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Learning from your Mistakes


Words by James Gifford

Whether you’re a beginner picking up a camera for the first time, or a professional with decades of experience, you’re going to make a mistake sooner or later. The only difference is that the pros started making their mistakes at the beginning of their careers. Theoretically, they’ve learnt their lessons and now employ the necessary tactics to avoid repeating them.

Speed it Up

The most common technical error I see amongst wildlife photographers is the use of too slow a shutter-speed, so the image isn’t quite sharp. This is the primary reason not to shoot on automatic, as you have no control over your settings. Your shutter speed should take into account the size of your lens and the movement of your subject. As a guideline, you should shoot no more slowly than 1/focal length of the lens, so if you have a 100 – 400 mm lens and are shooting at 300 mm, you will need to shoot at a minimum of 1/300. Image stabilisers may make it possible to shoot slightly more slowly, but it’s better to be on the safe side.

This guide is fine if your subject is stationary, but a trotting zebra will need something closer to 1/500, a sprinting lion will need 1/1 000, and to freeze the wings of a little bee-eater you might need to reach 1/2 000. If your aperture is already wide open, you will have to ramp up your ISO to increase the shutter speed.

Good Habits

The best way of avoiding the many pitfalls that can beset the intermediate photographer is by getting into the habit of glancing at your settings through the viewfinder before you take each shot. This is most important first thing in the morning, when you’ll need to change the settings used the previous night.

If you were shooting on a high ISO in the fading light the day before, then the effect may not be disastrous: your first shots of the morning might just have a super-fast shutter speed. However, if you were experimenting with stars on Manual or Bulb modes, then your pictures in the early morning will be a wash-out.

Watch Out for Gremlins

Changing your settings isn’t just something to watch in the mornings. During each sighting, you might have changed your auto-focus mode, adjusted exposure compensation, or a whole host of other things. So, before you get to the next sighting, reset everything to your preferred default settings.

Even functions you haven’t adjusted deliberately should be checked; cameras have a remarkable ability to change their own mode dials while in their cases or resting on your lap. When you unwittingly start shooting on Manual, the results can be disastrous – transforming your elegant leopard into a picture that looks as if you forgot to take the lens-cap off. Lenses also have their own gremlins, so check constantly that the image stabiliser and Auto-Focus are switched on.