Animal photography is challenging due to your subjects’ sudden movements. But with a bit of patience and the right camera settings you can capture fleeting moments of almost human-like expression and emotion.
Animals make great subjects for portraits, but you can’t tell them to sit still and smile for the camera. You have to be ready to capture the creatures’ behaviour and their expressions the instant they happen, and you also need to make sure that your camera’s set up to respond quickly.
To try this out, we went down to Pennywell Farm in the heart of Devon, where they’ve got a nice selection of animals to photograph, including some truly adorable piglets. Some of the animals live indoors, where the shooting conditions are tricky at best, while some are out in the open in completely different lighting.
When you’re faced with all these great subjects you don’t want to be distracted by fiddly camera settings and risk missing out on some great pictures, so the first thing is to pick settings which will work in a wide variety of conditions. You want to be able to spend your time getting great pictures, not worrying about menu settings and dials.
If you’re shooting landscapes, portraits or any other relatively static subject, there’s a good case for being very specific with your camera setup for every shot you take. But in changing and varied conditions like you get with animal photography, there’s nothing wrong with choosing Program AE mode and Auto White Balance if it helps you get the shots you want.
You will need to change your autofocus settings. In normal photography, most of us have our cameras set up for accuracy first and speed second. For animal photography, though, you need it the other way round.
Larger animals like horses are relatively docile and placid, but sheep, pigs, goats and birds move quickly and unpredictably. You can capture great expressions, but they’re gone in an instant, so you have to be quick!
Here’s our guide to getting great animal photography – just be sure to take your wellies and plenty of memory cards with you.
Set up your camera to shoot animal photography
In most everyday photography you want your camera to operate in a precise, controlled and predictable way, but when you’re animal photography with often mercurial subjects you need it to respond quickly to changing situations. This means you need to get your camera set up for animal portraits. Try the following tips for getting the best shots…
01 Turn off the flash
Don’t use flash for animal portraits. It might be dark inside barns, but you can get round that by using a higher ISO. There will be more noise, but the lighting will be infinitely better. If you ask the staff, they may be able to hold the animals for you while you take pictures.
02 Use continuous mode
Animals are unpredictable, and it’s hard to know when the best shot is going to happen, so shoot in short bursts rather than taking single shots. Two or three shots should be enough, and keeping it short will help clear the camera’s buffer quickly so that it’s ready to shoot again.
03 Continuous AF
Focusing can be tricky because animals don’t stay still. Single-shot AF is fine with animals that hold a pose for a few seconds at a time, but continuous AF is best where they’re moving constantly – the camera will keep refocusing while the shutter button is half-pressed.
04 Auto-area AF
Normally we recommend single-point autofocus because this gives you more control, but you can’t be sure where animals will be in the frame from one moment to the next. Auto-area AF can help here, because the camera will automatically switch focus to whatever is nearest.
05 Auto White Balance
The light changes if you move from outdoors to indoors, and not just in intensity. Artificial lighting can make the White Balance hard to predict, so it’s simpler to leave it set to Auto. Most of time you’ll get good results, and if you set the camera to raw you can change it later.
06 Shooting behind bars
Here’s a trick for subjects which are behind fences: get your camera right up close to the fence so that the lens is touching it. This will throw the fencing so far out of focus it will hardly show. You can see a faint rectangular grid in this picture, but the bird still stands out sharp and clear.
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