Christian’s Photo Tips

Christian Sperka is the resident wildlife photographer at Thanda Safari. He works as a Specialist Photography and Field Guide and also teaches wildlife photography at the reserve. Christian teaches according to his “Basic Rules of Wildlife/Motion Photography” under the motto ‘Keep it Simple’.  Over the past 4.5 years, over 1,000 of our guests have participated in his lessons and sessions.

These are a few of Christian’s photo tips, which he shares regularly with Thanda Safari’s Facebook Followers. He adds regularly to this summary of tips and tricks.

If you have any photographic question or if you are interested in our photography programs which you can book for your stay please contact christian@thanda.co.za

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1 Have patience!
It doesn’t matter if you are taking photographs of wild animals or your domestic pets, you need patience. When you spend a lot of time with an animal, you will see amazing things. I often spend hours with an animal in the wild before taking a photo.

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2 Shoot a lot – Waste Space!
Give up your old “film” habits and shoot a lot. I often take dozens of pictures of one scene. Like humans animals have “good” and “bad” expressions and postures. Shooting a lot and selecting the right image later on your computer will get you there. In a four hour game drive I will sometimes shoot 500 images!!
And don’t worry about all the “bad” pictures you take, the good ones will make up for it!

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3 – Set your camera to standard!
Animal photography is motion photography. Being ready is very important. Wild animals are not posing for you. So set your camera to standard settings (see below) and return to these settings if you had to alter them for a specific situation (if you had time).
The settings below work for me.
Canon
Shooting mode: Aperture Control AV (P for flash use)
Image recording quality: JPG best quality (or RAW)
White balance: Shade (outdoors/natural light) – AWB (indoors/artificial light)
ISO: 400 (good weather) – 1600 (bad weather) – 3200 (indoors)
Metering mode: Center weighted
Drive mode: Single shooting
AF mode: AI Servo
AF points: Center point only
Nikon
Shooting mode: Aperture Control A (P for flash use)
Image recording quality: JPG best quality (or RAW)
White balance: Shade (outdoors/natural light) – AWB (indoors/artificial light)
ISO: 400 (good weather) – 1600 (bad weather) – 3200 (indoors)
Metering mode: Center weighted
Drive mode: Single shooting
AF mode: AF-C
AF points: Center point only

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4 – Keep the eyes in focus!
Make sure the eyes of the animals are sharp and in focus. Using “center point focus” you are in control of the focus, not your camera.
Keep the eyes in the centre of your picture (and therefore in focus). Leave a bit of extra room around your major object. You can always crop the image on your computer. An animal is not a cathedral – the time for composition is mostly measured in seconds, not minutes or hours.

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5 – Learn how to over- and under-expose with your camera!
Your camera is smart, but not smart enough. Once you have your standard settings only concentrate on one adjustment while you are shooting. If the object you are interested in is much darker than the surrounding you have to over-expose. If the object is much lighter, you will need to under-expose.
This takes practice; so get out there, make some exposure mistakes and learn from them!

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6 – Higher ISO – a friend?
When it comes to animals you need short exposure times. I very rarely use a tripod, sometimes I use a monopod. Most of the time I shoot without any support with fairly long lenses (300-500mm) – animals move – so we need to as well!
Short exposure times are crucial. With full aperture set, I am not afraid of using higher ISO (up to and beyond ISO6400). Especially in decent light conditions the results with modern digital SLRs are not bad. Better to have an image with a little more noise than a picture out of focus.

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7 – Get down there!
If you want tension in your pictures you need to get on eye level of your subject or even below. I find myself often sitting or laying flat on the floor…not with the Big five though 🙂
If you have the option, always take the lowest row in a game viewer or the seat next to the driver.

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8 – No flash!
I do not like flash pictures. They are mostly flat and have no depth. In wildlife photography you have seldom the time for a really good flash setup (with multiple flashes …). I’d rather use higher ISO and try my luck without a flash. Make sure to underexpose be 2-3 stops if you are taking pictures using a spotlight or a powerful torch. Note: Most animals do not like flash, Elephants hate it!

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9 – SUN-DAYS and NO-SUN-DAYS
There are only two types of days: ‘Sun-Days’ and ‘No-Sun-Days’

A SUN-DAY is a day on which you can see the disc of the sun and on which you can see shadows on the ground. On these days you need to get the sun right behind you (60 degrees) to take good pictures. But, during the first and last hour of such days (the golden hour) the beautiful soft light will allows you to get good images no matter where the sun is. These are the perfect days for scenery photography!

On NO-SUN-DAYS – all other days – you should make sure not to include any sky or any water (sky refection) into your picture. You should keep the sun behind or to the side of you. This will ensure that you get beautiful pictures with soft light. These are the perfect days for portrait and close-up photography!

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10 – Continuous focus
Many cameras will allow you to select a focus mode and a focal point.
For wildlife/motion photography I recommend to set your camera to continuous focus (Canon:AI-SERVO/Nikon:AF-C) and only use the center point for focusing (always choosing the most important point in the picture, usually the eye). For wildlife/motion photography I do NOT ‘compose’ my pictures on the camera. I make sure my object is in focus and I make sure that no legs/feet/tails/horns/… are cut off. This allows for proper cropping on your computer (post-processing). If you use single focus then most subjects are already out of focus when you fully depress your shutter button.

 

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11 – Cold light – warm light
The automatic white balance correction in most cameras (especially Canon and Nikon) is usually set to create rather cold/blue-ish images. For motion/wildlife photography I recommend to set the camera to white balance SHADE as long as no artificial light is used for the pictures. For all artificial light I recommend to leave the camera on automatic mode (Nikon:AUTO/Canon:AWB)

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12 – Excitement
Most people get very excited as soon as they arrive in a good wildlife sighting. They start shooting a lot of frames without checking for sufficient shutter speed. Then they spend most of their time reviewing/deleting pictures using the back-screen of their camera. A waste of time! I suggest – after arriving in a good sighting – that you first check your shutter speed (in AV/A mode) and adjust your ISO accordingly. Then start taking pictures. After every fifth shot quickly check if your last picture was in focus and if the light is correct. If yes, continue taking pictures or watch the animals. If no, correct your settings and take more pictures. Do not review or delete pictures while you are on game drive. You cannot change pictures already taken and you are wasting valuable time which you could use to view the sighting or to take pictures.

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13 – Golden hour
The soft light just after sunrise and just before sunset is called the Golden Hour. It is not really an hour – the time span is longer in the winter and shorter in the summer. It is longer the further one gets away from the equator. So the golden hour in the summer month in South Africa is much shorter than the golden hour in the winter in the north of Sweden 🙂 Nevertheless this is the time to take the best wildlife images. Shooting in all directions – towards the sun, away from the sun and with side-light. Try it out!
Christian’s smart phone app advice: Get yourself SunSeeker by ozpda – It is an excellent app to show the sun direction at any given time and to list the golden hour duration wherever you are.

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14 – Smart devices and apps
I personally use an iPhone 6Plus (my new 7Plus is one order) and an iPad Pro 12.9″. I recommend to any photographer to get a smart device with a really good camera. Together with some good applications one can produce amazing wide angle pictures, close-up pictures and videos. It is a great addition to an Digital SLR, especially if one does not want to change lenses in the bush and if one prefers a long zoom lens for wildlife photography. Today I shoot about 15% of all my published pictures with my iPhone/iPad and almost all videos for social media use. Have a look at my favorite apps!
PS: I never use free apps if I can avoid it. I am happy to pay the small fees the cost which usually enables all functions and rewards the creator of the app.

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15 – Post processing
For me a picture is only really finished when I have cropped it on my computer and adjusted color, contrast and -if necessary- color temperature. Even if you do not want to do a lot of computer work I suggest you learn at least how to crop to get the best from your pictures! The standard tools on a PC or a MAC will do the trick.

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16 – Select the good – do not delete the bad
Most amateur photographers, when returning from their holiday, look through their pictures and delete the bad ones. They then show far too many pictures to anyone who has patience enough to endure them all (very similar to the slide shows of our grandfathers!). I recommend a different approach. Shoot a lot while you are out there. Once you are home put all your images in a folder on your computer. Then go through them twice. In the first path through pick only the really stunning pictures and put them in a separate folder. In the second path through select from every scene one to maximum three pictures and put them in the same folder. Delete all the remaining pictures. Your selection should not be more than 20% of what you shot originally. If there remain more you were either not tough enough in your selection and/or you did not shoot enough. Now you crop end edit these pictures. Once you show them to your family and friends I am sure they will comment on a great presentation and a great photographer!