Articles

Camera Settings For Wildlife Photography

Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi), or leaf monkey, mother breastfeeding her infant in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi), or leaf monkey, mother breastfeeding her infant in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

The following are the settings I use on my Canon 6D Mark II for wildlife photography. I have these settings saved into Custom Shooting Mode 1 (C1) on my camera. That way, all I have to do is turn the Shooting Mode dial on top of the camera to C1 and all of my settings are loaded and ready to go, including the starting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

This article will start from Menu 1 (the red menu) on a Canon camera and go through each setting I have altered and consider important for the purpose of this article. If you do not have a Canon camera you should still be able to follow along, but you will need to find the corresponding setting name as it may be different on your camera.

The Settings

Image quality - RAW

Image review - Off

Release Shutter without card - Off

Lens aberration correction - All Off

ISO speed settings:

  • ISO speed - Auto

  • ISO speed range - L-12800

  • Auto range - 100-1600

    • *This is important because I don’t want any photo to be above 1600 as it gets too “noisy”.

White balance - Auto White Balance

Color space - sRGB

  • This is up for discussion. I choose to shoot in sRGB despite it being a smaller color spectrum because I found that when I edited in AdobeRGB my images would be converted to sRGB anywhere that I shared them (Instagram, etc.) anyway and then they would look different from what I intended. By starting in sRGB my images always look as I intended, no matter where they are shared.

Format card

  • Always check the box for Low Level Format when formatting your SD card as it provides the best and most reliable format

Exposure C.Fn I menu

Meter mode - Select only Evaluative Metering and Spot Metering

Autofocus C.Fn II menu

Tracking sensitivity - 0

Accel./decel. tracking - 0

AF pt auto switching - 0

AI Servo 1st image priority - Release

AI Servo 2nd image priority - Balanced

Lens drive when AF impossible - Continue focus search

Select AF area selec. mode - Select only 1 pt. and Zone AF

Initial AFpt - Manual AF pt

AF point selection movement - Stops at AF area edges

AF point display during focus - Selected (constant)

VF display illumination - Enable

AF Microadjustment - See my adjustments for the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8

Warnings in viewfinder - When monocrhome is set, When NR is set, When HDR is set

Custom controls:

  • Shutter button - AF

  • AF-ON - ISO

  • * - AF-OFF

  • SET - Exposure compensation

  • Top dial - Av (Aperture)

  • Back dial - Tv (Shutter speed)

What I keep in my favorites

Page 1:

  • Long exp. noise reduction

  • Interval timer

  • Info button display options

  • Image review

  • Highlight alert

Page 2:

  • ISO speed settings

  • Time-lapse movie

  • Movie digital IS

  • Remote control

  • Wireless communication settings

Page 3:

  • C.Fn I: Exposure

  • Mirror lockup

In addition to these menu settings I have the following settings set as a starting point:

  • Shutter speed: 320 (this is because I use a 300mm lens with IS)

  • Aperture: 1.8 (the lowest on any lens I own. This makes every lens start at its lowest aperture)

  • ISO: Auto

  • Other: AI Servo AF, Manual selection: 1 pt AF, Evaluative metering, High speed continuous shutter drive

Las but not least, I use a Battery Grip. The extended battery life is nice (it holds two batteries), but what I really love about it is the comfortable placement of secondary shutter and AF buttons while shooting in portrait orientation.

There you have it. Those are the camera settings I use when I’m out in the wild taking photos of animals. You can plug all these settings in your camera to try them out, but keep in mind, everyone is different. If you don’t like something, if you prefer back-button autofocus, or if you ate Auto ISO, don’t hesitate to change them to your liking. I won’t get too offended.

What kind of camera do you use? Which of my settings would you change? Let me know in the comments.

Standing Out

Wallace's hawk-eagle (Nisaetus nanus) close-up, perched on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Wallace's hawk-eagle (Nisaetus nanus) close-up, perched on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

I recently listened to an excellent interview of Ramit Sethi by Mat D’Avella. During the interview Sethi spoke about wedding photographers and how, when he was looking for one for his own wedding, it was nearly impossible to find one that wasn’t the same as all the rest. He mentions how few people in the industry stand out, and we should be looking at those who do to see why.

It seems when people start a business (myself included), we look at the websites and social media of other photographers we know, popular or unknown, and copy some bits from this one and some from that one. Not sure how much to charge someone who wants to hang your fine art photo on the wall? Google “average price of fine art photo”. Then you can be average.

But we don’t want to be average. At least I don’t, and I can’t imagine you do either. I want to be extraordinary, a top performer, an industry leader. I want to be the Ferrari of wildlife photography and demand a price that matches my quality. But how do we do this?

The short answer is, I don’t know. A longer, more thoughtful answer would be to start looking at high-end photographers demanding seemingly outrageous prices, like Peter Lik. Except these prices are not outrageous, they are just high. Many people are willing to pay them. And if your work is good and you put a lot of time into your art, then you deserve that price.

This is what I am working on now, and I thought it might be helpful for you to work on it with me. I am looking at high-performing photographers and their websites, marketing, physical stores, etc. to see what makes them stand out. One thing I’m not looking at much is their photos. I don’t think it necessary to copy their art. If people pay a lot of money, it’s because what they are paying for is original, not the same as what they can get at the thrift store.

So get out there and start writing down things you notice and new ideas. Try them out and if they don’t work, scrap them and go back to the drawing board. I’m going to be working on it right along with you, and I’d love to hear any ideas you might have in the comments below.

Don't Throw Shit Against The Wall To See What Sticks

Yellow-eared spiderhunter (Arachnothera chrysogenys) perched on a twig in the jungle of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Yellow-eared spiderhunter (Arachnothera chrysogenys) perched on a twig in the jungle of Sumatra, Indonesia.

There is a saying many creatives and entrepreneurs use when giving advice to “wannabes”. They tell them to throw shit against a wall and see what sticks. I would say that this is actually good advice. Throwing shit against a wall means you are doing something productive rather than binge watching Netflix, and eventually it is possible that something will stick. But you could get something to stick much faster and feel prouder if you think about it another way.

I would say rather than throwing shit against a wall to see what sticks, hang great art on the wall (it doesn’t matter if it hangs a bit crooked) and one of those pieces may just attract a crowd. The difference in these two sayings is that one means, “just do something and put it out there” and the other says, “do something you are proud of and that you worked hard on and then put it out into the world”. If you do the latter, you are far more likely to attract a crowd quickly. After all, would you want to join a crowd that is looking at shit on a wall?

On my task list every day I have two tasks that appear at the top (I use todoist so this is completely automated everyday). These two tasks are Make and Share. Every day I must make something and I must share something. The “make” does not have to be something new - it could be continuing an article like this one that I have been working on for a while. It just means I have to do some type of creating every day. The “share” also doesn’t have to be anything crazy. It doesn’t mean I have to set up an art show on the street. It could be as simple as sharing a slideshow of my photos from a recent trip with a group of friends, but more often it is entering a photo competition, posting an article on my website, or posting a photo on Instagram.

As you can see, my average “share” methods aren’t making one-million dollars each. They are simply one more way that my work could get noticed. With 365 ways to get noticed each year, eventually one of these “makes” are bound to attract a crowd. Even if it takes fifty years, something will be noticed.

This small set of two tasks per day has gotten me articles in Destination’s Magazine, reposted on National Geographic, and had my photo reviewed by Elia Locardi on an Fstoppers “Critique the Community” video. Each of these has led to a few more followers, a few more emails, and a little bit more interest in my work. Alone, each one is not going to change my life. But together, these and those that are to come easily could.

One of the most important things I have noticed about the pieces of work that have gained a little bit of traction is that each one is something I spent a lot of time on and put a ton of work into. Almost nothing that I quickly wrote and posted or snapped and shared without any thought behind it, just to complete the task for that day, has gained any extra viewership.

When you decide to create something, put everything you’ve got into it. It’s not just about finishing (although, you also should not let yourself get stuck in the pit of perfectionism), it is about making something you can be proud of. Even if you look back on it in a year and think, how could I have thought that was good?!, you can be proud knowing that right now you put your heart and soul into it. People will notice and be drawn to it.

So get off your ass and start creating. Pour yourself into something and have the courage to share it with the world. If you haven’t shared your work before it is difficult at first, but it continues to get easier. Friends and family might make fun of you a bit, but eventually people will start telling you how much they love what you are doing. And that little bit of affirmation will give you the power to do more. Start with a little “make” and then post a small “share” and eventually, whether in days or years or decades, your creative goals will be attained.

What's In My Bag? Wildlife And Stock Photography

Green crested lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) portrait in the jungle of Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Green crested lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) portrait in the jungle of Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Here is a list of all the gear I carry in my camera bag. Enjoy.

Canon 6D Mark II

This camera got a lot of shit when it came out. People talked shit about the focus points and the dynamic range, the lack of 4K video, and so much more. But I have to say, I like it. If I were buying a camera today, I would only buy a mirrorless camera. But I didn’t buy this today, I bought it a year ago, and it has served me well. I also find the dynamic range to be excellent, and the ISO performance is a vast improvement from my old T6i.

Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 OSM Sports

This lens has been incredible. I bought it used for a bargain and it has gotten me some of the sharpest images with buttery bokeh that I’ve ever taken. It’s a beast--it’s heavy and a pain in the ass to take with me. I always complain when a long trek begins and dream about other lenses I could have. But as soon as I start shooting I always praise the lens and am happy I brought it along. The only issue I have with this lens is that Sigma’s customer support is terrible.

Canon 50mm f/1.8

This lens is incredible. If you are starting out in photography and you want to shoot street, portraits, or just all around stock, buy this lens now. Even if I had a spare $2k to spend, I don’t think I would replace this lens with it’s L counterpart. The 1.8 aperture is good enough for me and it is incredibly sharp. I couldn’t ask for a better deal.

Canon 17-40 f/4

I got this lens for a bargain, used, by trading a Canon 24mm f/2.8 for it in Malaysia. I'm still happy about that trade, as I love the flexibility of a zoom over a prime for landscape photography, which is my primary use for this lens. This is the lens I have on my camera for 95% of sunrises and sunsets I photograph. I also took it with me on the street when I visited the Roman Colosseum, since I knew it would require a wide angle to capture the whole structure. I would prefer a newer 16-35 f/4, but for the price this is a great lens.

Sigma 2x Teleconverter

One beauty of having an f/2.8 telephoto lens is the ability to double the zoom range and still have an aperture of 5.6. I use this teleconverter all the time when photographing birds and other small animals, as well as when I'm at parks what where it is not allowed to get too close to the animals.

Tripod with RRS BH-55 Ballhead

I don't always have this in my bag, but I do strap it to the bag when I'm going out for sunrise and sunset. It's heavy and bulky and I don't always want to carry it if I'm not going to use it. Usually it stays in my car and I grab it if I need it.

Accessories

  • Extra batteries (3)

  • Canon wireless remote trigger

  • SD cards in a Pelican case

  • Shower cap from a hotel bathroom (for keeping water off the lens in rain and at rivers/waterfalls

Waiting For Perfect Conditions Vs. Taking Photos

Red-headed krait (Bungarus flaviceps) eating a frog in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Red-headed krait (Bungarus flaviceps) eating a frog in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Many people I talk to worry about the perfect time of day, weather conditions, the position of the sun, whether there is or is not precipitation, and so many other factors out of their control in order to get the perfect photo. So do I, admittedly. I only like going out in the morning or evening, and I prefer shooting wildlife at golden hour to any other time of day. I also love shooting in the snow, especially during a snowstorm.

Often, I let these factors get in the way of a shoot, and I know I’m not the only one. What I mean by that is if I wake up in the morning and I would prefer to get another hour of sleep that day rather than pull on all my winter gear to go shoot in the cold, I have all these different ways to talk myself out of it. Maybe I’ve checked Clear Outside and decided that there are too many low clouds and not enough high clouds to have good light. Or the wind is too high so the deer are less likely to be in the spot where I want to photograph them. Or even that it isn’t snowing, and I really want a picture of a cardinal with snow falling, so I might as well stay in bed.

These are all things we tell ourselves to make our life easier. Not better, just easier. It’s easier to stay in bed rather than go out and shoot. And it’s not just the weather we use as an excuse. Sometimes we tell ourselves we are gaining knowledge and improving by watching tutorials on wildlife photography or reading books on the subject. These can be great tools to improve, but nothing will hone your craft like getting out and shooting.

The excuses from your mind and body won’t stop, so you must put systems into place to beat them. Put your alarm clock (for most of us that’s our cell phone) in the kitchen and put the alarm on full blast so you have to run and get it before it wakes everyone up. Once you are out of bed and your heart is pounding you are far more likely to want to stay up. You could also put all the clothes and gear you will need into a neat pile the night before so you don’t have the excuse of not feeling like getting everything together (with the added benefit that you won’t forget anything).

I personally put my clothes and gear in a neat pile, put my alarm clock somewhere that I have to get out of bed to turn it off, tell someone I am going to the park tomorrow so as to create accountability (this one is probably the most important and highly underrated - humans care too much about what others think of them), and tell myself that I have taken awesome photos in every weather condition and I will never become a great photographer if I don’t go out and take photos.

Don’t let “getting ready” get in the way of creating great photos. You are ready. You have a camera and an able body. Get out and start shooting!

What kinds of things do you do to rid yourself of that procrastination demon inside? I’d love to hear from you.