No matter which camera you have there are settings you can change which, with a little experience will help you take the best quality photographs depending on the scene and light available to you.
The main settings on most cameras are:
When looking at the chart below all of the ideal values for the perfect photograph fo your animals live on the left hand side. The further toward the right hand side any of these get - the less desirable our final result will be.
These settings are normally manipulated in one of three ways (beyond the automatic modes)
Tv (Shutter speed Priority)
If you have a very specific shutter speed in mind and you want the camera to calculate the best settings for Aperture and ISO based on the light it sees - Tv is the best mode to use. If I have a dog running around me in circles, the light and contents of the background are going to change rapidly but I know that the slowest shutter speed I can tolerate is 1/2000, then I can use Tv mode fairly confidently.
Av (Aperture Priority mode)
If I want to ensure that the aperture is always wide open or set to a level I know works with my background and I don't need to worry about shutter speed then I can use this setting. On the 5D Mark III I have the option (in the menus) to restrict the shutter speed to a minimum value. I mostly set this value to 250 and any extra speed the camera can give me when it works out the exposure is a bonus.
This is the setting which allows full manual control of all three settings. Using Manual mode means that you must be able to very quickly read a scene and know which settings to choose. Most of your time should be spent in Manual mode.
Setting the ISO manually in this mode requires a fairly static shot with a predictable background. Not something you will normally have the benefit of as an animal photographer.
As a result I often use what I consider one of the most useful but often neglected options available with the 5d mark III. In the menus you can set the camera to restrict the automatic ISO range to 100-1600 (or a similar range depending on the available light) and allow the camera to calculate the ISO by setting it to auto.
Based on my manually set aperture and shutter speed settings the ISO will adapt without heading into a range which will cause problems with noise in post production. This means you have a little leeway when the light changes slightly. Perhaps a cloud blows across the sun or your dog runs in front of a dark tree. The creative quality of the image will be the same but the ISO will adapt to provide the perfect exposure.
Changing individual settings
Shutter speed is the amount of time the sensor in the camera is exposed to the light in the scene. Mostly measured in fractions of a second (there are certainly other options for long exposure photography but that is not something I have yet found many uses for as an animal photographer.)
A slower shutter speed (a smaller number in your camera settings) means the shutter is open for longer and any movement in the scene or movement of the camera results in motion blur. While this can certainly be used to great effect with moving animals, It is generally a good idea to keep this setting at the fastest reasonable setting. I say reasonable because trade-offs must be made with the other settings in order to keep this high.
Shutter speed is the first setting I consider when evaluating a shot. If there is very fast motion in the scene then I have to decide how much (if any) motion blur I want to see.
Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens through which the light travels. Visually, this setting affects how much of the image in front of and behind the subject is in focus. Measured in f/stops, the higher the number – the more of the scene is in focus.
A Lower Aperture setting is made available by more expensive lenses (although the incredibly cheap 50mm 1.8 lens available from both Canon and Nikon is an excellent choice for animal photography where capturing action is the desired result.) and lets more light through the lens resulting in narrow depth of field.
Wider apertures are harder to work with when maintaining the focus of the subject, particularly when they are moving quickly but a wide aperture allows you as the photographer to guide the viewers eyes to the most important parts of your photograph. A wider aperture also allows you to set faster shutter speeds to get those amazing action shots. Try to set the Aperture to the widest setting (lowest number) you are comfortable with in terms of keeping your subject on focus. The more you practice and understand your camera's other settings, the better at this you will get.
Aperture is the second setting I consider before taking a shot. If I am photographing only one animal (at any speed) I try to keep the aperture as wide open as possible in order to focus on its eyes. With more than one animal in the shot I will start to close the aperture in order that the eyes of all animals will be in focus. If I want to see the background (very rare in my photography) I will consider closing the aperture further.
ISO is the sensitivity of the camera's sensor. Generally speaking the lower the ISO, the less grainy the image will be. As part of the trade off when setting shutter speed and aperture, a high ISO will allow you more desirable settings but will reduce image quality. On a bright sunny day a low ISO will be very achievable while still allowing a fast shutter speed and a narrower aperture (although this is rarely what you want.) There are some good solutions to high ISO noise both in camera and in software you can use to allow you more freedom.
ISO in my animal photography is purely a technical concern. I see no creative benefit to increasing the ISO. It is simply something that I must do in order to get a good exposure based on the shutter speed and aperture. You may decide that a grainy image for the cover of an album is appropriate - in which case use ISO as creatively as you need!
Be aware that ISO 50 can be useful to keep the aperture wide open when shooting with very bright light in your scene but can actually introduce more noise than 100 ISO and result in clipped highlights and/or reduced overall dynamic range in Raw images. I consider ISO 100 to be the ideal setting and if you have the time to use a variable neutral density filter instead of reducing the ISO to 50 - you should do so.
There is a lot of debate about the differences between ISO 100 or ISO 200 as the ideal setting and both camps have valid arguments. There is a slight reduction in dynamic range at ISO 100 but the overall results mean a cleaner (less noisy) image. At ISO 200 there is a slight but detectable increase in noise (this can be important if the final destination of your photograph is a 30 foot billboard) but a better dynamic range when shooting with direct sources of light within your frame. I generally prefer to shoot at 100 ISO if conditions allow as I am more likely to maintain a wider aperture no matter how bright things get.
You will have at some point have a particularly bright shoot and get the chance to experiment with both settings. If your post production game is strong you will be able to use either comfortably but a reduction in dynamic range is never desirable when shooting animals so consider ISO 200 as a minimum if you are struggling with very bright sunlight or reflections on water.
In general, when photographing animals, you are looking for the cleanest possible image using the fastest shutter speed and the widest aperture.
I attempt to take most of my action shots with an aperture of f/2.8, a shutter speed in excess of 1/2000 and an ISO less than 640. With this as a starting recommendation I would normally have to start making compromises as the light is rarely as good as I would like!
When looking at the shot I will firstly decide just how much action is happening in the shot.
Is the dog running at high speed across a field or sitting looking at the camera? If there is a lot of action I will decide not to change the shutter speed - I may even try to increase it.
If the dog is sitting still I know I can comfortably reduce my shutter speed. I never like to go below 1/250 as a dog's tongue licking around its mouth, a bark or a good chin scratch from a cat can happen quickly and I don't want to miss those shots because the most fun part of the action was a little blurred.
If I can't reduce the shutter speed I will start to play with the ISO. Increasing the ISO can result in a lot of work in post production and sometimes the results are not acceptable at all.
Once the ISO moves over 2000 I know that I am struggling to set the camera correctly so I will revisit shutter speed and try to nudge it down until I get an acceptable exposure. That said if more than 70% of my image is bright and the areas of shadow are relatively unimportant to the scene I can get away with ISO values up to 5000. Shadows do not tolerate high ISO values as well as midtones and highlights and if I know I need to push my ISO as the light is not great I will often try to reframe my scene to avoid areas of high contrast.
Since I tend to shoot at f2.8 on most of my lenses I will not be able to open the aperture any further but If I am really struggling with the light I will change to a 50mm lens which will allow me to open the aperture up to f1.8, f1,4 or even f1.2 (although action photography at a reasonable distance using an aperture of f1.2 is a matter of pure luck!). With a wider aperture, the photography can certainly become more difficult but the resulting shots are incredible.
Other settings to think about
You should be fairly comfortable with most of the settings in your camera's menus although these often offer little benefit beyond personal preference.
Resolution should always be set to the highest available option your camera offers.
I have witnessed several debates on the necessity of shooting Raw vs jpg and while I simply do not agree that shooting jpg is acceptable - some very accomplished photographers do take this route.
The exponents of jpg over Raw seem to see it as a competition where the perfect exposure should always be possible if you have read the scene and the light correctly. This is nonsense! Your clients do not care how you have provided their shot and you get no extra points (or more importantly, payment) for shooting jpg correctly. You can however easily have a shot with unusable blown out highlights or crushed lowlights when shooting jpg. Contrast and colour can all be controlled with much finer detail in a Raw image. Your ability to manipulate colour temperature after the fact is significantly reduced.
The cost of an extra memory card is negligible. The cost of a badly rendered image can be your entire business!
You should always be shooting Raw. When manipulating the image later using a Raw file versus a jpeg can be the difference between a perfect shot and a useless one.
If your camera has the ability to limit the ISO range used when allowing the camera to set the ISO automatically (useful in manual mode under variable lighting conditions then set this to a range you know you can work with later. I often set the ISO range from 100 – 1600 in order to use this facility.
I always turn off any electronic beeps or other sounds the camera makes when it achieves automatic focus. They are annoying and can wake sleeping or resting animals spoiling potential shots.
If you are photographing sleeping, resting or particularly nervous animals, changing the shutter release mode to one of it's silent (almost silent!) options is always a good idea. Remember to change back to high speed continuous shooting for most other situations.
Choosing a lens
For fairly static portrait shots the choice of lens is a creative one based on what you want to see. A tall dog with a long nose may suit a very wide lens to add a slightly comical slant to the shot while he or she sniffs around our lens. A standard choice would be a 50mm. great for any size of animal offering a flattering depth of field at wider apertures which looks realistic in perspective and proportion.
Other than those shots your choice of lens should be largely dictated by the size of the area you are photographing in. Always try to select the longest lens you can (the higher the number in mm, the longer the lens).
Try to position yourself as far away from your animal as that lens will sensibly allow to get your shot. A great standard lens for animal photography is a 70-200mm lens. The closer I can get to the 200mm end of that lens' range, the happier I am. Bear in mind that this is a heavy lens on a full frame camera so keeping up with an hour or two running around after a dog can be tiring.
Beyond getting your main action shots and portraits for your client, You need to think about the story your final gallery will tell. A gallery full of action shots at 200mm with the animal filling the frame at 20mph may be a great testimony to your ability as an action photographer but the full story of the day will not be told. Once you know you have these key shots in the bag, start to vary your lenses and framing to tell an interesting story.
Use wide lenses for close ups, use telephoto lenses for panoramas. This may require a bit of hike away from your animal but if you can get as far away as you can with the longest lens you have and take in the whole scene you will get shots that are unusual and beautiful. Think about the space you are in and the possibilities with every focal length. Variety of framing in your final gallery should be a consideration even at this early stage.
Next: Setting Up