Wildlife Photography Tips: Tracking Techniques

One of the most critical skills to learn in wildlife photography is the ability to handle the camera without thinking about it. The more time you spend wondering which control dial to adjust and in which direction, the greater the likelihood that your intended image has long since disappeared from the scene.

This can be as true of an apparently static subject, such as a landscape, as it is of fast moving subjects like wildlife, particularly when you take into account how quickly light can change.


Focus mode determines how the camera focuses, initially between automatic (AF) and manual (MF) operation, and then, in AF mode, between focus-and-lock, where focus is locked after it is attained, and focus-and-track, in which set ting the camera continues to adjust focus in order to maintain an accurate focus distance when the subject is moving.

The selected setting will depend on the subject of the photograph. For example, if the subject is static (e.g., a landscape scene), then focus-and-lock is an appropriate setting. However, if your subject is moving, such as a running animal, then the focus-and-track mode is often a better tool for the job.

Focusing is one of the hardest skills to learn, particularly when photographing moving subjects in wildlife or macro photography.

To Track or Not to Track

Most current DSLR cameras have two types of AF system: focus and lock (referred to by Canon as one-shot AF and by most other manufacturers as single or single-servo AF) or focus and track (which Canon calls artificial intelligence AI servo and everyone else calls continuous or continuous- servo AF).

In the default AF mode (focus and lock), the camera detects the point of focus and locks focus at that distance. It’s ideal when the subject is static, since camera-to-subject distance (focus distance) is unlikely to change unless the photographer moves position. However, if the subject moves closer to or farther away from the camera, then it will fall out of focus because the camera is still focusing on the original (locked) focus point. It’s one of the most common causes of out-of-focus images.

For moving subjects, the camera provides a second AF mode option: focus and track. In this mode, the camera detects the point of focus and focuses at this distance. However, it doesn’t lock focus. Instead, using the AF target sensors visible in the viewfinder, it continues to assess the position of the subject and, if it detects subject movement, it will adjust the focus distance accordingly, thereby maintaining accurate focus.

For example, imagine you are photographing a car moving toward you. When first focusing on the car, its distance might be, say, 20 meters but, by the time you come to press the shutter, it will have moved closer to, say, 10 meters distance.

With the camera set to focus-and-lock (default) mode, the focus distance would remain unchanged at 20 meters when the shutter was pressed, resulting in the car being out of focus by 10 meters. However, in focus-and-track mode, the camera would continually reassess subject distance, adjusting the focus distance so that when the picture was taken, the point of focus would be set to (in this example) 10 meters—the actual distance of the car.

Consequently, the appropriate AF mode setting depends largely on whether the subject is static or in motion. The focus-and-lock mode is ideal for static subjects, such as landscapes. However, when the subject is moving (e.g., wildlife), then focus and track is the more suitable option.

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