When it comes to wildlife photography, choosing the right auto-focusing mode can often make the difference between getting a perfect action photo and missing an incredible moment. Your digital SLR camera has a number of shooting options. Which, when activated, can be give you the leverage you need in order to nail a shot on the first attempt. I am referring to auto-focusing modes and the various custom AF settings on your camera.

wildlife photography

I am a self-confessed Nikon user. All my cameras (the ones that I use now) are Nikon. I have borrowed Canon cameras from time to time and used them, but I really love Nikon (and just to clarify – I don’t get anything for saying this). So I will be discussing the following points in Nikonian. For all you Canonites reading this, you would still be able to use these tricks, just make sure to change the Nikon aspects with Canon’s.

Scenario 1 – If your subject is standing still

wildlife photography

Ideally if your subject is standing still you should be able to use single point auto-focus in order to focus precisely where you want. Single point AF is denoted by the letters AF-S on the LCD screen. Since this mode allows you to retain focus for as long as you keep the shutter release pressed half-way down, you would also be able to recompose and make the shot.

The only problem is when the subject decides to take a walk, after you have locked focus and recomposed and prior to fully depressing the shutter release. The camera will not reacquire focus automatically in such situations. For situations such as this you need continuous auto-focus.

Single point auto-focusing is ideal when you are photographing slow moving animals like the big five in Africa or birds such as stork or kingfishers that are waiting in earnest before swooping to make a catch. Modern DSLRs have the center AF point the most sensitive. It is usually a cross-type AF point. In some cameras the center AF point is a dual cross-type. Thus this technique usually works best when you set the center AF point as the active one.

Scenario 2 – When your subject is moving about or fidgety

wildlife photography

If your subject is moving around continuous auto-focusing is the answer. Continuous auto-focusing allows you to select any AF point and when the subject moves the camera automatically re-acquires focus by using another AF point in the frame which coincides with the subject. The result is particularly effective when you use auto-focusing with the area mode set to auto.

The only problem with continuous auto-focusing is that you cannot use the focus and recomposing technique with this. This is because each time you recompose the camera will refocus. If you use a single AF point that will result in the camera auto-focusing on anything that underlies on that point.

If you use continuous auto-focusing – auto area mode your camera will move the AF point around. Which means you have absolutely no control over where it finds and locks focus on to.

Continuous auto-focusing with single AF point is ideal when your subject is moving around and you follow it without issues, keeping the AF point locked fairly where you want to have the sharpest focus. Continuous auto-focusing with auto area mode is ideal when you are unable to keep the focus point where you want to and want the camera to take over.

Scenario 3 – When you are panning and have obstacles between you and the subject

wildlife photography

This may happen when you are photographing a bird or a gazelle or anything that’s moving very quickly in a more or less uniform distance from you across the frame. Let’s say you are by a swamp photographing migratory birds and this particular winged subject in full flight catches your attention.

You quickly lock focus but a bush appears between you and the subject.The camera refocuses on the obstacle. When it reappears the camera takes a vital micro-second to re-acquire focus. By that time you have missed the shot.

This can be extremely frustrating but the solution is surprisingly simple. Use the Focus tracking with lock on tool. On your Nikon system scroll down to ‘Custom Setting Menu’ then to ‘Auto-focus’ and then click ‘Focus tracking with lock on’.

This option basically controls how quickly your camera reacquires focus when it loses it like in the above situation. You will have the option to choose between 1 (short) to 5 (long). If set to 1 the camera will immediately reacquire focus, which is not what you would want in the scenario above.

If you set it to 5, the camera takes a really long time, which is ideal for avoiding situations like getting a sharp blade of grass rather than a sharp eye in your photos. However, this is troublesome when you want the camera to quickly reacquire focus. Thus, the ideal solution would be to change the settings depending on the type of subject you are photographing and the environment you are photographing in.

A word on back-button focusing

wildlife photography

I will explain a technique here that is going to hold you in good stead when shooting wildlife photos – back button focusing.

Back-button focusing is a technique that is used quite frequently by protogs. This basically allows the photographer to separate the two functions that are associated with the shutter release button.

Normally, the shutter release button works not only as the trigger that releases the shutter curtains but also the mechanism that acquires focus. When you half depress the shutter button focus is acquired. Then when you depress fully the shutter release mechanism is activated and the exposure is made.

With the back button focusing technique you assign the task of focusing to some other button at the back of the camera (thus the name). Protogs using Nikons use the AE-L/AF – L button because the purpose of that button is the lock focus and exposure anyways.

To assign the task of focusing to that button, navigate down to ‘Controls’ then on to ‘Assign AE-L/AF-L button’ and then ‘AF-On’. Press ok. Now, when you press the shutter release it will only capture the image. To lock focus you will need to press the AE-L/AF-L button.

Why, you may ask, should one use the back button focusing technique? You see, with the back button focusing method, you no longer have to use manual focusing in order to lock focus and every time you press the shutter release you fire to make an image, not to lock focus.

With auto-focusing the hazard is every time you press shutter release the camera will reacquire focus. This is a problem when using the focus and recompose technique. If you accidentally take your finger off the shutter button and then press it again, oops, there goes your focus lock!

With back button focusing once you lock focus you no longer have to worry about keeping your finger pressed down on the shutter button. You can press AE-L/AF-L button once, acquire focus, recompose and keep shooting. If the subject moves, press the AE-L/AF-L button once more and you are good to go again.

Scenario 4 – Fast shooting with auto-focus priority selection

wildlife photography

The auto-focus priority selection is a great little tool that basically sets the priority for focus lock. In other words it tells the camera whether it should wait for focus to be locked before releasing the shutter or not.

You would think this is a no-brainer and you should always select focus before shutter is released. However, there may be instances when you may wish to avoid that and set the camera to fire shutter release without waiting for focus lock.

The above image of the geese flying is a perfect example. You really cannot wait for the camera to lock focus before releasing the shutter. At that distance and with the light coming from behind them it wouldn’t matter if the geese are in focus.

Additionally, for subjects that are moving too fast and with focus lock the drag time may be a little too much and you may end up with too many wasted shots. At least with release priority you will have enough shots to choose from.

Read more about photographing wildlife.

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib’s love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.
Rajib Mukherjee

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