Game drive camera settings

Modern cameras are so sophisticated that you can set your camera to auto, let it do all the work and produce a finished jpeg file ready to share or print. But to get the best images, and the ones that reflect your personal style, you need to take control of some of the key settings. This blog is about how to do this in the context of a game drive, where you have very limited time for menu scanning, dial turning and button pressing.

Imagine the scene. You are on an evening game drive and have been bouncing along in a safari vehicle with several other guests for an hour without seeing anything at all. You come round a bend, and suddenly there is a majestic kudu bull looking right at you. The vehicle comes to a rapid halt and a few seconds later the kudu canters away. If you don’t want a shot of a rapidly receding rear end (and nobody does), then you have at most a few seconds to compose and take your shot. If you want the best shot of all, then it is in the first second, when the kudu is looking surprised and puzzled by this intrusion into his calm life.

It isn’t always like that of course, and sometimes you have plenty of time to compose and experiment. But you always have to be ready, with the camera pre-set to give the best chance of getting a good image as fast as possible.

The challenge is that modern cameras are extremely sophisticated, offering lots of user customisation. By my reckoning, a Nikon D810 has eighty one different parameters that can be set individually, giving an almost infinite number of possible combinations. The Nikon manual is incomprehensible, and the user guide I bought to help me has nearly 600 pages telling me what to do, so neither of these is much help when on a game drive.

Luckily, in most normal use the default settings are more than adequate, and there are really only four parameters you need to worry about when game viewing; aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and autofocus settings.

The exposure is the data collected by the camera sensor, which is dependent on the aperture, i.e. the diameter of the diaphragm in the lens letting the light in to the sensor, the ISO, a software adjustment of the sensor sensitivity (called ISO as it is a carry over from when film speed was rated with standard ISO numbers), and the shutter speed, controlling the time the sensor is exposed to the light.

I think the most critical of these is the aperture, as this defines the look of the image. A small aperture, corresponding to a high f number of typically 8 or more, gives an image that has a deep depth of field and is sharp throughout, as the kudu image above. In contrast, a wide or large aperture, corresponding to a low f number, will have a narrow depth of field, keeping the subject in focus but throwing everything else out of focus, as with this image of a lilac breasted roller taken at f2.8. Because I think that aperture is the most critical parameter, I set my camera operating mode to aperture priority.

With the aperture pre-set, you need to choose an ISO setting. The shutter speed will then adjust automatically to give the correct exposure. A high ISO number means the sensor is set to greater sensitivity, which leads to greater interference on the electronic signal, showing as graininess in the image. A high shutter speed means a greater chance of a sharp image of a moving animal, but also less light getting to the sensor. In a perfect world you would like a low ISO number and a high shutter speed, but this rarely provides enough data from the sensor. My approach is to start with an ISO of about 250, as this gives a reasonably fast shutter speed in the African sun. If there is time, then for subsequent images I increase the ISO, doubling each time, to get to the optimum shutter speed. This approach allows me to set the aperture in advance of shooting, then adjust one thing only, the ISO, to get the right shutter speed for the length of lens and the degree of animal movement, while keeping the ISO as low as possible and hence keeping the ISO noise levels as low as possible.

In bright Africa sunlight, the camera’s matrix exposure metering is almost always good enough. Problems only arise when trying to photograph animals resting in the shade in the middle of the day, as the camera may expose for the shade and not the sunlight or vice versa. If in doubt, I will quickly add negative exposure compensation to ensure the sky and areas in sunlight are not overexposed. It is much easier in post processing to lift detail out of shadows rather than to put detail back in to blown out highlights.

The last of the four critical parameters is the focusing of the lens. The most accurate approach to focusing is to do it manually, checking with live view on the camera’s rear screen that the key elements of the image are as sharp as possible. This requires a lot of time and a secure tripod, so won’t work in the field. To work as fast as possible, I use the camera’s continuous autofocus (AF-C) setting, using single point focusing locked on to the most critical element in the image, usually one eye of the animal. This approach works well in most circumstances, but you need to be careful when photographing wildlife surrounded by foliage, as with this buffalo in long grass. It is worth checking on the camera’s image display immediately that the camera auto-focus has locked on to the animal’s eye and not the blades of grass.

The white balance setting controls the colour temperature of the exposure, giving a blue tint if the temperature is set low, and a golden tint if the temperature is set high. This setting is critical to the appearance of the image, but is very ease to adjust in post processing. To save time, I leave the camera on auto White Balance. This is usually pretty accurate and is one less thing to worry about in the field.

I leave the other camera settings at their default levels.

Occasionally you have a lot of time. Large antelope, such as this sable at Karoo Ridge, have little to fear and can be very calm. It may sound strange, but in such situations there is great temptation to repeat the same shot again and again. Instead, play around with aperture settings to get different depths of field. When game viewing, you can’t go back to reshoot the next day if you subsequently decide that a different aperture or composition might have worked better.

To realise the full potential of your camera, you should set it to produce raw files, rather than jpegs. Jpegs are processed images ready to print or share. Raw files are just that, files of raw data, which need to be processed by separate software to create the finished jpeg. This is worth doing, as it gives far greater freedom to adjust aspects of the image. I use Lightroom 6 for this, and I will discuss how I do image post processing in another blog.