Cameras these days are impressive, to say the least.
From things like tracking focus that can automatically stay locked onto a cheetah running at lightning speed to multiple exposures on the same image that can document one continuous movement and blend it seamlessly into a single frame; a little bit of creativity combined with a knowledge of your camera’s ins and outs are all you need to come up with some truly remarkable shots.
Having said that, it’s quite important to recognize exactly what type of scene calls for which camera settings, and how to adapt your approach accordingly.
Since wildlife photography often centres around action in which your subject is changing position, we thought we’d explore different focus modes and discuss when they are appropriate or not.
I use a Canon camera, so will be referring to the two main modes today as AI Servo (Continuous/AF-C in Nikon) and One Shot (AF-S in Nikon). There is a third mode that is a sort of hybrid between the two, but it is generally ignored by most photographers.
As the name suggests, this focus mode allows for the camera to find focus once. It then locks it off, so that focal point will be fixed while you keep the shutter button depressed. An animal moving towards you or away from you will therefore move out of the focal plane, although this can be compensated for slightly by narrowing your aperture, which will increase the depth of field.
Most cameras give off a beep (which can be disabled) when they have found and locked focus, and the focal point icon in your viewfinder will often change colour (usually to green) to represent visually that focus has been found.
The One Shot mode is typically used for animals that aren’t moving towards or away from you, but are either stationary or moving along a plane that keeps them at roughly the same distance from you.
This is the camera’s continuous focus mode. As you keep your finger on the shutter button, the camera constantly adjusts focus in order to keep the subject sharp. This is particularly handy when an animal is moving towards you. Some cameras have the option of customising their buttons, so you can reallocate the Focus function to a button other than the Primary Shutter.
A number of photographers I know do this in order to find a nice compromise between Servo and One Shot. By assigning the focus to a button on the back of their camera (see picture below), you can be continually adjusting focus until the subject stops moving, and once it stops, you simply take you finger off the back-button and the focus should remain fixed.
Let’s look at a few sightings as examples of when to use the different modes…
In the above photo, the two Ntsevu females were walking along the road towards where we were parked. Walking towards you should immediately make you get onto AI Servo.
I use back button focus and was on AI Servo mode at the time. By keeping my thumb down on the back button, the camera was continuously readjusting the focal distance, trying to keep the lead lioness’ face sharp.
However, in-camera adjustments aren’t always instantaneous, and the focal point can occasionally be ahead of the curve or slightly behind. Don’t expect to have every shot razor sharp; only the top-of-the-range cameras are likely to achieve this, especially with faster moving subjects.
The photo below was the next in the sequence:
Let’s zoom in a little closer…:
One can clearly see that the lion is out of focus. As is the rest of her body. The focal point that the camera had adjusted to was probably just in front of her.
In trying to readjust, the camera had overcompensated, and brought the focal point too far forward. This is why it’s important to take a sequence of shots in a situation like this; a number of shots are likely to be slightly out because of the speed at which the camera is adjusting focus, but if you keep your focus and shutter buttons in together, you are more than likely to get a few winners.
In the next two photos we were sitting with the Mhangeni cubs of 2013 (some of which are now the Ntsevu females, so chances are high that the two lionesses above feature in the photos below!).
Back then I didn’t know about back button focus, and was operating on One Shot mode, which in retrospect was silly, as the cubs on this day were as playful as ever, just having come out of a rain storm and watched their mothers try take down a bull buffalo (unsuccessfully).
Seeing the cub in the foreground run up to the other three, I should have known they would all leap forward and immediately switched to AI Servo, but nope…
Getting your focus right is literally your first objective in photography. In video, you can beautiful out-of-focus shots that really add to a story, but in still photography, it’s a big No-no. Through a simple understanding of what mode to use and when, you’ll literally double the number of sharp shots you are getting!