People are slow, and photographers seem to be slower. Slow to identify a subject, slow to stop and explore, slow to retrieve their tripod, slow to anticipate exposure changes, and most importantly – slow to start shooting. There have been thousands of times when I have been on a photo safari and was the first, sometimes the only, photographer to get images. Lets talk about the steps needed to prepare for those first 15 seconds with a wild subject – sometimes you only get 15 seconds.
You need to anticipate the correct camera and exposure settings you might find your subjects in … before you find them. Thus, the first step is to know your camera. I’m going to make reference to the two camera bodies I normally shoot – the pro-build Nikon D3s body ($5200) with an Fx sensor, and the intermediate build Dx sensored Nikon D7100 ($1200). Why two cameras? The simple reason is financial: I don’t want to burn up my expensive D3s body when the situation doesn’t warrant it’s unique characteristics.
The D3s with its large 8.4 micron pixels, 12.4 mp total, is the top performing camera body in the world when it comes to low light (high ISO) photography. It’s better than the Nikon D4, and better than the Canon 1Dx. If I’m heading out in the early morning on a bobcat safari where some of my imaging will no doubt be done in low light, then I’m prepared with the D3s – a camera that performs miraculously at ISO’s up to 9,000 in extreme low light conditions, and can shoot publishable quality images, fine art quality, at ISO 3200. At shooting speeds of 9 fps in raw mode and a large buffer – this camera simply performs.
The D7100 performs well in average-to-good light conditions where I’m not pushing the ISO above 800, and preferably 400 or lower. It shoots a 24 mp Dx sensor which multiplies my 500mm f4 lens into a 750mm f4 lens (great for small or distant subjects) but a reasonable 6 fps is hamstrung by a puny buffer … which holds just 6 raw files. So that 6 fps can only be maintained for 1 second. It has newer, faster technology that gives it quick, accurate focusing and file processing/saving, better than the D3s. I bought this body because it is clearly the best Dx sensored camera Nikon offers. My old D2x, another pro body Nikon D-SLR with a Dx sensor, had a poor high ISO rating less than half as good as the D7100.
Given these two bodies, I always have the right camera on the lens for the best results. Maybe some folks can have multiple long telephotos with bodies ready, but I have to think about the right body given the light conditions of the safari.
Once you know the best equipment for the situation, setting up the camera’s exposure parameters is the next order of business. For this calculation I keep in mind many long-held beliefs in ISO, shutter-speed, and f-stop synergies. Ideally, even shooting early morning high ISO settings, I want my shutter-speed to be close to the length of my lens. In other words I want a 1/500 second shutter-speed when I’m using my 500mm lens. I will sacrifice shutter-speed by a stop (lowering it to 1/250) to shoot at a one stop better quality ISO setting (1600 vs 3200 on my D3s body). Well built lenses will shoot sharp images at wide-open f-steps (like f4 on my 500mm telephoto lens), while less expensive lenses might need some stopping down, say to f5.6 or f8 to perform equally as well. Also, as ISO climbs images become slightly over-exposed, and this allows me to regain some of that lost shutter-speed by dialing in a -1/2 stop exposure compensation setting. This, of course, increases the shutter-speed by 1/2 stop, going from 1/250 to 1/400 second approximately). So, when I’m out looking for bobcats in pre-dawn light, my exposure setting on my D3s body is ISO 3200, f4, with a -1/2 stop of exposure compensation. In Aperture Priority, where I shoot, I usually end up with a shutter-speed around 1/200 to 1/400 of a second.
Now that the equipment is ready to shoot my next consideration is bracing the camera. Wildlife subjects like bobcats don’t allow for any type of personal close encounter, and will turn and flee (which they do many times anyway) should you exit the vehicle or attempt to set up a tripod. So shooting out the window is your best option 90% of the time. This is where shooting tactics come into play. First, I like to drive with my window down, both for feeling more connected to the environment by listening to outside vehicle sounds, like birds and chirping squirrels – but also because it takes precious seconds to lower the window in the case of a close encounter. Second, I don’t use a bean bag or window mount because of the time it takes to correctly position it – I simply lay my left arm across the window sill and lay my lens across my arm, raising or lowering my arm as needed for the correct angle on the subject. Third, if there are two photographers in my vehicle we sit in tandem – me in the front seat driving, and the second person sitting behind me. By both shooting out the same side of the vehicle there will be 50% fewer reasons I need to turn the car around to gain shooting position. If the bobcat is on the other side, we casually drive by and turn around when out-of-sight, creeping back. That usually works.
Now, with your equipment ready and your shooting tactics refined a bit, getting off those first shots should be easier, and quicker. If you are able to use a tripod, then keeping the legs extended in the backseat or trunk greatly speeds you up getting into action. I use to have snow ski racks on my vehicle and I would use them to store my tripod while driving. Another trick I find useful is to not stop where the animal is, but where the animal is heading – again, giving you extra seconds to get the camera on the tripod and get into shooting position for the oncoming subject.
Three final points. First, in early mornings or cool weather, have a decent pair of shooting gloves on your hands (because the window’s down) or close by. I’ve used many different kinds but recently I’ve been wearing Mechanic’s Gloves found at Lowe’s for about $15.
The second point is to drive slowly. I spot a lot more wildlife at 25-30 mph than I do at 35-40 mph. Check your mirror often and let faster traffic by, but go as slow as possible.
The third point is to refine your animal spotting skills. I try not to look farther than 50-70 yards off the road. Why? Because any bobcat that far away or farther is a bad subject. I want to find bobcats (or birds, etc) close to the road within reasonable shooting distance. You usually spot bobcats (and others) based on one of three methods: (1) you spot it via motion, (2) you spot if via a color change in the environment (gray bobcat on yellow grass), or (3) you see a change in pattern or contrast (rough grass, smooth furry bobcat).
Whatever tactics you might glean from this article, combined with the tactics you currently use in the field – 15 seconds is all you usually have to get the camera going, subject in-frame and focused, and composing for effect. Good shooting.