads - When photographing wildlife using my telephoto lenses, I almost exclusively use a gimbal head when photographing wildlife from a tripod. Why?

  • A gimbal head allows you to completely balance your equipment. You don’t need to worry about the head flopping over if you let go of it. On a gimbal head, when you let go of your equipment, it just returns to a center position.
  • A gimbal head gives you fingertip control while panning your equipment left to right or up and down (or any combination thereof).
  • When you’re photographing a subject that is moving a lot, a gimbal head allows you to concentrate on the action instead of fiddling with keeping your equipment upright on a ball head.
  • I use a Black Widow Gimbal Head from a company called Jobu-Design. Wimberley and Induro also make excellent gimbal heads.

Tripod Heads – Ball heads – Most photographers seem set on using a ballhead to support their lens and camera. If you do use a ballhead, make sure it is engineered to support the equipment’s weight.

  • A good ball head will lock down in a manner that doesn’t allow the angle to creep due to the weight of the equipment.
  • When I use a ball head, I’m partial to the ball heads made by Really Right Stuff. Acratech also makes excellent ballheads.


Short-eared Owl in flight

Short-eared Owl in flight

Beanbags – When I’m photographing from my vehicle my absolute favorite support for my camera and lenses is a saddle-shaped beanbag. This beanbag slings over the door/window with half hanging on the inside of the vehicle and the other half hanging on the outside of the vehicle. The seat of the beanbag supports the lens. Beanbags are great because they are extremely easy to pack into your luggage and take with you (empty!, duh) and then you can fill them when you get to your destination. Remember to turn the vehicle off when you’re shooting from a vehicle so that the engine’s vibrations don’t make your images soft.

  • Bird seed makes excellent filler for beanbags and has the added benefit that if you decide to leave it behind somewhere, the local birds get a treat.
  • When I’m home and not planning on flying anywhere anytime soon, I use lima beans as my filler. It makes for a heavy beanbag, but the weight really gives a solid support for the gear.
  • For a lightweight alternative consider using crushed walnut shells. These are commonly used as filler in the beanbags sold in gun stores for target shooting.

Conclusion – So there you have it, the three basic elements of making sharper images.

  • Remember to focus on the eyes
    • Learn to quickly select your camera’s auto focus points quickly and efficiently.
  • Use the best quality lenses you can afford
    • Spend available resources on good glass and not chasing the latest/greatest body
  • Use a shutter speed appropriate to your focal length and the speed your subject is moving at
  • If your lens or camera support a stabilization system, use it when appropriate
  • If you insist on hand holding your gear, learn how to do it properly
  • Get a strong tripod capable of supporting a 1/3 more weight than the gear you plan on using
  • Use a tripod head suitable for the job.
    • For the large super telephoto lenses, a gimbal tripod head is a virtual necessity
  • For photographing from an automobile, use a beanbag to support your lens.

You can see from this three-piece article that there are a lot of factors that go into making sharp wildlife images. Practice combined with the right equipment will go a long way in your quest for sharper images.

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

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



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One Response to “Learning wildlife photography – Making sharper images – Part 3”

  1. Artem K. says:

    Very nice articles, thanks…

    One thing I want to suggest – if possible, please leave EXIF info on pictures in the articles. A lot of photographers have an ability to instantly pull that info right in the browser. Seeing focal length, shutter speed and aperture, as I see it, would help a lot with learning.


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