Tips for Wildlife Photographers Part 1: Focus

In a series of five blog posts, we are asking Edward Selfe, a resident guide and photographer in South Luangwa National Park, to share some tips about getting great safari photos. This is the first post in the series.

Wildlife photography is a rich and complex subject. A professional can take a lifetime perfecting his art, trying new ideas, pushing his equipment to the limits and seeking that one moment which will make his name.

However, whoever they are, and wherever they live, there are some techniques that they will all employ to ensure that their images catch their viewers’ eye.

Modern cameras have outstanding auto-focus systems. They can obtain focus fast, accurately and in very low light levels. But they are also highly customisable and if you don’t set them up correctly they can give unpredictable results.

For wildlife photography, using a single focus point is usually best; you can then select which of your camera’s focus points (they have between 6 and 75!) you want to focus with at a given time.

This will allow you to compose your image however you like; do you want to place the lioness in the bottom left of the frame? No problem, select the focus point in the lower left of the viewfinder, place it over the lioness and snap away. Using a single focus point like this will nearly always give you better results than allowing the camera to choose which of its focus points to use – sadly cameras can’t yet tell a lion from a tree, river or bush!

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A beautiful scene including a family of elephants approaching the camera through the rain. Careful focus is required here to make sure the face of the nearest elephant is in sharp focus. Luckily the creases and wrinkles on her face assist this process.

Things to watch out for:

– The camera achieves focus by looking for areas of contrast (a zebra’s stripe for example) and maximising the difference between dark and light. Therefore, focusing on areas of contrast will give you more accurate focus results – e.g. choose to focus on a lion’s face rather than its flank which has only flat-coloured tawny fur.

– The central focus points on your camera are more sensitive and accurate than those around the edge of the frame. Use these central ones when light levels are low (and contrast is reduced) or when your camera is having trouble achieving correct focus.

– The small screen on the back of your camera can be deceptive. Zoom in on images to make sure they are in focus.

– Don’t mistake focus for sharpness – if your image is out of focus, something other than your chosen subject will be in focus; if the image contains movement blur, nothing will look sharp.

Good luck and enjoy your photography!