We have recently shared with you a few blogs from the legendary Will Burrard-Lucas, covering a number of tips and tricks to help you improve your wildlife photography. Thanks to this advice, we have been receiving plenty of amazing entries into the Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year 2016 competition, some of which can be seen below.
In the last article we covered shutter speed, so now let’s consider focus, using some great entries into our competition thus far to demonstrate just what we are talking about!
Clearly you need to have your subject in focus for your shot to look sharp. The problem is, as you start to use longer lenses with large apertures, you get a very shallow depth of field. This means you have to be very careful to ensure that your camera is focusing on the right part of your subject. This can become even more difficult if your subject is moving.
When working with moving subjects or any lens with a shallow depth of field, I recommend using continuous autofocus rather than single shot focus mode. In single shot mode, your focus will be locked when you push the shutter button half-down. In the period of time before you fully press the button, you or your subject may move, resulting in a slightly out of focus image. In continuous autofocus mode, the camera will keep adjusting the focus right up until the point at which the photo is taken.
I usually select a very small part of the frame for the camera to focus on (usually a single focus point) and I keep this over my subject’s eye because that is always the part that I want in sharpest focus. Now, in order to frame my shot, I usually need to manually select an appropriate focus point. After a lot of practice, I have become very fast at switching autofocus points so that I can quickly compose my shots while keeping my active focus point over my subject’s eye. Often I may have to compromise a bit and not get the composition quite right, but by leaving a bit of extra space around my subject, I can always crop slightly to perfect the composition later.
The above method is relatively easy if you have a still subject, but when photographing moving animals (or flying birds), it can be very hard to keep a single focus point exactly over the eye. In this situation I will activate a zone of auto-focus points or all focus points. It then becomes impossible to guarantee the camera will focus on the eyes of the subject. In these situations there are two things you can do to increase your chances of getting an in-focus shot:
1. Use a smaller aperture.
Typically when shooting action, I will use a smaller aperture to give me more depth of field. This will give me more margin for error should my camera decide to focus on some other part of the animal. Try starting with an aperture of around f/8 and then move on to wider apertures as you get more experienced at tracking your subjects.
2. Take lots of pictures!
When photographing action, I use high speed drive mode on my camera so that when I hold the shutter button down, my camera takes many shots in quick succession. This not only increases my chances of getting the animal in a pleasing pose, it also increases the chances of the camera focusing on the right spot.
Now that you understand shutter speed and focus, you are 90% of the way to getting sharp images. We will cover the final 10% in the next blog in this series.
For more great wildlife photography advice from Will Burrard-Lucas, sign up to his free wildlife photography course and get instant access to this ebook. You can also keep up with Will on Twitter and Instagram.
Think you have what it takes to be Africa Geographic’s Photographer of the Year? Enter here.