Worldwide Photographic Journeys

The Art of Photographing Wildlife in Action

28th February 2019

Witnessing unusual or rarely observed animal behaviour whilst on a Wild Images photography tour is par for the course. Yet, nature’s magical moments are often fleeting, fast-paced and rather unpredictable. Consequently, managing to successfully photograph quick moving subjects can be quite challenging, even for seasoned professionals.

Fortunately, we have some useful tips that will help you to extract the best possible results from your wildlife encounters whilst on location with us.

Use an Appropriate Shutter Speed to Freeze the Action

There is a general rule of thumb in photography that states that if you want to avoid the negative effects of camera shake, such as motion blur, then select a shutter speed that is more then the focal length of the lens that you are using. For instance, a 200mm lens would require a shutter speed of at least 1/200sec and a 500mm lens would require a shutter speed of at least 1/500sec, and so on.

Generally speaking, this is an important directive, however, following this rule to the letter will not be sufficient enough to adequately freeze the movement of animals that move quickly. For that (and assuming you have plenty of available light) you will need to adjust your shutter speed as required. For running animals, think 1/1000sec to 1/1600sec and for birds in flight, think 1/2500sec.

Ambush! We have been watching a herd of grazing Guanacos (wild relatives of the Llama) in Chile's magnificent Torres del Paine. They gradually approach the area where we think a Puma is lying in wait in the 'mata barrosa' and 'calafate' bushes. She is! As a Guanaco nears her hiding place she bursts forth, scattering pieces of vegetation high into the air! Image by Mark Beaman of Wild Images

A puma (Puma concolor) ambushes a Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) in Chile (Image by Mark Beaman)

It is always a good idea to systematically review your images and check for signs of unwanted motion blur, and if there is any, increase your shutter speed.

Use Continuous Focus

It is vital that you are able to effectively track a moving subject whilst maintaining focus, and this is where modern camera systems have, and continue to break new ground.

Your subject will either be moving closer or further away or it will be moving across in front of you while maintaining a moderately fixed distance. The former can be more challenging for your camera because it has to endeavour to track your subject whilst at the same time relay any deviations in the plane of focus to the lens in order that it [the lens] can keep up with the action.

A racing Gemsbok from the air at Sossusvlei, Namibia

A Gemsbok oryx (Oryx gazella) in full sprint, Sossusvlei, Namibia (Image by Inger Vandyke)

For that reason, switching to continuous/servo focus instructs your camera to continually look for the best possible focus. Consequently, as your subject strays from the plane of focus, your camera will automatically adjust the lens’s focusing distance inline with the subject in an effort to retain optimum sharpness.

If possible, try to lock on to your subject and follow it for a short while before taking your first image. So, as your subject moves towards you, select your focus point, position that point over the area of your subject you would like to be in focus and press and hold your camera’s shutter halfway. Your camera should now track your subject. When you are happy that your camera has established focus and is tracking correctly you can start to take your shots.

Use a Single or Small Group of Focus Points

To prevent your camera inadvertently focusing on the background or the foreground at the crucial moment, try using a single, or small group of focus points, as this will often deliver the best results with subjects that are moving.

With the majority of lenses, the centre of the frame contains the more accurate focusing area for the simple reason that this is the spot that is free from any lens distortion. Therefore, when tracking moving subjects, the focus points closer to the centre of the frame will frequently produce the more pleasing results.

Use Continuous Drive

Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have separate single shot and continuous shooting modes, with the continuous mode often having high-speed and low-speed options. Armed with the ability to take a series of shots (in some cases as much 12 frames per second – fps) increases your chances of successfully capturing the briefest of moments.

Try Handholding

Tripods can be fairly restrictive when it comes to photographing wildlife in action. Therefore, if you are confident, and or comfortable, with handholding your equipment, you can take full advantage of being able to move much more freely, allowing you to react quicker and effectively follow your subject’s movements.

A pair of Steller's Sea Eagles go head to head in Hokkaido, Japan! Photography tours by Pete Morris

Steller’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus) go head-to-head, Hokkaido, Japan (Image by Pete Morris)

Lenses with vibration reduction will assist with any camera shake, and as mentioned earlier, the use of an appropriate shutter speed to freeze the action, should neutralise the effects of not being tripod mounted.

Pay Close Attention to Behavioural Signs

Animals tend to be creatures of habit and as such are mostly predictable with a fundamental set of innate behaviours. Most innate animal behaviour is instinctual and relies on responses to stimuli. So, while you are on a Wild Images photography tour, make sure to keep an eye out (and an ear for that matter) for what is happening in your subject’s environment.

Hurtling down the slope regardless of the rocks

A snow leopard (Panthera uncia) explodes into action, Ladakh, Himalayas (Image by Mark Beaman)

By spending enough time with your subject, observing and paying close attention to their daily routines, you will be able to anticipate what they may do next and therefore be prepared, ready and waiting to capture that winning shot!

Author: Wild Images Tour Leader Andrew Sproule