Shutter speed: Which are the best for wildlife photography?
Here are my top 5 go-to shutter speeds!
By Gerhard “Guts” Swanepoel – Co-owner Pangolin Photo Safaris
Choosing a shutter speed correctly at the right moment can be the difference between getting the shot and getting it completely wrong. In this video tutorial, I will explain in detail my top 5 “go-to” shutter speeds that I always have in mind when photographing wildlife.
Of course, you will also want to use different shutter speeds depending on the situation and the camera and lens combination you are using but these are the five that are my “go-to settings”!
Slowest shutter speed: 1/10s for slow panning shots
Panning shots are always difficult to get right. I have thrown away tonnes of images that just weren’t quite right. The trick is to move your camera on a horizontal plane with a single focal point right on the eyes (or at least head) of the subject.
If you get this right then the shape of the animal will be identifiable with motion blur in the legs. The head, however, should be as sharp as possible. The look we are going for is dramatic motion even if the animal is not actually moving that fast.
I love panning shots. Even when you come across animal as mundane as an impala strolling past you can have some creative fun and the results can be surprisingly good.
Wild dogs are great for panning shots as they have a great trotting speed with nice long legs that really blur well. When I go to Bushman Plains, in the Okavango Delta, we tend to spend quite a lot of time with the dogs there as they are firm favourites of the guides there.
Slower shutter speed: 1/60s for faster panning
As with my super slow shutter speed for panning shots of mammals I also enjoy taking panning shots of birds in flight.
By their very nature birds will be moving faster. If not then they would fall out of the sky! To give the impression of speed in motion you will need a textured background. That could be water or foliage for example.
The exception to this rule, however, if you have a bird like a kingfisher hovering and you want to blur the wings and have the head pin-sharp. Then the background works better if it’s clear of any distinct lines like branches or a tree line.
The Chobe has lots of kingfishers in residence. From the tiny yet stunning malachite kingfisher right up to the much larger and aptly named giant kingfisher. The most abundant species, however, is the pied kingfisher which are great subjects as they are always active and spend lots of time hovering looking for prey before diving down into the water. Great fun!
Minimum shutter speed for sharp images: Lens dependent
This is shutter speed is dictated by the lens on your digital camera that you are using at that time. In essence, you have to double the amount of the focal length of your lens.
If you are using a 100-400mm lens then you multiply the maximum focal length of 400 by 2 and you then have a shutter speed of 1/800s. This exposure time during the shot will help get you sharp images and with freezing motion in your subject.
This is an important number to know especially when you are hand holding a camera and even more so when the light starts to fade a little bit.
On our photo boats in The Chobe, we have gimbals mounted to the chairs which allow you to stabilise a little better and avoid camera shake.
A super versatile shutter speed: 1/2500s
This is the shutter speed that I tend to start every afternoon game drive or boat cruise on. In wildlife photography in Africa, we tend to have lots of light at our disposal and so we can afford to have the aperture open for this amount of time.
This shutter speed means I am ready for any action that we come across. I shoot manual with back button focus. f/8 on the aperture and ISO set to automatic. This has me ready for any moving subjects and I know that with that amount of light available I should be able to just concentrate on the action and the composition.
One important thing to remember when you are packing away your camera gear at the end of the game drive or boat cruise is to reset your aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation settings back to your default. Many a time I have missed a shot by not doing this and have raised my camera to shoot the first subject of the drive only to realise I am on the settings from the night before for example. Deeply frustrating doesn’t come close.
Fast shutter speed: 1/4000s for small birds
It’s a great feeling when you nail a shot of a small bird and the wings are super sharp. With a moving object that small its always tricky but a super fast shutter speed helps enormously. Again we are lucky in Africa that we have such great light through the year and such amazing subjects too like kingfishers, skimmers, carmine bee-eaters and even pygmy geese.
If you enjoy bird photography as much as I do then you should consider coming to The Chobe during what is known as green season but what we like to call birding season. All of the summer migrants are in residency and the backgrounds are a beautiful green. It’s a very special time.
These settings above are just five that I suggest you remember. If using custom controls on your camera you can dial in the shutter speed for panning into one of those. That way when you see a panning opportunity its a quick turn of the mode dial.
We like to encourage all our clients to try and get more creative with different shutter speeds when they are on safari with us. More often than not the images that give us the most joy are not the pin-sharp capture of an animal in its environment. Instead, it’s an image that challenges the viewer and portrays a sense of motion or action.
We have several photographic workshops that we run through the year where either I or one of my fellow photo hosts will help you explore your creativity and arm you with an arsenal of photo techniques to take your imagery to the next level.
No matter what level of photographic experience you have already there is always something new to try and learn and there is no better classroom in the world than the African Bush.