Basics of wildlife photography – Part 1

Since you are reading this blog, I am sure it means either you have bought your first DSLR and/or you are about to venture for your first safari in wild to shoot wild animals. If this is what is on your mind you are reading the right article.

As a beginner in photography, I wandered a lot around the internet to understand the camera. However, it was not until some of the best in the industry mentored me and that is when I understood to use the device in an effective manner. I am not claiming that I am the best in wildlife photography however I have a decent experience of tracked close to 50 different individual tigers around wildlife parks in India. Since I’m professional trainer, I know very well how to get people acquainted with machines and give them a rolling start.

To become great at capturing images one must know the basic functions of the camera and you should also be able to adjust these functions on field. This knowledge has to be supplemented with understanding animal behavior and other rules of photography like rule of thirds, flowing lines etc. Let us keep that aside for now. Let us focus on the camera.

I will try to keep discussion as simple as possible with four basic rules divided over 3 parts.

  1. Adjusting White balance
  2. Managing the Exposure
  3. Focusing
  4. Metering


Part 1 – Under Part 1 let us look at first two rules. White balance and Exposure triangle


So what is white balance (WB) – Have you seen LED lights at home? They have mention of Kelvins. For example, bright lights at home are valued around 5000 kelvin. This is what we call as white balance. In-camera WB is setting that is used to get exact colors what you see. Remember a camera is a machine; it cannot replace the human eye. This setting is used by photographer to tell the camera – what white is white. It can be tweaked by photographer as required to get a punch in an image. Higher kelvins, that is 6000 plus will give you warm effect. From a yellow tinge all the way to orangish-red cast can be achieved at 10000 kelvin. On the other side you will see blue shades below 4000k. If you are shooting in golden hours you can get wonderful orange and reds by shooting on higher ranges. Daylight shots should be around 5200-5400K. By default WB will always be Auto, you can change it to preset. All camera has some presets for WB. Mid-range to the high range cameras will offer you adjustments for WB. So when you are on the field and about to shoot an image, tell the camera what cast you want in the image.


Shot this image early morning of December at Kanha National park. The fog assisted in making sunrays look like focus lights. Shot with high ISO and pushed up the temperature to get the tone for sunrays and snort of Guar who was anticipating presence of tiger around the herd.

Second is playing with exposure triangle. Exposure triangle has 3 critical parameters. First shutter speed, second aperture value and third is ISO. All three are related to each other. You need to manage all three at the same time. One goes wrong and your image will go for a toss. Consider the camera to be like a human eye.  How fast you blink your eyes is shutter speed. Opening of eyes can be related to aperture value. More eyes you open, better you see. Thanks to light coming into your eyes. On same lines, wider the shutter opens more light falls on sensors. This corresponds to a lower f-number on the lens. Lower the f-number, more will be light falling on sensor, thus the narrower will be the field of depth thus giving you a very small area in focus. This is used to get nice blurred background images of wild animals. Third is ISO or sensitivity of your eyes to capture light. If you have more sensitivity means you have better visibility in low light.

Let us start with Shutter speed. Higher Shutter speed will help you freeze the action and lower shutter speed will show the movement of subject. What shutter speed to use in given situation? It depends on how fast the subject is moving, what are light conditions and what is your aperture value and ISO. Shutter speed and aperture have an inverse relation. That is to say, if you want to open-close your eyes rapidly to freeze the motion, you can’t open them wide. It means, if your shutter speed is high to freeze motion, aperture can’t be opened much. So let’s say, when deer is running you will need different shutter speed compared to a tiger walking on the road, compared to owl sleeping on branch even under similar lighting conditions. Another important principle we need to remember is the theory of reciprocity. It states that the moment you reduce the f-stop (opening of aperture), your shutter speed will double. This comes in handy when you are on the field. Too  much, read para once again 🙂

Jumping black buck at Kanha National park. Shot at high shutter speed. Under given light conditions, couldn’t go for lower F Stop else the deer would have come out blurred. So I decide to reduce aperture and get necessary shutter speed.


Now let us talk about Aperture value. If you open shutter less, less light falls on the sensor. Thus giving you a larger depth of field. This means more area is in focus that is foreground, background and actual field of subject. Use this when you have multiple animals or shooting landscapes. Never cross F/11 for landscapes to shoot great images.  Avoid going above f/8 for wildlife action photography!

Green bee eater in shallow depth of field. You can see entire summer grass is looking orangish yellow and is blurred out. With focus on bird sitting on the trunk of fallen tree, image I believe has come up well.

Small aperture opening –> Larger depth of field for landscapes ! Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve

The third parameter of the exposure triangle is ISO. It means how much light is being detected by the sensor (rods and cones of human eye). In low light condition, you can go for higher ISO. It will give you an excellent shutter speed. However, always remember higher ISO will lead to grains in image. Check out what is ISO range in-camera. I always recommend using ISO400 under standard daylight. But no hard and fast rule. This is completely your judgment on field. If at twilight you see a tiger sitting on road ISO 3200 would be sufficient compared to tiger moving in the twilight where you will need higher ISO to make up for shutter speed. Be careful, ISO can give creative images but can spoil your image if you go overboard.

High ISO on winter morning. Rudra at Tadoba!
Madkasur from Tadoba  at higher ISO to get dramatic effect in dusk lighting!
Spoilt image of Blue bull with too much grains (noise). This is a result of high ISO.

That’s about it for this week. I think for first timer, Part 1 might feel like an over-doze but  I believe this is doable if you spend time on field. Only way to find out what you learnt is to practice as much as possible on field. Once you are confident you can go to next lessons, I will be posting in coming weeks. Looking forward to your readership for Part 2 and 3 of Basics of photography series.

Happy clicking!

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