Chad Cocking

Previously we have looked at the effect that the lens’s aperture has on our wildlife images, and how we can control this by shooting in the semi-automatic aperture priority mode. Todays blog focus is going to shift to the much simpler-to-understand aspect of shutter speeds, and how these can be managed in wildlife photography to help you get the results that you are after.

The concept of the shutter speed is pretty self-explanatory, and simply refers to the duration that the camera’s shutter is open for. It is this momentary opening of the shutter that allows the light through to the camera’s sensor to subsequently be recorded and presented as the image that we see on the back of the camera. The longer the shutter is open for, the more light is let in, and conversely, the faster the shutter, the less light is allowed to reach the sensor. The time frame for the shutter being open ranges from 30 seconds to as quick as 1/8000 of a second! On most camera’s, the display simply shows the fraction of the second that the shutter will be open for; thus 1/1250 second is simply displayed as 1250. To indicate time frames longer than one second, the camera shows it as 1 or 4 for one and four seconds respectively.

A fast shutter speed can be used to freeze action. This image was taken with a shutter speed of 1/4000 to freeze the action of Marula female coming down the tree.

Understanding the concept of shutter speed is simple enough, but what is more important for us to grasp is how the varying shutter speeds are going to impact on the final image we capture. The basic premise is that the faster the shutter speed, the less chance we have of capturing a blurry image. The opposing statement being that the slower the shutter speed, the greater the chance of a blurred image.

The blur that we talk about here is not one caused by poor focusing or too shallow a depth of field, but rather it is the blur caused by movement. This can come about from two factors:

  • Movement of the camera (camera shake)
  • Movement of the subject

A slow shutter speed of 0,4 seconds contributed towards this blurry optical illusion of this image as a result of the camera moving.

This image is blurry because the shutter speed had been too slow to freeze the movement of the lion yawning. The shutter speed was only 1/50 second.

Overcoming camera shake is a technical correction. We can improve on this by adopting good camera support techniques through the use of a monopod or bean bag if we are photographing from a vehicle. If photographing whilst on foot, a tripod would be the better choice. Cameras and lenses that have built in image stabilisers have helped go a long way to removing the need for these alternative methods of support, however their value can never be underestimated. As a general rule of thumb, when hand-holding a lens, we should strive for a shutter speed that is equal to 1/focal length of the lens. This means that if we are shooting with a 200mm lens, we should aim for a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster to limit the chances of camera shake. A note on this point: most cameras have cropped sensors that effectively increase the focal length of a lens by a factor of 1,5x (Nikon), 1,6x (Canon) or even 2x (Olympus). These factors should be kept in mind when making this calculation.

Dealing with subject movement is a different story altogether. It goes without saying that in wildlife photography it’s just something that we have no control over. Whilst we can be patient and wait for those moments when our animal subject sits dead still before clicking away, on most occasions we are more interested in capturing the subject in action. We thus need to try and get our shutter speed up as fast as possible to increase our chances of freezing this action.

Remembering the exposure triangle from our blog on exposure, if we are wanting more light in order to increase our shutter speeds, we can do this by adjusting one of two elements:

  • Aperture
  • ISO sensitivity

To freeze this action of dragonflies mating on the wing, the ISO was pushed up to 800 at a wide-open aperture in order to get a fast shutter speed of 1/8000 sec.


With so much to cover on this interesting an in depth topic I have decided to split this post into two parts. Stayed tuned for further reading later in the month. 


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