Modern cameras and lenses are packed with features designed to meet the diverse needs of a range of photographers. Many photographers who specialise in a specific genre may find they only use a small proportion of their camera’s features for most of their photography. As a photographer specialising in wildlife, I certainly class myself as one of these.

This Fujiholics blog post looks at the key features I use for wildlife photography. It’s not a review of every customisation or setting I use for my cameras, just those that I feel are key to succeeding with wildlife photography. So, I’m not going to talk about how long you set your image review for, raw or jpg, colour spaces, custom button functions etc. There are six main areas, exposure modes, autofocus, continuous shooting, shutters, focus limiters and boost mode.

Currently, my main camera body is the fantastic Fujifilm X-H1 with the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens. For this blog post, I will be sharing and explaining how and why I set up my X-H1 for wildlife photography. I also use a X-T2, mainly with a 50-140mm f/2.8 and although the feel of the camera bodies differ greatly, I can still set them up in an almost identical way.

Before I continue, I don’t intend this to sound like it is the only approach. I believe it is an efficient and intuitive approach which I use most of the time as it provides me with the most consistency. There will always be exceptions in any situations and other set ups or methods do exist!

Atlantic Puffin in flight, Fujifilm X-H1
Subjects like Atlantic Puffins fly incredibly fast and can be difficult to exposue correctly. A subject like this needs all of the techniques I describe below to be pulled together. Oh, and practise!
(X-H1, 100-400mm – 1/3500, f/5.6, ISO400, 400mm)

Exposure Modes

Like many wildlife photographers, I avoid full manual control of exposure. It requires too much constant ‘tweaking’ which also needs to be done very quickly. In most cases, quicker than we can react when photographing unpredictable wild animals in their habitat. Especially while also concentrating on composition, panning and focussing at the same time.

There is a popular misconception that most wildlife photographers have a preference towards using shutter priority. Most wildlife photographers I know, including myself of course, prefer to use aperture priority.

Aperture priority allows us to maintain creative control over the depth of field we require in a photograph. The camera’s light meter will read the light and provide a shutter speed which we can influence by increasing or decreasing the ISO when required. I always try to use the lowest ISO value that will give me the shutter speed I require.

Furthermore, we still maintain control of the exposure by using exposure compensation. More often than not, this will be a necessity. The camera meter may get it right but this might not be our creative intention, so intervention is required. In aperture priority, negative exposure compensation will underexpose by increasing the metered shutter speed and positive exposure compensation will overexpose by decreasing the metered shutter speed.

Care is needed when using positive exposure compensation as the decreasing shutter speed may require countering with an increase in ISO depending on subject movement.

To the unfamiliar, this may seem like a complex process but in practice, it’s actually a lot more intuitive than it may sound.

Whichever exposure mode you use, it is still important to understand the overall principles of full manual exposure. Knowing how the aperture, shutter speed and ISO are working together will allow you to maintain control and correct exposure quickly when it isn’t going to plan.

Fujifilm X-H1 Aperture Priority
Fujifilm X-H1 set to aperture priority. I have exposure compensation set to the rear command dial.

Autofocus (i) The Fundamentals

There are three fundamental focussing methods, single shot, continuous and manual. In AF-S (single shot), the focus locks once the shutter button is pressed halfway. Re-focusing requires you to release and half-squeeze on the shutter again. It is rarely suitable for anything moving as the subject will very quickly move out of focus during this process.

I always have my cameras in AF-C. This is a continuous autofocus mode which means as long as the shutter button is pressed halfway (or use AF-On / back button focussing), the camera will be constantly evaluating and changing the focus as I move or my subject moves. Even if my subject is stationary, I always use AF-C. I work on the basis that if my subject can move, it is likely to move.

I very rarely use manual focus in wildlife photography.

Fujifilm X-H1 Focus Mode Selector set to Continuous
Fujifilm X-H1 Focus Mode Selector set to Continuous.

Autofocus (ii) Next steps

Once we are past the fundamentals of AF-S and AF-C we have to look at the more advanced AF modes. These are accessed via the MENU / OK button > AF/MF SETTINGS > AF MODE.

Depending on your camera you will see SINGLE POINT, ZONE, WIDE/TRACKING and ALL

Fujifilm X-H1 AF Modes
Fujifilm X-H1 AF Modes.

My default is a single point. I’ll use this for stationary subjects or anything which is moving but not too fast or erratically that I can’t keep a single AF point on the key area of interest, often an eye. The single point frame has 6 selectable sizes which can allow incredible accuracy for the focal point. I tend to use these sizes when my subject is stationary and I’m taking a close-up portrait type of wildlife photograph. When using a single point, it is important to consider moving the active point around the viewfinder to match your intended composition.

For the maximum amount of compositional versatility I make 325 AF points available for selection rather than the reduced 91.

Using a single AF point to photography Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on a Hippo's back.
I always look at exploring the relationships between species. To photograph these Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on top of a Hippo’s back, it was important to place a single AF point right over one of them.
(X-H1, 100-400mm – 1/550, f/5.6, ISO1000, 400mm)

If a subject is moving too quickly or erratically and I can’t accurately keep it on a single point, I progress to zone focussing. When focus is achieved in the centre of one of three different sized zones, the camera continuously tracks the subject as it moves across the AF points within the zone.

Zone focussing offers three different sized zones, 3×3, 5×5 or 7×7. Just like my approach to the transition from single point to zone, the size I decide to use is based upon my ability to be able to keep the subject in the zone. It is very much led by experience, panning ability and the behaviour of the subject. A good rule of thumb is to use the smallest you can and work upon improving your own panning technique at the same time. Also, just like single point we can move the zone around the viewfinder for composition purposes.

Zone Focusing while panning with a fast moving subject using a Fujifilm X-T2 and 50-140mm f/2.8 lens.
Zone Focusing while panning with a fast moving subject using a Fujifilm X-T2 and 50-140mm f/2.8 lens.
(X-T2, 50-140mm – 1/1400, f/4, ISO320, 115mm)

Autofocus (iii) Custom AF Settings

This is where it gets a little more complex. Dig in!

Auto Focus Custom Settings
Auto Focus Custom Settings.

The autofocus settings can be further customised down to how our subject is moving and how any obstacles should be treated. There are five ‘presets’:

1. Multi-purpose – A bit of a one size (nearly) fits all approach,
2. Ignore obstacles & continue to track subject – This is particularly useful if we are panning with a moving subject and something else in the landscap, like a tree, for example, gets in between us.
3. For accelerating and decelerating subject – For subjects prone to rapid changes in their velocity
4. Suddenly appearing subject – Subjects that appear abruptly or when rapidly switching between subjects
5. Erratically moving and accelerating or decelerating subjects – Subjects that are moving very erratically.
6. Custom – Set preferences for tracking sensitivity, speed sensitivity and zone switching

This level of customisation is useful but I find in practice it takes too much time to adjust when presented with different subjects moving in different ways.

I’ve found the easiest option which gives me the most consistency is to keep it in the first multi-purpose setting for most subjects but when I know I am photographing birds in flight I opt for a custom setting:

Tracking sensitivity: 0 – Optimised for subjects which move quickly across the frame.

Speed tracking sensitivity: 2 – Optimised for subjects which move at a steady speed.

Zone area sensitivity: Auto – Continues to track the part of the subject first focused on.

It is a good idea to experiment with all of these settings so you can confidently make changes when required.

Autofocus (iv) Back Button Focus

Back button focus is something which regularly crops up in discussions about auto focus tracking. There is a popular misconception that using a dedicated AF-On button to activate autofocus is the holy grail of subject tracking perfection. Well, it isn’t!

Using a dedicated AF-On button or assigning AF to another button such as AE-L disengages AF from the shutter and assigns it to the ‘back button’. In practice, this means we can focus and recompose as we would in single shot AF mode (AF-S) while we are in continuous AF mode (AF-C).

I used to use back button focus a lot but now that I have cameras with AF points which pretty much cover the whole viewfinder area, I’ve found there is little need to use back button to focus and recompose.

Electronic or Mechanical Shutter

I always think this is a difficult option as there are so many aspects to take into account which will depend on the situation you find yourself in. As a result, there is no clear or definitive answer as to what is the most appropriate.

Using the electronic shutter gives the benefit of silence, increased frame rates (see below) and remarkably faster shutter speeds. However, the rolling shutter effect can produce problems when photographing fast action and as a result, isn’t recommended. For me, this makes the ‘speed related’ advantages redundant anyway.

The Fujifilm X-H1 mechanical shutter is very quiet anyway and I’ve never found the X-T2 an issue either. Frame rate is slightly reduced but is still excellent (see below) and there isn’t much wildlife which needs a shutter speed of more than 1/8000 second. Not that I can think of anyway! More importantly, we do not experience the adverse effects of the rolling shutter. In practice, I rarely use electronic shutter, but this is something you may benefit from experimenting with.

Continuous Shooting / Burst Mode

If you are trying to capture action, your chances of success are greatly increased by using your camera’s burst mode. In a nutshell, this means that as long as you keep your finger pressed on the shutter button, the camera will take photographs continuously until the buffer fills up. As the buffer fills up the frame rate will slow down.

Fujifilm X-H1 Common Tern on Continuous High Burst Mode
Common Tern, As Terns hover before plunge diving it is easy enough to use a single AF point. Using a Continuous High burst mode made it easy to capture the moment the wings were at their highest point revealing more of the underside.
(X-H1, 100-400mm – 1/4700, f/5.6, ISO400, 373mm)

That is the simple explanation! As we would expect, there are a few different ways we can customise continuous shooting to give us more control. But there are limitations too.

My camera is nearly always on continuous high (CH) burst mode, this gives me 11 frames per second with a mechanical shutter when using the additional VPB-XH1 battery grip with boost mode enabled (see below). We can reduce this to 8 frames per second if desired in the DRIVE SETTINGS menu. In CH mode, we are limited to a more central selection of available AF points.

Fujifilm X-H1 drive dial set to CH, Continuous High
Fujifilm X-H1 drive dial set to CH, Continuous High.

I always caution against an indiscriminate approach to continuous burst modes and high frame rates. Having the benefit of 11 frames per second isn’t about assuming a machine-gunners ‘spray and pray’ approach. In fact, I rarely use this for more than a second, it’s not about maxing out the buffer, more the ability to capture 5-6 frames in half a second or so. This is where we capture the interesting qualities of wildlife action.

Focus Range Selection

This isn’t something you’ll find on your camera. Some lenses, notably the Fujinon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and 200mm f/2, have a focus range selection switch.

When a camera’s autofocus system can’t lock on to a subject it will ‘hunt’ through the focus range looking to detect detail. When photographing wildlife we often know that our subject is unlikely to come too close to our position. By using the focus selection switch we can tell the camera and lens to ignore the closer range. This improves the speed of focus and the accuracy. We have two options with the Fujinon 100-400mm lens, off and 5m to infinity. By selecting 5m to infinity we are ignoring the closer range, i.e. 5m to the minimum focus distance of the lens, 1.75m.

Performance Boost Mode

I’m keeping the most straightforward setting until last, Performance ‘Boost’. This is another setting I always have set. It increases the performance of the autofocus, increases the viewfinder display quality and viewfinder frame rate. Battery life takes a hit but for me it makes the camera a lot more responsive.

Final Words…

By bringing all of these settings, features and techniques together you should be able to increase the consistency and quality of your wildlife photography. But there is still a lot more you can do on top of this too. Knowing your subject’s behaviour and habits as well as your camera’s features can help you predict behaviour and stay one step ahead of the action. I’ll be talking more about the benefits of fieldcraft in a future blog post.

Alan Hewitt is a freelance wildlife photographer, writer and photography holiday tour guide. He can often be spotted on Northumberland’s Farne Islands but migrates to warmer climates to help people point their lenses at wildlife across Europe, Asia and Africa.