Getting Tack Sharp Wildlife Shots

I received an email this weekend from an amateur wildlife photographer disappointed in the sharpness of many of his images of birds. After responding to his email and remembering how I felt when I started shooting waterfowl and birds in flight, I thought this would make an excellent topic for a Monday post.

To begin with, let’s go over the basic settings I use on all my Canon DSLR cameras when photographing birds. In the past five years I’ve used many different Canon DSLRs (and the Nikon D300 for a short time) from their “Digital Rebel” series (350D) to their “prosumer” series (40D, 50D) and their high-end series (5D, 5D Mark II, 7D) and even their professional series (1D Mark IV) and the basics for shooting birds are all very similar on all Canon DSLRs.

Birds in Flight
Shutter Priority (Tv)
Shutter Speed 1/500th or faster
Center AF Point
Evaluative or Spot Metering
ISO 100 – ISO 400 to obtain a 1/500th minimum shutter speed
AI Servo Mode using Back Button Focus (allows me to switch between One Shot and AI Servo)
High Speed Burst
Image Stabilization turned ON – Mode 2 (Panning)

Birds in Water
Aperture Priority (Av)
Aperture Between f/5.6 & f/7.1
Center AF Point
Evaluative or Spot Metering
ISO 100 – ISO 400 to obtain a 1/250th minimum shutter speed
One Shot Mode / High Speed Burst
Image Stabilization turned ON – Mode 1 (Normal)

Camera and Lens Stability
Most out of focus or “soft” focus images are caused by camera shake. This is very common when shooting with telephoto zooms racked out all the way, even if the lens has an image stabilization system. It is rarely caused by subject movement unless you are shooting birds in flight. In my opinion (after shooting with telephoto lenses for the past 35 years) that it’s almost impossible to hand-hold a shot using a lens over 300mm and come away with better than one in fifty shots in perfect focus. However, a good camera/lens support system can really help. I generally use a Gitzo Monopod / RRS Monopod Solution setup when shooting birds on the water or flying below tree-top level. This simple setup allows the image stabilization system in the lens to do its “magic” and get me about 20% – 30% of my shots in perfect focus.

Depth of Field
The second largest cause of “soft” focused images is due to insufficient depth of field. Most folks don’t realize that the depth of field of a 500mm lens at f/5.6 (even when used with a crop-body camera like the EOS 50D or the new EOS 7D) is about 3 inches. This means that you can focus perfectly on the center of a duck’s body in the water and the eye facing you may not be tack sharp. Due to this factor, I switch to Aperture Priority (Av) mode when shooting birds on the water and place the focus point directly on the bird’s eye. I will also shoot at f/7.1 to provide more depth of field and increase my ISO setting to compensate. By the way, shooting birds is exactly the same as shooting portraits. If the eyes are in perfect focus, you’ve “technically” achieved a good shot. If the eyes are not in focus, no one will look at your image.

Camera & Lens Calibration
In some rare cases your camera or your camera/lens combination may front or back focus, due to a calibration issue. Newer Canon cameras allow you to adjust this on a global or per-lens basis. You can test this using a Lens Alignment chart (Google it). You can also send your camera to one of Canon’s Factory Service Centers in the US for a calibration test and adjustment. I’m not sure what they charge for this service since I generally do this myself using the LensAlign Pro system designed by Michael Tapes.

Two Examples
Before we go any further I want to illustrate just how difficult it can be to get a high percentage of tack sharp shots of wildlife, especially birds.

The first shot below is the same image I posted last Friday of this solitary Teal swimming. I took this shot with a Canon 7D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender with the lens mono-pod mounted with image stabilization set to Mode 1 (normal). The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/160th of a second at ISO 200. The first image was the third of six shots taken during a one second high-speed burst.

Tack Sharp Teal

Image #1: Looks Sharp and Is Sharp

The second image was the fourth of six shots in the same sequence, taken less than 1/6th of a second later and it too “looks” sharp but in fact, the Teal’s eye and head are blurred slightly.

Not So Sharp Teal

Image #2: Looks Sharp But Really Isn’t

Here are the 100% crops from both images and as you can see the first image really is tack sharp while the second image, taken less than 1/6th of a second later isn’t.

Tack Sharp EyeNot So Sharp Eye and Head

Even with the best technique and the latest cameras, most wildlife photographers only get a 20% – 30% hit rate for perfectly focused shots of birds. Birds are perhaps the most difficult subject to photograph and it takes hours and hours of practice to perfect your techniques. A simple method to get more bird shots in focus is to take more bird shots. Use your camera’s high-speed burst mode when photographing birds. The more shots you take, the better the odds are that you’ll come away with a few really nice images.

Resources
Arthur Morris (BirdsAsArt.com) is probably the best bird photographer in the world today using Canon gear and his web site, books and blog are full of great information on photographing birds. Moose Peterson, a Nikon shooter, is also well known for his wildlife photography and his blog and books are exceptional resources for any wildlife photographer.

Final Thoughts
When reading any blog about photography, remember that most authors generally post their best images. You don’t get to see the hundreds or thousands of shots they culled though to find the really nice shots they finally posted. So don’t be discouraged when you return home from an outing to find that 90% of your shots aren’t great. Neither are 90% of ours!

27 thoughts on “Getting Tack Sharp Wildlife Shots

  1. Your comments are very helpful.. insightful… Many thanks. I am really looking forward to my trip to Jim Corbett over the weekend.. hopefully I’ll be able to click a few elephants and birds, if not the tiger.. :)

  2. thank you so much for this short article.
    ive heen struggling to get a sharp picture while shooting birds.
    i even borrowed a 300 f4L IS and got many soft/blurry pictures.
    i was starting to think my camera was bad, but my portraits are as
    crisp as can be.
    i will try these techniques and settings out.
    Thank you again.
    Jeremy

  3. Hey thank you very much for posting this! I’m new to photography in general. I enjoy doing wildlife photography the most. But my biggest issue is learning my camera and learning shutterspeed, aperture and all the really techy/mechanical stuff. The camera I am using at the moment though is not a super fancy camera like a dslr, just a point & shoot but it still allows for manual controls, and takes pretty decent pictures for just a point and shoot, so I’m just using it to learn all the basics. Does a lot of this apply to non dslrs? It will probably be a while before upgrading to an DSLR.

    Thanks!

    Sarah

  4. This article should be posted as a “sticky” to every photography blog/forum out there. Be it for wildlife photography hobbyists or any other area of photography, this post send a great message to its readers: it’s important to learn everything there is to know to better your odds of getting the perfect picture, but it’s ok if you don’t get the results you’re looking for on the very first try.

    Thanks Jeff. You helped put my mind at ease knowing that after taking thousands of pictures and only feeling good about a fraction of them, I’m not alone!

  5. Pingback: Weekly Link Post 178 « Rhonda Tipton's WebLog

  6. Pingback: The Eagle has landed | Out of Focus

  7. Pingback: Links – January 14, 2011 « Beautiful Flower Pictures Blog: Floral Photography by Patty Hankins

  8. Very interesting read, Jeff, thanks a lot for it. Something to try at some point in time and review my bird shots from the past…

    Cheers, Bernd

  9. Jeff,
    A timely post, especially since I just finished shooting birds at The Salton Sea with a rented 300 mm and my Mark II, was so disappointed with the lack of sharpness. Now I know that a couple of good shots was better than none (well, kind of….) Thanks for the great tips, you’re always a big help! For me it’s practice, practice, and more practice.

    Thanks again,

    Don

  10. Jeff,

    One thing you didn’t mention is proper long lens technique (placing hand on top of lens and pressing eye up against the camera). This took a lot of practice on my part but makes a big difference when using long glass. I think Moose has an instructional video on it somewhere in his site.

    • Joe,

      You are so right but I’d never steal Moose’s thunder (since he stands about 6′ 2″ to my 5′ 8″) by mentioning it on my blog. Oops… Just Did! ;-)

      Jeff

    • Hey Bruce,

      That’s where I learned my DOF lessons. I love my 5D2 and EF 85mm f/1.8 lens but the depth of field with this combo is about 1/2″. It’s embarrassing to reshoot a corporate portrait because one eye was sharp and the other wasn’t. Now I know better. :-)

      Jeff

  11. Thanks Jeff,

    Really like the tip about moving from f/5.6 to f/7.1 for shooting birds in water, never thought of that before.

    Cheers

    D

    • Damian,

      Thanks for reading. If the light is bright enough and I can get down to water level with my camera, I’ll even use f/8 from time to time.

      Jeff

  12. WOW, wonderful article! This really gives me some encouragement, plus some new things to try to help get sharper images. I’ve been a little discourages about the number of “keepers” I’ve been getting lately shooting shorebirds.

    Thanks Jeff…………!!

    • Hey Sheldon,

      Never be discouraged. Take a look at Scott Kelby’s post today to see his football “bloopers”. Even the best photographers throw out many more shots than they keep.

      Jeff

Comments are closed.