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The end of the Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year 2016 competition is in sight and we can’t wait to see who the winners are! And after rifling through thousands upon thousands of entries it is clear that some are just a cut above the rest. We have no doubt that the photographers whose images will make their way into the realm of our finalist round know their cameras like the back of their hands, and we are pretty sure they are not shooting in auto mode.

Check out some of our most recent entries in the blog below as award-winning photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who has given us some great photography tips and advice over the last couple weeks, tells us how to graduate out of auto mode and why this is important:

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The temptation, when first picking up a DSLR full of buttons and menu options, is to keep it in auto and to just rely on one button, the shutter release. But doing so is an injustice to the camera. In auto, the camera is going to try to evenly expose the image, using whatever aperture, shutter and ISO setting it feels are required. Whilst this sounds like a good idea, because the aim is to get a correctly exposed image, there are very few times when the correct exposure is actually one in which the entire scene is evenly lit. Added to that, you will have no control over the depth of field, how the movement of the subject is frozen, or how much noise is in the image.

Let’s use the classic example of a pale bird with a dark background. The camera won’t know the bird is the important part of the frame, it will just try to even out the exposure between the bird and the dark background. The end result will be blown highlights in the bird, which is to say, there will be detail lost in the whites, rendering them as solid white. Not only that, but the background will be rendered very light as the camera will think you want to see into the shadows. In other words, the camera’s idea of the ‘correct exposure’ would actually be incorrect.

Master exposure and make your subjects stand out from the background, like these lions drinking at night in Ongava Game Reserve, Namibia. Image by Andrea Galli.
Master exposure and make your subjects stand out from the background, like these lions drinking at night in Ongava Game Reserve, Namibia. Image by Andrea Galli.

To expose an image and control how much light falls on the sensor, we have control of three things: the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Your camera will have three main modes outside of auto, which, in part, relate to these elements we can control. These three main modes are: aperture priority, shutter priority and manual.

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Aperture priority is a semi-automatic mode. Here, you control the aperture and the camera will adjust the shutter to suit. Setting your camera to this mode is useful when you need full control of the depth of field of the image. For example, if you’re using a telephoto lens and taking a photo of a bird on a stick, and you want it to really pop from the background, you’ll want to use as large an aperture as you can in order to narrow the depth of field. Doing this will help render the background as one smooth indefinable colour or colours.

Agama magic as this beauty pops out from a blurred background. Image by Ricci Goldstein.
Agama magic as this beauty pops out from a blurred background. Image by Ricci Goldstein.

By contrast, if you are shooting an environmental shot with a wider angle, where the subject is small in the frame and both the surroundings and animal are equally important, a small depth of field such as f/11 will help to give depth to the image by ensuring more of the scene is sharp.

Highlight the details by choosing the correct aperture. As demonstrated in this stunning image of elephants in Botswana by Ben Neale.
Highlight the details by choosing the correct aperture, as demonstrated in this stunning image of elephants in Botswana by Ben Neale.

Shutter priority is another semi-automatic mode where you control the shutter speed and the camera will work out the aperture. This is the mode to use when the most important aspect of your photo involves the moment of the subject and how you wish to convert that. For example, if you want to freeze the wings of a bird flying, a high shutter speed of 1/2000s or more may be required. The faster the shutter speed, the better frozen any elements moving at high speed will be. The shutter speed needed will varying depending on the speed of the motion.

A fast shutter speed captures the movement of a long-tailed widowbird displaying for females at Rietvlei Nature Reserve. Image by Chris Jek.
A fast shutter speed captures the movement of a long-tailed widowbird displaying for females at Rietvlei Nature Reserve. Image by Chris Jek.

Once you have mastered when and how to use the semi-auto modes, it’s time to move into the realms of manual exposure. Here, you have full control over the aperture, shutter and ISO. The camera will only expose for the light as you tell it, giving you the ultimate in creative control.

Master creative control in manual mode and make your images stand out from the crowd like this interesting elephant image by Brett Roux.
Master creative control in manual mode and make your images stand out from the crowd like this interesting elephant image by Brett Roux.

It does require some practice because you are adjusting everything, not just one or two things. So, if you decide you want to use a faster shutter speed, but don’t adjust the aperture to let in more light, or the ISO to increase light sensitivity, the image will start to underexpose as the shutter exposes the sensor to available light for less time.

This can be frustrating initially. However, sticking with it will reap rewards, as the faster you learn to read the scene in front of you, know what settings you need to achieve the desired image, and then makes those changes quickly, the faster you will improve your understanding of exposure control and with it, creativity within your photos.

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For more information on these three modes and how to make the best of them, sign up for Will Burrard-Lucas’ free wildlife photography course here or to ‘take-home’ some of his fabulous work, check out his brand new book: Top Wildlife Sites of the World, which features spectacular images from 32 of Will’s favourite wildlife destinations. Think you have what it takes to be Africa Geographic’s Photographer of the Year? Enter here before it’s too late!

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!