Most wildlife and nature photographers I know, and know of, shoot primarily in Aperture mode.
This makes complete sense as Aperture controls the amount of depth of field in an image, and therefore presents the viewer with the particular story you are telling as you choose to isolate your subject from the surrounding scene or include it all.
Shutter speed is then mainly selected when the photographer specifically wants to highlight movement in the image. It is incredibly easy to select an Aperture value that freezes and blurs motion, but I tend to go straight on to Shutter Speed mode for motion blur as I can directly dial in the value I want in order to achieve the motion blur I want to create.
So what is important about Shutter Speed ?
There are multiple reasons, but the main one that I find incredibly important is that your shutter speed should always be 1/your focal length if you want your images to be sharp. So, if you are shooting at a focal length of 300mm, your shutter speed should be 1/300s or faster. If your shutter speed is slower and you dont want to open up your aperture (or you cant), then all you do is bump your ISO up until you get your desired shutter speed.
How wonderfully simple huh?
Where did I learn this incredibly valuable piece of information?
No, not when I studied photography, but during the first Wild Eye Digital Photography Course I sat in when I became a part of the team.
It all started falling into place!
I never understood why some of my images would be blurry even though my shutter speeds were very fast and my focus on my subject was correct. The frustration I felt could not be descibed as I tossed one picture after another into the trash folder. If steam of annoyance could blow out my ears, Im pretty sure the force of it could have created enough power to have sustained the world for well over a year.
Let’s take the image below. This Kori Bustard in Amboseli was a photographic delight as he walked parallel to our vehicle and enabled us to capture his plumage in various displays.
This was one image of many that we were lucky to capture of this large-bodied bird. Never having photographed one before in such a close encounter and with the open grassland as the setting, the magnificence of this Kori Bustard could not be denied.
It was only when I got back to camp and downloaded my images that I saw that he was not sharp. The evidence of camera shake was there – my focus was right, but my subject was slightly blurred.
What happened? I was using a 80-400mm lens, I was hand-holding it as it isn’t heavy, the vehicle wasn’t running as the Wild Eye East African guides always turn the engines off at sightings, so it could only mean one other thing…
As I was hand-holding my camera, the shutter speed was not fast enough to compensate with the weight of the lens at the focal length I was using. This means that any movement that I make, no matter how slight it may seem, will become exaggerated and camera shake will occur.
What could I have done to make sure camera shake didn’t occur? As I don’t want to change my aperture setting as it creates the depth of field that I want, I would have adjusted my ISO in order for it to produce a faster shutter speed.
Remember this though; always make your ISO as high as you need it to be, but as low as possible. As the scene in the above image is bright, there is no need whatsoever to hike my ISO to 800 or higher. I will get lightning speed shutter speeds (which is unnecessary for a slow-walking Kori Bustard), but also it start introducing unnecessary noise into my image.
Having a shutter speed of 1/your focal length is not always necessary.
So what on earth have I been writing about, and why?
Amboseli really won me over from the first moment I was there. The massive herds of free-ranging elephants are inspirational in their numbers, and the amount of moments that you can capture are endless.
One of these moments was a herd of elephants sunken deep into one of the many swamps that litter the Amboseli landscape. It is a visual delight like no other. Gigantic beasts half submerged in thick black mud, eating the lush and nutrient dense grass as little egrets perch on top of them. If you look close enough, you will see a small black trunk peak out here and there from the swamp as the young elephants make their way in the sticky terrain.
I captured a scene that portrayed an aspect of what the gentle giants of Amboseli hold for me. It was an unique sighting for me, and I wished to convey that through my image. No longer were these beasts above land and towering over us, but underneath and more on eye level, if not lower. The young elephants were no longer the grey from earlier, but a deep brown-black reflection of their new position.
Here is where the spanner in the works makes its appearance:
The shutter speed is slower than the focal length.
How is this image still sharp then? Especially as I have just explained how a shutter speed slower than your focal length will create camera shake.
As you can see, you can shoot under your focal length, but you have to have your camera resting on something stable, like a bean bag, tripod, etc. The support offered by tripods and the such means that you dont have to worry about camera shake, and you can shoot at shutter speeds that are well under your focal length.
My advice to you; if you dont have a means of stabilising your camera, use a shutter speed of at least 1/your focal length in order to ensure that your images are sharp, unless you are using shutter speed intentionally to create blur).
Don’t make a mistake and loose that image. Get to know your camera, its settings, and what each Mode does and how they affect your images.
Remember; shutter speed, aperture and ISO all work together to produce a correctly exposed image. If you change one, the others will need to change as well.
Have fun, stay passionate and keep shooting!