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Recently Anna-Mart Kruger and Helene Wiggett of iCapture Africa Photo Safaris and HAWK photography shared with us 10 things to think about in order to master wildlife photography. With our Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year 2016 competition already in its second month, these two talented photographers now let us in on 12 technical things to think about to improve your photography. 

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1. DSLRs

The vast majority of professional photographers use DSLRs. It helps you to achieve peerless control over your settings. DSLRs also have very good continuous drive performance, thus giving you the opportunity to capture the action shot you’re after. DSLRs are extremely rugged, which is useful if you shoot in rough-and-tumble environments.

2. DX vs FX

The size of your DSLR’s sensor has an effect on a lens’ effective focal length. The professional FX cameras have larger sensors and are also called full-frame cameras. On the DX camera, the smaller sensor means that you use a shorter focal-length lens to get the same angle of view. For example, if  you use a 50mm lens on an FX camera, you’d need to use a 35mm lens on a DX camera to get the same angle of view – and the 35mm lens will yield much more depth of field because of its shorter focal length.

The FX sensor, with more light gathering area, offers higher sensitivity and, generally, lower noise. The DX sensor makes it possible to design lighter, smaller cameras.

3. Supports

The bigger the lens, the more difficult it is to hold it in position. You either need very strong arms or a monopod to take the weight, allowing you to concentrate on looking for wildlife opportunities. Wildlife photography often requires you to quickly change your position. A tripod serves its purpose, but a cheaper monopod with an adjustable ball head can prove a good alternative. Even a beanbag can do the trick in a pinch.

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4. Lenses

Kit lenses such as the 18-55mm are an economical way of taking wider-angle shots, particularly when you are saving up for your first telephoto lens. The most useful lens for wildlife photography is a telephoto lens. A classic beginner zoom is a 70-300mm Canon – it covers most things you’ll want to shoot in your early years of photography. A zoom is a good alternative to a prime lens, as you can line up your subject. The drawback, however, is that most zoom telephoto lenses have relatively constrained apertures once zoomed in, which means slow shutter speeds.

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5. Memory cards

Capacity-wise, a 12 MP camera shoots raw files roughly 15MB in size, which means you’ll be able to capture 1,000 images. For higher resolution cameras even larger (32GB/64GB) cards are necessary. The speed of your card is also a consideration for continuous modes or full HD video capture.

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6. Shutter speed

Decide what is most important when exposing your shot. If a crisp shot is your priority, you need a shutter speed priority so use a wider aperture and higher ISO to compensate. If you want your background to be out of focus with a static subject, a wider aperture priority has to be used. You will be able to use a faster shutter speed and probably a lower ISO.

General rule: The slowest shutter speed you use on your camera is 1/focal length of your lens. So if you use a 400mm lens, the slowest shutter speed you use for handhelds would be 1/400.

To demonstrate movement, you can try the “Zoom Effect”. What you need to do to get this effect is to set your shutter speed to be a longer exposure and then, while taking the shot (between when the shutter opens and closes), you need to use your zoom lens to either zoom in or out from your subject.

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7. Aperture

The aperture is the adjustable opening in a lens. The aperture is described as an F-number. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture. The bigger the number, the narrower the aperture.

With bright light, the iris contracts to let less light into your pupil and, therefore, controls the glare. The opposite is true in a dark environment. Typical apertures on a lens my vary from F3.5-F22 (with F3.5 quite large and F22 quite small).

A large aperture means a very slim depth of field, which allows you to have blurred backgrounds. Smaller apertures will leave much of your frame in focus. Larger apertures give you a lot of light to work with which, in return, means a faster shutter speed. It will give you a narrower depth of field, and help you to isolate your subject from its background.

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Using a large aperture and a quick shutter speed will not give you the correct exposure you want. Raise the ISO before sacrificing crispness by lowering the exposure time. Different lenses have different F-stop increments. Generally, the wider the maximum aperture (like F1.4) the more expensive the lens will be. Most entry-level lenses have an aperture of F3.5-5.6.

8. ISO

ISO is your camera’s measure of the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Low ISO of 200, for example, means the sensor does not react strongly to light: a higher number is needed for low light conditions.

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An ISO of 3200, for example, means the sensor reacts very strongly to light. Wildlife photography takes place in all weathers and often requires faster shutter speeds. For a solid, crisp shot you should count on using the upper reaches of your camera’s ISO.

The drawback, however, is that the higher the ISO, the more ‘noise’ is generated. This can partly be solved with post-processing software. A blurry image, on the other hand, is virtually impossible to ‘rescue’.

9. Exposure compensation

Exposure compensation is another tool built into your camera to provide you with more consistent exposures. There will be times when it cannot guess the exposure correctly. That’s when the exposure compensation function kicks in. It’s tricky but, when it comes to digital photography, it’s better to slightly underexpose than to overexpose. If your photos look flat and boring, you might consider overexposing them to get a high key effect.

You can also underexpose by 1/3rd or 2/3rds of a stop: you’ll immediately notice better colour and saturation.

Remember: If you overexpose a photograph there’s nothing you can do to bring back detail. For that reason, the general rule is rather to underexpose an image. It’s easier to bring out detail in shadowing areas using editing software than to reclaim detail in burnt-out areas.

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10. Manual mode

Setting your camera to manual mode takes longer, and the learning curve means you’ll make a lot of mistakes at first. However, the time invested in learning and understanding your camera’s settings is well worth it, and will open a world of possibilities in your photography. At the very least, you should get the hang of using aperture or shutter speed priority modes on your camera. This adds a lot of versatility to your interpretation of what you are seeing through your lens.

11. Focusing

All cameras have a number of AF points, varying from 10 to more than 50.  In automatic mode, the camera will look at the whole scene and pick out where the subject is in the frame, giving plenty of scope for error. By manually selecting a single AF point, you give your camera a much better chance of focusing accurately. This will also make you think about composition.

You may find the back button focusing option well buried in your camera’s menu system. Its function is to relieve your shutter of its autofocus duties: autofocus will only come on when you push a dedicated AF-on button on the back of your camera. That means that you can line up your subject with an autofocus point in the viewfinder, get the camera focus with a press of the AF-on button and wait for the perfect moment before firing the shutter. Assuming your subject doesn’t get closer or further away from you, you’ll have captured a perfect frame.

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Autofocus is great at detecting and locking on to strongly-defined subjects against plain backgrounds. A busy backdrop will cause problems. Autofocus performance will also drop when you are shooting in low light. In this situation, it’s better to switch to manual focus.

12. Black and white

Black and white photography was once the only means we had to communicate photographically. Its strength isn’t in what is said, it’s in what’s left out. It can convey much more emotion and a deeper meaning, forcing the viewer to add his own emotion to the images. This trick aids photographers in pre-visualising a black and white image, even though we live in a colour world. Silver Efex Pro 2 is a Photoshop or Lightroom plugin that does one thing: make black and white photos look incredible.

Perfect processing is as much part of photography as knowing which lens to use. It is using a process to transform photos from what was captured in a camera to either be closer to what our eyes saw, or to alter the image artistically. All images benefit from minor adjustments. To get the most from post-processing, you need to shoot images in RAW files. RAW images give you latitude for editing shadows and highlights, containing more detail than JPEGs. White balance can also be adjusted without losing image quality.

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For more great wildlife photography from Anna-Mart Kruger and Helene Wiggett, have a look at their website or follow them on Facebook.

Think you have what it takes to be Africa Geographic’s Photographer of the Year? Enter here.

Ndumu River Lodge
Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year

The Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition is brought to you by Land Rover and Canon, in association with At Close Quarters, Airlink, Klaserie Sands River Camp, Hideaways, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Thule and Rhino Tears. The competition will run from December 2016 to May 2017 and entrants can submit images via the online entry form or via Africa Geographic's Instagram channel. This profile will be used to showcase photographic tips from experts as well as blogs from our sponsors to set you on your way to becoming our Photographer of the Year!