Alistair - Wild Eye - Madikwe Guests

It’s Not Just Plug & Play

Alistair Smith Alistair, All Authors 2 Comments

As photographic guides, we have all been in the position on a safari with guests when we get asked the following question:

“What should my settings be?”

In reality, there is no fixed answer to this question, because there are so many varying elements in a scene that would determine the kinds of changes required to camera settings. In addition, each camera and lens combination have different capablities.

This concept also ties in with a #FactFriday post that I did a little while back, about following photographers who post their image settings either on the image, or in the comments section below.

Let me elaborate…

Whilst I can appreciate the value in understanding why a photographer had chosen certain settings to achieve the desired effect in his or her image, it cannot be used for anything more than that, or serve as anything other than purely educational. I have been in situations where people have dialed in the exact settings used in a particular scene captured by a professional photographer (that they had come across in a book or magazine), only to be bitterly disappointed by the fact that their image looks nothing like the professionals. My answer? wildlife photography is so much more than a simple plug and play equation.

Camera Gear

I don’t want to sound like I am contradicting myself here, because I have written blogs in the past stating that photography isn’t all about the gear, which it isn’t, and I maintain that stance. However, the reality is, that some cameras and lenses are equipped to handle certain situations better than others, and the consequences, are images of a higher quality.

For instance, a full-frame camera body generally copes far better than a crop sensor body in low light conditions by offering a broader dynamic range at higher ISO values, which in turn would produce higher quality images than a crop sensor body would in low light. A crop sensor however, can be very useful for telephoto photography due to the extra reach gained by the crop sensor multiplier (A Canon 70-200mm is effectively a 91-260mm on a 1.3x crop sensor body) which is often very useful for wildlife photography.

Furthermore, a  fixed 400mm f/2.8 lens, is generally going to produce sharper, higher quality images, with greater background bokeh, than a 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3.

Having said all of this, don’t feel despondent or frustrated by your current gear, and certainly don’t rush off and break the bank investing in the latest and the greatest gear.

The point that I am trying to make, is that everyones camera gear is different, and each setup will have their pro’s and con’s, and each will possess varying capabilities in a variety of different conditions.

Therefore, someone shooting with a Nikon D7000 body on an 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 couldn’t possibly have the same settings as someone shooting with a Nikon D4s body and a fixed 300mm f/2.8 lens, despite photographing the SAME SCENE!

So, the answer to the question of what your settings should be, is going to be different for everyone, and will probably change multiple times throughout the scene that you are photographing.

Following Photographers who post Settings

I have nothing against photographers who post their settings alongside an image, but other than to try and educate on the intended effects of particular settings over others (which is rarely backed up by anything educational), I just don’t see the point? Those settings may work very well under certain conditions, but be extremely ineffective in others. And in reality, with all variables taken into account (nature being the most obvious) no two scenes could ever possibly be the same, so whats the point in trying to replicate camera settings for a seen that could never be replicated?

Rather try and look at someone’s settings, and ask yourself how the photograph would have looked any different of you made changes to either Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO and Exposure Compensation. Use the posted settings as a base from which to educate yourself on the relationships between these elements, and how the image would change, as incremental adjustments are made to these settings.

But whatever you do, don’t simply copy settings, and expect to achieve the same results – there are too many variables to consider.

Check Your Exposure

If you have been on safari with me before, you will know that I am a huge fan of the phrase ‘check your exposure’!

Why? Because I like to encourage guests to keep checking their images rather than just holding the shutter button down and taking countless images with the same settings. Checking your exposure will ensure that you are making the relevant  incremental adjustments to your camera settings to force certain adjustments to your image.

Guests would then have learnt out in the field how certain changes to settings can immediately affect your image, and the results  are immediately available for review – no better way to learn in my opinion.

The question of what your settings should be, now makes a lot more sense, on the basis that you’ve made adjustments to your camera, studied the results, and understood the relationship between all the elements. If after all that, the image still doesn’t seem to come out quite right, we can address a number of different options at your disposal, but in a manner that is very much conversational to ensure that you understand WHY you are making certain adjustments, that you could then use for future reference.

At the end of the day, our aim as Wild Eye guides, is to ensure that our guests (and particularly photographic guests) leave a safari having gained knowledge and experience of their camera’s and associated capabilities. There is no use in barking out settings in a sighting and expecting everyone to dial in the same settings and continue shooting. It is very much a case-by-case approach, to ensure that everyone has dialed in the appropriate settings based on the gear that they have, and, hopefully, you would have learnt something along the way!

In ending off, I’d like to remind you that photographer is far more about the photographer than it is about his/her camera…

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’
He said nothing until dinner was finished, then:
‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.’”
Sam Haskins


Until next time, keep practicing!


About the Author

Alistair Smith

I left a corporate career in pursuit of a burning passion for the great outdoors and all things wilderness. Following a relatively short professional guiding career, I arrived at the realisation that my true passion was for adventure and wildlife photography. It is in this pursuit of adventure, that I would like to continue to share my passion for photography with others. I look forward to changing the way you see the world!

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