Catching the decisive moment
The key to capturing exceptional images
You will often come across exceptional landscape or wildlife photos that, in spite of their intensity, still seem to emanate calm and convey the impression that the photographer had all the time in the world to fine-tune the composition. But don’t be fooled—when the critical moment arrives, you only have a split second to release the shutter. Even when shooting standard situations such as a sunrise, a landscape photographer has to be sure of capturing the few seconds during which the angle of the sun’s rays produce just the right degree of red in the morning sky. Wildlife photographers not only have to capture the best possible light, but also need to know their subject well enough to predict its behavior in the wild. You need to be fully focused on the job and have great reflexes to capture a great image of a wild animal that is apparently standing still. No animal in the bush is ever as still as your pet dog waiting patiently at “heel”, and is constantly on the lookout for the next potentially deadly attack from its natural enemies. Once the action starts—be it a hunting lion or a high-speed cheetah—you won’t have any time to check your gear or swap a lens.
Using telephoto lenses with focal lengths of 500mm and more requires a lot of practice if you want to use your viewfinder to track an animal that can accelerate from zero to 50mph in just a couple of seconds.
If a exceptional light situation comes up, search for interesting subjects in the foreground. That could be animals, a tree or even a simply rock. I have reached this impala herd in the last seconds of a sunset. There was no time to close the roof or the windows of the car, so I was totally wet, my camera got a strong shower too, but I was happy about this outstanding shot.
Impalas at sunset in a thunderstorm. The crazy high saturated colours are origin from the last sun rays against the dark sky.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, 1/400s at f5.6, Neutral, ISO 320, WB: Auto, Tv,
The following sequence from the cover picture demonstrates just how fast even the “calmest” natural phenomena can be. The photos were shot within a period of less than 30 seconds at sunrise near the equator during the short rainy season in the Serengeti.
The first rays of light break through the rain clouds, but are too low to properly penetrate the thick cloud cover
For just a few seconds, the sun’s rays are at just the right angle to make the clouds look like lava spewing from a volcano
A few seconds later, the sun is too high for its rays to penetrate the clouds and their color has already changed to blue/gray
All sunset photos: Canon EOS 7D, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM,, 1/60s at f4, Neutral, ISO 200, WB: Auto, Tv, Exposure compensation +0.5*
*The Canon EOS 7D and 1Ds Mark III models don’t expose to the right as aggressively as my Nikon D3, and experience has shown that I can usually produce more shadow detail by shooting with a permanent exposure compensation value of between +0.3 and +0.6. Both cameras have enough RAW headroom to recover lost highlight detail, but please read my previous article on exposure compensation (Light in the Darkness on www.serengeti-wildlife.com) before you blindly use the same setting.
The basic prerequisites for successful wildlife photography are solid photographic skills and a “fast” camera setup. If you are on a limited budget, an APS-C camera (with a 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor) with the fastest motor drive, fastest autofocus, and the longest lens in its class with image stabilization is your best choice. When it comes to lenses, a slightly shorter but bright telephoto used in combination with an “emergency” 1.4x teleconverter is always preferable to a dark, wobbly zoom without an image stabilizer. A good eye for an image, compositional flair, and the ability to predict when interesting situations will occur are all
abilities that improve with experience. You will need good reflexes to keep up with big cats on a hunt, and a well-developed gut feeling and an instinct for a chase will help you get into the right situations too!
My camera settings, whether I am shooting in Tv, Av, or manual mode:
* for optimum histogram viewing
** to give me the maximum range of shutter speeds within the minimum number of clicks
If you shot fast action sequences with a long lens, at most of the time you can get only one picture with a more or less good composition. Keep patience, watch the animals and press the shutter button in the right moment.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, 1/750s at f5.6, Neutral, ISO 200, WB: Auto, Tv, Exposure compensation +0.5
The right basic camera settings are also crucial to your success. It is essential to use a short shutter speed, an autofocus mode that uses the system’s central cross-type sensor, and the fastest continuous shooting setting you can muster. Always use shutter priority (Tv) shooting mode and Auto ISO set to the highest possible value at which image noise levels remain tolerable.
For maximum flexibility, set your shutter speed increment to one-stop intervals, allowing you to shift from 1/2000s to 1/30s in just six clicks. My “home” setting is 1/250s, which means I am just three clicks to the right away from 1/2000s for fast action sequences or three to the left for panned shots at 1/30s.
My third camera is a semi-pro model equipped with either a 28-70mm or a 35-105mm f/2.8 zoom and is usually set to 1/1000s and a wide- area autofocus mode. This is the one I use for reflex snapshots or for shooting from moving vehicles.
The cheetah photos bear witness to the usefulness of such a setup, and I already had the best parts of the scene in the bag by the time my colleagues had heaved their big lenses into position. Of the 12 shots I took (at 3 or 4fps), there are two in which both cheetahs are looking in my direction.
Even if it looks posed, I have my instincts to thank for this particular shot.
This sequence shows just how fast “resting” predators can move when they need to.
But not even the most expensive gear or killer reflexes will help if you don’t concentrate.
Leopards in particular are a major challenge for anyone’s patience. They can normally only be seen if they are sleeping or dozing in trees during the day, and they disappear almost completely into the bush or riverbank vegetation when they are hunting, only to reappear with a great leap at the critical moment. If you let your concentration lapse for just a couple of seconds or if your camera isn’t correctly set up (1/2000s and center-sensor AF), you can quickly spoil a once-in-a lifetime scene, just like I did! My preset multi-area AF couldn’t react fast enough as I raised the camera, 1/500s didn’t freeze the action, and the path of the leopard’s leap wasn’t right for a pan either. Only the last image of the sequence is more or less usably sharp.
The following four stages of a chase take place in the wild within a period of eight to 20 seconds. A sequence like this one of a cheetah on the hunt is impossible to shoot without first using a long telephoto to focus on the subject before the action starts. To capture images like this, you need to have the animal in focus in the viewfinder and have a good idea of the direction it is going to run before it starts to move. Even if you manage to frame a running cheetah, autofocus is generally not quick enough to keep up. The only possible second chance occurs if the cheetah executes a sharp turn that slows it down or when it has already caught its prey and stops for the final kill. For this, see the third image, I estimated, the cheetah comes to close for the 800 mm and changed the camera.
Fast-paced action sequences can only be shot using a camera with a fast motor drive. If, like me, you shoot exclusively in RAW, you will find that most contemporary cameras cannot shoot sequences for more than three seconds before the firmware buffer fills up. The solution is to shoot in “salvos”, following your subject in the viewfinder and pressing the shutter in quick bursts of four or five shots when exciting action takes place.
Just before the chase begins, the cheetah tenses
its muscles in readiness
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, 1/750s at f8.0, Neutral, ISO 200, WB: Auto, Tv, Exposure compensation +0.5
The cheetah quickly reaches speeds of up to 90 kph (60 mph)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, 1/750s at f5.6, Neutral, ISO 400, WB: Auto, Tv, Exposure compensation +0.5
During the attack, a cheetah usually brings down its prey by grabbing its hind legs. This often causes both to fall or roll over.
Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR set to 400mm,1/640s at f5.0, Neutral, ISO 200, WB: Auto, Tv
Once the cheetah has settled down for the kill, the photo-grapher once again has plenty of time to compose a shot
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, 1/640s at f7.1, Neutral, ISO 200, WB: Auto, Tv,
Alongside fast equipment, you also need plenty of patience if you want to shoot excellent wildlife photos. It can take days or even weeks to find the animal you are looking for or to catch it behaving in a certain way. On the hunt for a highly anticipated photo, you can easily sit for hours in the blazing sun, with your red eye fixed to the viewfinder and your dehydrating body crying out for water. Animal scenes often take a long time to develop—this fight between two male zebras had been going on for more than four hours before they finally became so enraged that they bucked up on their hind legs and began to battle in earnest.
Some (cropped) details of this fight:
Basic knowledge of the behavioral patterns of your intended subject is essential. In East Africa and other tropical regions, predators often doze during the day so as not to waste unnecessary energy. If you happen to come across a wild dog hunting away form its den in the midday heat, it will usually take until sunset for you to actually see it in action. If you don’t wait, the creature will simply head off in to the distance without you.
Late afternoon, Canon EOS 7D, EF 800mm f/5.6
LIS USM (1280mm equivalent), 1/400 sec at f7.1,
Neutral, ISO 200, WB: auto, Tv
After sunset, Canon EOS 7D, EF 800mm f/5.6
L IS USM (1280mm equivalent), 1/500 sec at f5.6, Neutral,
ISO 200, WB: auto, Tv
Lions usually suffocate their prey with long bites to the neck or mouth before eating it. This method often induces a state of shock in the victim, and young, inexperienced lions often let go of a victim in the belief that it is already dead. Some Antelopes and zebras use this chance to make a break for freedom, and the real action begins just as you think you can drive on and avoid the bloody spectacle of a lion’s mealtime.
The final battle between an adult gnu and a pair of young lions can last for more than an hour and usually ends up looking fairly messy. You should only attempt to photograph chase scenes if you have a strong stomach and are capable of switching off your emotions while you work. Looking away and taking an occasional snap simply doesn’t work in situations like this. In spite of the speed of my motor drive, I only ended up with one shot in which the lion and his sister were both looking in my direction.
Nikon D2x, AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR set to 300mm
(450mm equivalent),1/200s at f4.0,
Neutral, ISO 180, WB: Auto, Tv
Nikon D2x, AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR set to 400mm
(600mm equivalent),1/200s at f5.0,
Neutral, ISO 100, WB: Auto, Tv
Staying cool and keeping your camera focused on a single point is important if you want to shoot images that can be displayed as a sequence, although a sequence only really works if you can crop all of the individual images to produce regular-looking framing. To achieve this, you need to set autofocus to cover your subject’s predicted path. Leopards are accomplished climbers and are even capable of elegantly shimming up a tree with their prey in their mouths. Lions can climb, too, but risk breaking bones if they lose their grip—and an injured lion makes easy prey for hyenas.
The ability to predict unusual lighting situations is another important factor in the hunt for the perfect wildlife photo. This shot of a herd of elephants was taken in the early morning on a cloudy day, with just a few rays of sun occasionally breaking through the cloud cover. I decided to wait for the situation to improve, and my patience was rewarded with this perfect “spotlight” of sun.
Once you have found the perfect light, you need something akin to a third eye or a 360-degree human radar to make the most of what nature offers. A brewing storm often provides a spectacular background, but the rain that a tropical storm throws at you provides dangers of its own. The enormous areas of short grass savannah in the South Serengeti quickly turn into a mud-bath that even the best off-road vehicles cannot easily escape from. In such weather, you need to stay permanently just ahead of the weather front. During the following sequence, we had already driven past the cheetah at a fair distance, but my colleague insisted on taking a couple of photos of the great bustard’s display. Although I am only usually interested in mammals and reptiles, I was using my long telephoto to focus on the bustard (the white dot in the second storm shot) when the rain broke. As we leapt into the car to escape the deluge, I saw the cheetah decide to make the bustard his dinner out of the corner of my eye.
My reserve camera came to the rescue, and I shot at 8fps from the moving car with almost 2EV underexposure. The result wasn’t the sharpest of images, but it can still be effectively enlarged and printed on a three-foot canvas.
Canon EOS 7D, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM set to 24mm (39mm equivalent),
1/500 sec at f2.8, Neutral, ISO 200, WB: auto, Tv
Our “boring” bustard …
… as seen by the cheetah
No Pain, No Gain
From a technical point of view, photography is a job that anyone can learn and, once you have got to grips with the basics, it is up to you to develop your technical and artistic skills. Recent improvements in technology have relieved us of a lot of split-second decisions, and today’s autofocus systems are faster than the most agile photographer. But we still have to learn to make the most of the technology on offer. You don’t need to make expensive trips to practice either— a dog is a perfect subject for honing your framing skills and learning to adjust focus areas on the fly.
As soon as a new camera with improved autofocus capabilities hits the market, I test it in the garden with my flying carpet Willy as my subject. This way, I can be sure of making the right adjustments at the right moment on my next trip. The slight contrast offered by a gray dog in the snow is just as tricky for a modern 3D focus tracking system to follow as a light brown lion in the dry savannah.
If you continually practice and test your camera’s capabilities in your free time, you will develop the confidence and the instincts you need to concentrate on the light and the subject when you are out on an important shoot.
© by Uwe Skrzypczak
Translated by Jeremy Cloot