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With the Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year 2016 competition in full swing, Will Burrard-Lucas has been dishing out some amazing advice for aspiring wildlife photographers. In this next instalment Will looks at how to improve the sharpness of your images through shutter speed, using some of our most recent competition entries as examples. 

In order to get a sharp photo, you need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any motion that occurs during your exposure. There are two things that may move during your exposure: your camera (camera shake) and your subject (motion blur).

The wildebeest migration in motion in the Maasai Mara, Kenya ©Yaron Schmid
The wildebeest migration in motion in the Maasai Mara, Kenya ©Yaron Schmid

If your camera moves during your exposure, the entire picture will be blurry. When you use longer focal length lenses, camera shake is amplified because a small movement of your camera equates to a large movement in the resulting picture. As you use longer lenses, you, therefore, need to use faster shutter speeds.

The rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed faster than one over the focal length of your lens. For example, if you are using a 300mm lens, you should keep your shutter speed faster than 1/300th second. If your lens or camera has in-built image stabilisation then you have a bit more leeway. However, even with image stabilisation, I tend to stick to the rule of thumb, as there is little downside to having a shutter speed that is faster than necessary.

A pelican flies towards the camrea in Walvis Bay, Namibia ©Linda-Mari Viljoen
A pelican flies towards the camrea in Walvis Bay, Namibia ©Linda-Mari Viljoen

The megapixel count of your camera also comes into play. If you have a high resolution sensor then a small amount of camera shake will be more visible than on a low resolution camera.

An effective way to combat camera shake is to use support such as a tripod/monopod or by resting your camera on a beanbag. These methods can drastically reduce the minimum shutter speed you can use, but they can make framing your shot more cumbersome. While on safari, I typically rest my camera on the side of my vehicle, which helps steady it but doesn’t affect my manoeuvrability too much.

EF 100-400

When hand-holding the camera, a common mistake that beginners make is that they jab the shutter button, which causes the camera to move just as the shot is taken. Try to always squeeze the shutter button lightly so that your camera stays steady.

On the other hand if your subject moves during your exposure, then it will appear blurry. You, therefore, need to have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze its motion. There are no rules of thumb here as your shutter speed will be dictated by the speed of your subject and how large it is in your frame. If you have something that is filling your frame and moving fast, then you will need a very fast shutter-speed to freeze its motion.

A bateleur eagle in flight fills the frame. Image taken in Mabuasehube, Botswana ©Sandra Roniger
A bateleur eagle in flight fills the frame. Image taken in Mabuasehube, Botswana ©Sandra Roniger

For something like a running mammal that is reasonably large in my frame, then I will usually want a shutter speed that is at least 1/1000th second. Something like a flying bird might need to be even faster.

To get fast enough shutter speeds to eliminate camera shake and subject motion, you may find you need to select a high ISO, particularly if you don’t have a fast lens. Increasing ISO means your camera will be more sensitive to light so you can use faster shutter speeds and still get a well-exposed image. Increasing ISO will also result in more noise, but I wouldn’t worry about this too much as noise is better than blur!

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Noise may be visible when you zoom in to your photo 100%, but when you print or display your images online, it is much less visible. Photo processing software such as Adobe Lightroom also has excellent noise reduction features, which can work wonders on your images.

A baby white rhino runs towards the camera ©Jofie Lamprecht
A baby white rhino runs towards the camera ©Jofie Lamprecht

Sign up to Will’s free wildlife photography course and get instant access to his ebook: Ten Things you can do Right Now to Improve your Wildlife Photography! or keep up with Will on Twitter and Instagram for more of his amazing imagery and advice.

Think you have what it takes to be Africa Geographic’s Photographer of the Year in 2016? There are some amazing prizes up for grabs including a Canon EOS 70D from Canon South Africa, 5 nights at Mozambique’s Anantara Medjumbe Island Resort with flights from Airlink, two nights at the recently refurbished Tintswalo Atlantic, two nights at African Luxury Hideaways’ Elephant’s Eye, a getaway to iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and a wildlife photographic course from Big 5 Photos. What are you waiting for? Enter now!

Africa Geographic Travel
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!