Sports Photography Skills applied to Wildlife Action Photography

I’m primarily a Sports Photographer, which makes it odd that I would use Wildlife Photography as the topic of this, my first website Article. But here I am, inspired by a connection I recently made between Sports Photography, a genre with which I have much experience, and Wildlife Photography a genre with which I have virtually none. Here are my notes on technique, gear and tools… the layers of which I peel back one-by-one so that you may follow-along while I explain how I seized an opportunity to capture a few great frames, of a majestic forest animal.

This is admittedly my first detailed essay / blog post. I enjoy writing and I enjoy photography, but have always been more student than contributor. And while I expect to grow and learn for as long as I can hold my camera (it’s getting heavy), I love the idea of having you gain something from my experiences. So, I’d like to take you through a ‘day-in-the-life’ as I briefly ventured into Wildlife Photography seeking keepers for my Portfolio, one sunny morning during the Summer of 2021 in Pembroke, Massachusetts. 

How to use your skills from one of photography’s most demanding genres to get the best possible Action Shots in another.

– SilverPeak Learning Series

SilverPeak Studios is a Massachusetts-based Sports and Action Photography company. This is SilverPeak’s blog… a series of posts where we seek to document our learnings with the ultimate goal of sharing knowledge and helping you improve your photography.  

Photo: Hildenberg visited our backyard pictured above.

Photos: Gear ready to go- Studio ready, Puddles gets fed, coffee is ready… Time to shoot!

A VISIT FROM A BROAD-WINGED HAWK

We live in wooded area frequented by a majestic broad-winged hawk that we’ve affectionately nicknamed HILDENBERG.

This is Hildenberg below… She has been circling the skies of our neighborhood for years and she’s the reason why we keep a very close eye on Puddles if and when we let her out in the backyard to graze. Puddles is our big and beautiful 22lbs Cat (pictured) who spends so many tireless hours (napping) in the studio while we are indoors post-processing. She brings that comforting house-filled-with-love sense to our home studio.  

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – Making her Departure

Usually high in the sky, Hildenberg has rarely if ever made any touchdowns near enough to photograph. Unfortunately that means I’ve never even attempted to get any pictures of this magnificent creature.

The years-long lack of good opportunities came to an end this week, when to our surprise, we found Hildenberg perched on our backyard fence. Closer than she’s ever been – I decided this was going to be my chance. 

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – Perched on our backyard fence.

There was Hildenberg: Perched on the fence, and actively shooting her gaze in many directions. She was not at peace: She was alert and seem to be observing the world around her for the first time, twisting and turning her head in every direction. Such must be the stressful life of a wild predatory creature. 

Let me quickly note that I’m a naturalist at heart. I would never bait or capture any animal in any circumstance – just to get a photo. I would never get close enough to disturb an animal in their natural habitat and anyone who knows me, knows that’s true. I’m willing to wait (years if required) to take my shot.

GEAR:
I ran down to my gear bag, and grabbed my Canon 5D Mark IV and Canon 300mm F/2.8 L IS III reached for my Canon 1.4x Teleconverter, but realized I had sold it. So no TC this time… I popped a couple of memory cards in to the unit, and proceeded quietly to the back patio. 

Photo: We use Canon Cameras, Canon L Lenses, and Canon Speedlites in most field and studio applications.

Put on the spot…

As a Sports and Action Photographer you have to be quick. You have to be able to track a subject, know where they are going and capture them at a moment’s notice. However, as a Hockey Photographer, I know that I almost always set my camera up ahead of time, with pre-defined settings, based on a test shot. After I set the camera, I don’t touch the settings again for the duration of a given game because the lighting situation isn’t expected to change.  The lighting in a typical hockey arena, as poor as it can be, is unlikely to change from frame to frame, which makes exposure a relatively easy issue to solve.

This business of quick thinking to set my camera settings while the opportunity to photograph is quickly ticking away is nothing I’m accustomed to!

Photo: Gear Bag: Our 300mm f/2.8 L IS II is our favorite Canon Lens.

I had to answer a couple of very quick questions in my mind and get the camera settings set for this uniquely different situation:  

      1. EASY: What shutter speed should I set to?
      2. EASY: What aperture should I set to?
      3. EASY: What ISO should I set to?
      4. EASY: In what format should I shoot?
      5. MODERATE: Is back-button focus setup?
      6. HARD: What are my camera’s AF setting set for and what would the best settings be on the Canon 5D Mark IV?
      7. HARD: What AF Points should I set for?

 

My thought process about settings is outlined below. Skip ahead if you just want to move past these technical insights. 

EASY: What shutter speed should I set to?
I want a high enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Though Hildenberg perched and stationary – my expectation is to get her once she’s begun to make a move – which would make for an infinitely more compelling photo than the one you see above.

For sports, I know I often shoot kids in peak action at around 1/1000th of a second. Seems reasonable as a starting point in my thought process, but I adjusted my thinking: For the Sports Photos I take, I’m often pushing the ISO VERY HIGH (to me – very high is 4000-6400). High ISO introduces grain in an image, and is generally undesirable in all situations that I’m aware of. Due to the effect of High ISO on image noise, I decided to start at 1/400th – letting more light through (longer exposure) than 1/1000th – which allows me to reduce the ISO well into the triple digits. 

EASY: What aperture should I set to?
I’m outside and it’s a bright sunny day. Given that I want to isolate my subject from the background, and effectively create a blurry background, my instinct is that I want to go wide. I also know that the shallow DOF of an f/2.8  aperture can cause some of my subject to be out of focus – which may be OK –if I nail focus on the eyes- of my subjects. On a bright sunny day, a photographer has a luxury to stop-down their lens, and I also wanted to take advantage of this for a couple of reasons that will favorably affect eventual image quality.

Firstly: Most lenses that I’m aware of, are actually sharper edge-to-edge when stopped down to about f/8.0. This is a generalization -but for the lenses I own it seems to be true. Your lens may have a different ‘sweet spot’ for sharpness. As you can imagine, the Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II is about as good as they get, and the sharpness wide open is second to none. However, I still stop down for the reason outlined below:

Secondly: by stopping down I stand to get my whole subject in crisp focus, without sacrificing the blurry background. Have you ever photographed a person at max aperture on a very expensive lens (ie: Canon 35mm f/1.4 prime lens also found in our gear bag) and noticed that most of the subject is out of focus -safe for a very shallow plane of focus within the Depth-of-Field? On this second point: It’s regarded by some as a desirable feature of shallow depth of field on a portrait, but the caveat to this, is that you must get the eye in focus. 

We, as your human observers, can stand an out of focus, or soft image, so long as the eyes are sharp! If the eye is not sharp; your image will be a disaster.

EASY: What ISO should I set to?
This is relatively simple and straightforward. My instincts tell me that I want to go as low as I can without causing me to change my settings above. Low ISO (eg: ISO 100) will produce the cleanest image for your given camera. The higher you bump the ISO, the more you’ll notice grain introduced in your image. For the Sports Photographer, high ISO is customary and usual. But in this scenario we are graced with the luxury of options! In most cases – you likely want to start low and only go higher if you must. ISO impact on the final image is dramatic. If you plan to print an image it becomes increasingly important to keep your ISO settings low. If your images are used digitally or mostly in low-resolution media, then you have a little more freedom to bump it up as needed. More later about how we deal with Noise. 

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – Moved from the fence to the edge of the forest. 

EASY: In what format should I shoot RAW vs JPG?
If I am going for a portfolio keeper, then I set my camera to shoot RAW. Later I will discuss why I shoot RAW and when to opt-out of shooting RAW. There are real-world reasons not to shoot RAW, which I will discuss in another post, but suffice to say- this is not one of those times.

MODERATE: Is back-button focus setup?
You may wonder: What is Back-button focus. Google it and come back here. If you’re not aware of this pattern of AF shooting, I highly suggest learning about it and how to set it up on your camera. It’s an invaluable technique when situations demand it. In this case I was set for Back-button focus because I had previously used the camera to shoot Hockey. Back-button focus ON.  This topic is itself worthy of another blog post.

HARD: What are my camera’s AF setting set for and what would the best settings be on the Canon 5D Mark IV?
Here is where we get into the tools. First off the easy question: FRAME RATE: I set to HIGH (on my camera, I should get 5-7 frames per second). I did not set to Silent Shutter – though I wonder with wildlife in scope, perhaps I should have. The Canon 5D Mk IV – is a piece of gear with sophisticated Auto Focus (AF) capabilities. I will discuss AF a little later, but for the purpose of this question, suffice to say that I changed my AF settings to the “All Purpose” setting on purple Menu 1… which brings me to the 2nd major AF consideration – AF Points Selections: 

HARD: What AF Points should I set for?
I selected all points on Menu 4 where you tell the camera what to do after Auto-Focus has begun. Remember that there are two considerations for auto-focus points. First is: What is the initial AF point to use to acquire focus on to your subject, and the Second is: Once AF is initiated what other focus points should be used to track your subject as it moves around the frame. It may be worth reading that again… Canon’s AF system is both sophisticated and relatively complicated to understand! I do suggest you read the manual. I will discuss AF for Sports and Wildlife in another post. Lastly, there is a question about Focus Priority or Shutter Priority. I always have my camera set to the highest focus priority possible. This is yet another different setting that must be set for best results – and comes into play when discussing tracking technique. 

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – Made a move to something she saw in the grass.

Ready to shoot and adjust?
Shooting in the Manual modes means that adjustments are almost always necessary. I took some shots, and realized that the 1/400th of a second shutter wasn’t going to cut it. Too slow – and evident motion was going to make a sharp image for such a moving subject very difficult.

After some adjustments – I realize the big Hildenberg was moving in and out of shadows. She was lit up heavily one moment and in the shade the next. 

I decided to move to Shutter Priority – and I set the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second with ISO set to 800. Knowing that the subject’s distance from the background will essentially allow a blurry background at just about any f-stop below 11+ – I decided that I’d let the camera decide, so that my exposure was correct regardless of the movements in and out of the shade.

I’m shooting in RAW – ISO 800 – Shutter Priority to 1/1000th and Aperture is coming in around 5.6 – 10.0 depending on position. Hildenberg as beautiful as she is – indeed appears to me as a bright glow in a dark scene -striking a contrast between her body and the forest in the background. Because of this – the exposures are coming in a little hot -even though I have a partial-center metering mode set. I do not typically use Spot metering because it’s too accurate and makes for wildly different exposures between frames.  

My Last Adjustment to Settings: I set to under-expose by 1/3rd of a stop… Now I’m ready to shoot confidently without any more fussing about settings! The entire process to figure these settings out – took approximately 30-40 seconds. Luckily I didn’t lose my opportunity in that time.

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – started her take-off with a few quick steps in my direction!

SHOOTING THE ACTION
I creep just to the edge of my lawn, careful not to disturb Hildenberg. Camera in hand, and with my settings good to go – I fire-away at her for about 2 -3 minutes. I photograph some shots of her in a relatively stationary position on the edge of the forest. She was evidently eating something – no telling what. 

The photos at this point are less than compelling – a stationary predatory bird feeding on the ground… though a lovely experience, I’m at the ready for ACTION!

It took about 5 minutes. With her belly full, Hildenberg set to take-off… and not unlike a big Boeing 777 – she seemed to take a running start down her own little green runway and off she went, and…

I was well-positioned and ready!

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – airborne!!!

MOMENT OF TRUTH
All of the prep I just described is now in play. If I don’t have my settings right – I won’t stand much of a chance of getting a good shot. There’s no time for adjustments now: Time to execute on preparations and technique. The work to acquire focus and then keep it for as long as possible is at hand. Nothing less will be needed to capture this fleeting moment. A layperson might be forgiven for thinking: “heck if you just hand me the camera now – I can probably get the shot too”. Suffice to say – experience is needed to be successful in this moment. Shooting technique is very important and can’t be stressed enough. 

Hildenberg took off – starting her ascent to my right shoulder and eventually curling away from me… higher… higher… and in about 9 frames, she was gone. Using my camera as a metric (at 7fps)…

…she was gone in about ~1.5 seconds. 

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – airborne!!!

NOTES ON TECHNIQUE
Of the 10 frames I got from standing to gone, 7 were in focus.

This gives me an effective keeper rate of about 70%. Why were all 10 not completely sharp? I believe my tracking wasn’t perfect, evidenced by her position in the un-cropped frames. In my haste to set the AF mode, I chose ‘all around’ option 1 – and there may be another one better suited to birds in flight. Often consumers of such electronics would be quick to fault the gear; in this case the AF system of the Canon 5d Mark IV or the Lens itself -the Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II. Let me be quite frank – 99.99% of the time, it’s not the camera – it’s the user. At 7 clean shots out of 10, the gear certainly allowed me to capture my vision – and then some! 

I’m a very proud Canon user. My gear – and my experience in using it – combined to allow me to capture this incredible moment. 

Breaking down the Technique:
To get the sharpest image possible (and to get as many as you can) there are a few factors to consider, and they go well beyond “Point the camera, and shoot the subject”. 

Acquire Focus:
This might sound easy, and to some degree it is. However, it’s also the critical step in technique. Having my initial AF point set to center AF point, I must initiate the back-button AF-on button-press while the AF point is over the eyes/head of subject. Holding the camera such that the AF point is over anything but the face of the Hawk, at the moment AF-on is depressed, would be a mistake to avoid. 

If you press the AF-on button down while the wrong body part, or worse, the background is over the AF Point, you’re in for a perhaps costly and regrettable delay to acquire focus lock. This mistake alone will mean the bird will be gone before you even acquire focus! 

Once the eyes are over the AF Point, you then depress your thumb firmly in position – the lens snaps to this focal plane, and focus tracking has begun. You’re now ready to rip on the the shutter.

To note: There should be a slight time delta between the depression of the AF-on button and when you should engage the shutter button. A mistake that can be made here is to depress both at once. You must wait until the focus is locked before depressing the shutter button if you want your first shot to be crisp. It takes the mechanism a split second to engage the USM, and find what you are seeking to track. Though we discussed the Shutter vs Focus priority setting earlier, even if you chose Focus as the priority – the first shot or two may not be in focus at all if you don’t allow the camera a split-second to acquire focus before hammering the shutter button.  You’ll also burn through the start of your buffer if you start with inaccurate focus lock.

Retain Focus:
This is also relatively easy – but skill is still involved so it’s still important to discuss. While the shutter is ripping away – you must move the camera and lens to track with your subject’s movement as fluidly as possible, and of course keep the subject in frame. All Canon 5d Mark IV AF points are in the general center of the frame, so there’s not a lot of room for error. So long as the bird stays over the AF Area selected, your camera and lens will retain focus lock and tracking.  

Keep the bird in Frame
Allowing the subject to go too far off center or out of frame will reset the clock on acquisition. If this happens, you must release both buttons and start again. 

Rip it until she’s gone 
This is no time to give up – keep going until she’s gone, even if she’s looking away or far away. Ending a burst too early can lead to missed shots. You never know if the subject will turn back, or do something unpredictable. Keep shooting until the buffer fills,  the card fills or she’s properly gone. 

…this is no time to give up…

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – making her ascent to her usual airy playground high above the neighborhood.

And just like that…
A quick check on the LCD confirms what I already know – I’ve got a few great frames to go pull up on the 4k Studio monitor. Today is going to be a fun day. 

Post Processing
In this section I cover my post-processing workflow. If you thought settings and shooting was fun… just wait.

Some might argue that this is where the real fun begins. I love to be in the field, and nothing quite compares to the exhilaration of being behind the lens when something amazing is happening – specially knowing that you’ve come prepared and are ready to capture it. However, I also thoroughly enjoy the post-process involved with creating the best image for print and media. 

Import the Photos to Photo Mechanic
I may not be unique in my my go-to choice for photo import software: I use PhotoMechanic. This tool is quick with raw files, and allows you to get through the culling process efficiently. 

Once imported, I backup my images to an off-site service, and store the files locally on SSD hard drives such as the SanDisk 2TB Exreme Portable SSD Hard Drive. I copy a set to a local internal SSD hard drive [I use a WD Black NVMe Internal Gaming SSD M.2 WDS100T3X0C] so that image processing (saving, retrieving) is as fast as possible. There is nothing worse than editing files on a slow cheap external hard drives. 

Backed up and ready to edit. 

Note on RAW vs JPG
Please always shoot RAW in such a circumstance. There is no reason why not have a RAW image to edit at this point in the process. Effectively, the Canon 5D Mark IV captures a RAW image anyway. If you choose to save JPG only – then you’re essentially turning over control of conversion to the in-camera software. Once a JPG is rendered, there is no turning back without the RAW image file. If this doesn’t make sense, I do suggest that you search some Youtube Videos such as this beauty by Pye Jirsa at the SLR Lounge discussing the benefits of shooting RAW as it will help in your photography journey.

In this case I shot both RAW + JPG. The jpgs will essentially be throw-away, but for the purpose of comparison, I typically edit my RAW images, and when I’m done – I do a quick gut-check: I compare my final edited image to the in-camera conversion (the JPG it produced). This can help me pull back on some of my digital indiscretions. 

…this is where the real fun begins…

Photo: Hildenberg the Broad-Winged Hawk – Shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV paired with a Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II

Back to PhotoMechanic
I quickly cull images and pick my favorite shots. I use the star mechanism to star the photos I like best. I typically go through my photos and give a 1-star rating to any image I wouldn’t delete (ALT + 1). Then I filter the whole set on 1-star rating and go through them again, this time setting images to a Star Rating between 2-4 (ALT +2, ALT+3, ALT+4). Lastly I go through my 4’s and pick my best 5-7 images and rate them 5. 

Some might even say 5-7 is too many. If I’m looking for a portfolio keeper shot, and one that would make for a great print, I’m probably going to narrow these down to the single best frame anyway. 

RAW Image Conversion
I open Adobe Bridge and select the current folder. I filter all but the 5-star photos, and open the first one in Adobe Photoshop RAW conversion tool. I will play with three basic tools within the tool:

1. BASIC: I will play with all sliders except the White Balance -unless that was not correct in-camera, I leave it AS SHOT. 
2. DETAIL: I add some sharpening but not too much.
3. OPTICS:  Here I simply tell Adobe’s RAW Conversion tool what camera and lens combination I was using – and it will apply a profile over the image to correct for such things as distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration. Suffice to say – this lens is arguably one of the sharpest and highest quality lenses Canon has ever produced according to Bob Atkins’ list of the BEST Canon EOS Lenses. The Optics settings here do not fix much!! Kudos to Canon! 

Everyone has their own editing style, and to a large degree RAW conversion is the mechanism by which we differentiate ourselves in the digital darkroom. This is truly where your art takes shape.

I often look back at my younger days’ work and wonder what I was thinking. It’s too easy to over saturate colors, over sharpen images, and over-do just about anything at this stage. Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that a light touch is preferable to a heavy hand.  

If you finish your RAW conversion and it looks right to you – walk way from the computer for some brief period of time, and return to your work to give it a second pass. Your initial impression on that second look will point you in the direction of what to alter before a final conversion is made. 

It’s also easy to waste a lot of time on this step, and I suggest you move efficiently to the next step. You can always come back to start over, if you’ve backed up your RAW files. (This is the beauty of shooting RAW).

 

…this is truly where your art takes shape…

Photo: Behind the scenes in the Studio – Post-Process Editing Takes Place

I have a JPG Now What?
I sure hope you don’t think we’re done yet. 

As I mentioned earlier, we’re seeking a single frame that is worthy of adding to our portfolio, but at the same time we’re seeking a file that is print-ready

Ready to get impossibly good results out of your images? Turn your attention to Topaz Labs and their suite of photo editing software, namely: DeNoise AI, Sarpen AI and Gigapixel AI. I’m a licensed user and not affiliated with them in any way… but I’m a fan.

Topaz Labs say that their “AI is fundamentally different: when used correctly it can actually improve true image quality while keeping your image natural.” In a nutshell, their three programs help me to improve sharpness, decrease noise and create large print-ready files. I’ve purchased licenses to a variety of noise reduction software in the past, but Topaz Lab’s software is a game-changer. Look at the photo below- a 100% crop side by side between the original file (converted from RAW). Their tools are now a permanent and pivotal steps in our ready-to-print workflow. 

Simply Put: Topaz Labs imbues my images with near magical qualities.

Steps I take to get the print-ready file. 

    1. I process the images using DeNoise AI.  Recall that we had to bump our ISO to 800. Though the Canon 5d Mark IV performs very well at this ISO – we are seeking the best possible photo which means we want to remove any noise that may be visible in a large print. Noise is not as important when viewing photos electronically – but it’s extremely important when printing images. The larger you print your files, the lower the density of pixels per inch (or dpi; dots per inch) are at work. DeNoise AI performs magically – reducing noise without introducing a plastic-looking effect I see in other software. 
    2. I process the images using Sharpen AI.  At this point, Topaz Labs software, built on artificial intelligence, really shines for a wildlife photo such as this one. Every detail is enhanced, and sharpness is improved drastically. Sharpening is not new… Photoshop and other tools do a great job of Sharpening, but what sets Topaz Labs’ Sharpen AI apart from other tools, is the fact that they can sharpen an image without introducing destructive artifacts. The results are priceless.
    3. I process the images at 4x through Gigapixel AI. If you’re not printing, then there is virtually no need to raise the density of your pixels. If you plan to print, and plan to print big, this tool is worth it’s weight in gold – and pays for itself on the first usage. Kudos to Topaz Labs, you have a big fan at SilverPeak Studios!

…Topaz Lab’s software is a game-changer….

Photo: Behind the scenes – 100% crop of original file -vs- Result of processing images through Topaz Labs suite of software.

A Return to PhotoMechanic
We return to PhotoMechanic for simple Cropping and Rotation. Note that this is the LAST step in processing the images.

The crop and rotate features of PhotoMechanic are beautiful in their elegant simplicity. They allow you to lock the aspect ratio (any ratio you input) or freely crop to any aspect ratio. I’m confident in my cropping ability, based on years of experience, and I decide to free-hand it. I’m going to let each frame dictate where the crop-markers should land. I will use the rotation ever-so slightly to correct anything that looks off-kilt.

In this case all of my frames ended up with a landscape orientation, but that’s not a given – any frame can be cropped in any orientation depending on the quality of your subject in the un-edited frame.

The End Results
I’m very proud of the finished product. Experience, preparation, and luck combined to let me capture a memorable portrait of our beloved neighborhood friend Hildenberg.

My experience as a hockey Photographer certainly prepared me for this venture into back-yard wildlife photography. I really enjoyed the hunt, and the result is that I have a few frames I’d be proud to add to my portfolio and make a few prints to share with friends and family. 

PUDDLES – COFFEE – CAMERAS

Breakfast for Puddles, Coffee for me, and we’re ready to shoot.

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