In this video wildlife and nature photographer Steve Perry (from backcountrygallery) gives 9 useful tips that can help you get sharper wildlife, bird, nature (and just generally sharper photos).
Here are the useful 8 tips Perry brings up in this video regarding sharper images:
- Shutter speed – this is certainly not the first time that we are bringing shutter speed as the main culprit for unsharp images. It is true that pushing your shutter speed beyond 1/1000 can be difficult if you want to keep your images clean (although recent cameras can push clean ISO higher than ever before) but it is important to understand that so subjects – especially birds in flight can require very fast shutter speeds to stop motion – with large birds such as cranes you might be able to get away with 1/1600 and up to about 1/3200, smaller birds like hawks or eagles will push your shutter speed higher to the 1/2000-1/4000 area and small birds (songbirds) can force you to push your shutter speed from 1/3200-1/8000. Yes, not in every situation this is possible but remember, fixing an image that isn’t sharp is typically more difficult than one which is noisy (up to some degree of course and there are situations where you simply don’t have the light that you need for the shot and there is no way around this). As a general rule of thumb, if you are getting constant soft images – try and get one-stop faster and see if this improves your results.
- Use good support – fast shutter speed can help you freeze your subject but it won’t necessarily eliminate your own shake – use support (a good one) whenever possible even when shooting at a higher speed. If you don’t want to log a large tripod at least try using a good monopod – it will give you another point of stability and it is much easier to move around with.
- Use the best AF-Area – this is tricky as it depends both on the situation and the camera system however it can be the difference between sharp and not sharp images. For a slow-moving subject, a single point AF is typically a good choice (just place the AF on the eye of the animal or the center of your subject), If you choose larger AF areas you are giving the camera AF system control of the area to focus on and this can lead to the AF falling from the eye to the nose or ears for example and missing focus so as much as possible try to limit the size of the AF area (which is, of course, easier with larger closer and slower targets than in small distant and fast targets). As a rule of thumb – the faster and move unpredictably your subject is – the larger AF area you should consider using.
- Keep AF engaged and on target – if you are using AF-C and keep pressing the AF-C after focusing on the eye (depending on the camera AF system this might or might not be necessary – on some Sony cameras the AF can keep tracking the subject by tapping on the touch screen for example).
- Shoot longer bursts – it’s all about statistics – if you set everything else correctly and you are still getting missed AF try increasing you shooting speed and shooting more images per burst – this way you will give the AF system more of a chance to get at least one image in focus (although we can admit that sometimes camera/lenses tend to stick to the wrong target and even with a burst you end up with just a row of out of focus images). This is especially important if you are shooting at shutter speeds below the above optimal ratios mentioned (which as we mentioned can be high and in many lighting situations unrealistic).
- Avoid heat diffraction/haze from the ground – This is not exactly a sharpness issue but a more general image quality degradation caused by heat rising from the ground, typically on a sunny day (the hot air from the ground mixes with the cooler air above causing light distortion). Your options, in this case, are quite limited – try to get closer to your subject is possible or find an angle where the distance between you and the subject is in shade. Keep in mind that as always – there are situations where you simply can’t get the shot you want and you will have to try again another day or in another location.
- Use VR (or lens camera/lens-based image stabilization) when needed – if you are hand holding it is almost always recommended to use VR/IS if you have the option in your camera/lens (for longer focal range lenses, by the way, IS is still the preferred method of image stabilization while for shorter focal ranges sensor-based VR/IS can do a very good job). The interesting tip here is that it might be a good idea to have VR/IS on even on a tripod if you have an unlocked head (gimbal head typically). Some lenses have a specific tripod VR/IS mode which you can switch to but on lenses that only has on/off, VR/IS you might need to try some shots with and some without to see if it is worth using on your specific tripod setup.
- Last resort: consider AF fine-tuning – if you tried everything else on this list and your images are still soft it is worth giving AF fine-tuning a shot. This is especially true if you see consistent images that are front focusing or back focusing (but not both!) with a certain camera-lens combo. Perry really urges you to only try this if you REALLY tried everything else because this can cause more harm than good if it isn’t really necessary (Perry has four tools to help on this if you really need them – Nikon Auto AF Fine Tuning, Lens Align, FoCal, and DotTune).
Perry had some great video tips in the past for shooting birds and wildlife in general (as well as more specific camera gear) including “10 Simple Yet Powerful Wildlife Photography Tips“, “Tips for Using Long Lenses with Tripod and a Gimbal” and “A Guide to Solving Autofocus Problems“ and more recently “10 useful Tips For Photographing Birds At The Beach“ more recently he posted an extensive video on “10 tips that will help you nail bird in flight images“.
You can see a few other AF technique as well as bird-related photography videos by Tony Northrup including How to Photograph Song Birds, How to Photograph Birds in Flight and Bird and Wildlife Photography Gear Guide and Tips and “How to Photograph Birds – an Extended Guide“ and more recently “Back to Basics: Bird Photography Tips“. Perry himself has a dedicated sub-channel here on LensVid with lots of fantastic content, tips tricks, and techniques for bird, wildlife, and landscape photography.