Shoot and catch the images of a lifetime

Photo of Mogens Johansen

Preparation and patience, as well as the right settings, are best mix for animals.

I’m watching the cheetah intently through the viewfinder of my Canon DSLR, the 100-400mm zoom allows me to study it close up. He is a stunning specimen and he doesn’t seem to take any notice of our presence. I’ve already got a few nice frames of him resting in the shade of a tree but I’m hoping for something better. 

The camera and lens are comfortably supported by my monopod so now it is just a matter of patience.

I check my camera settings once again. 

It is a bright sunny morning and I have the ISO on 200 at the moment. I want to keep it as low as I can to get the best possible quality. The cheetah is in the shade at the moment but I’m hoping he might start to move around.

My shutter speed is on 1/800th second. That’s enough to freeze any action and movement and the fast shutter speed also helps to minimise any camera shake which is magnified because I am using a long focal length. 

The ISO and fast shutter speed combine perfectly with an aperture setting of f/5.6. It gives me enough depth of field to ensure the cheetah is in focus but not enough for the background to distract from my study of him. 

Anyway, back to the cheetah, after a while he starts to move around a bit. First, he marks his territory on a tree followed by a yawn and a stretch and then he starts to take a bit of interest in an impala nearby. He gets into stealth cat mode and moves slowly and quietly towards the impala but the impala is alert to the danger and in the end, he decides it is not worth the effort and settles down in the shade of a tree for another rest. 

I am satisfied with a nice set of pictures of him so we decide to leave him alone. 

Shooting animals is all about preparation and patience. Know your camera and choose the right settings for the conditions. It can be tempting to put the camera on the green setting (Program) where it chooses ISO, aperture and shutter speed, but — the trap is that the camera sees only light. It doesn’t know what you are trying to achieve — so if you apply a little thought to it you will get much better results.

The first thing I like to do is to set the ISO. The ISO relates to the sensitivity of the sensor. A low ISO setting like 100 gives the best quality with high resolution and sharp crisp colours. As you increase the ISO, the light sensitivity of the sensor increases allowing you to take pictures in lower light conditions but the quality of the image will deteriorate as you increase the ISO. 

Modern cameras with a large sensor will give you good results up to 1600 ISO but you will start to notice a small drop in quality with each step you increase the ISO.

When I anticipate action or fast movement I like to use Shutter priority so I can nominate a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the moment, the aperture and depth of field is secondary so I’m happy to let the camera sort that out.

Aperture priority is handy if you are shooting portraits of animals. A shallow depth of field will help separate the animal from a busy background so I like to choose an aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6 and let the camera choose the shutter speed.


Mogens Johansen was a guest at the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in South Africa. They have not seen or approved this story.


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