Best Camera settings for Wildlife Photography

young male lion
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Here are my default camera settings for wildlife photography assuming I am sitting on the back of a game viewing vehicle at dawn. Variable settings as the light changes are highlighted in bold font.

Summary of best camera settings for Wildlife photography

  1. Aperture: f/6.3
  2. Shutter Speed:1/1250
  3. ISO: Auto
  4. Camera Mode: Manual 
  5. Metering Mode: Matrix/Multi
  6. Focus Mode: AF-C 
  7. Focus Area: Single-point 
  8. White Balance: Automatic
  9. File Format: Raw uncompressed
  10. Drive Mode: Continuous high


The defaults above are for early morning in bad light or late afternoon as the light is fading.

In this case I would have a prime lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6 on the camera.

f 6.3 allows me a slighter deeper depth of field than at f5.6 but still allows a lot of light to hit the sensor. 

I go one stop up from the widest aperture at the start of the day. This setting varies depending on the situation as well as the lens that I have on the camera.


Shutter Speed

A shutter speed of 1/1250 gives me sufficient speed to capture an image of a large bird in flight but is not fast enough for a small, fast moving bird.

My default is to be prepared should we come across an owl or a fast moving nocturnal animal like a genet.

I reduce this right down to 1/250 if we are photographing an elephant or something else large and standing still provided I have camera support like a bean bag or mono-pod on the vehicle.

If I am hoping we are going to be lucky enough to see a leopard or another big cat first thing in the morning I would have 1/800 as my initial shutter speed and hope that I can increase the shutter speed quickly from there should we come across a bird that I want to photograph.

The image of a wild dog below was shot at a low shutter speed of 1/100 sec with the aid of a bean bag as support, shot as the sun was going down at 17h30. In this case I had a 300mm f2.8 lens with a 1.4 x tele converter on the camera.

Wild dog

420mm, 1/100 sec, f/4, ISO 200

ISO - Auto

Yes you read that right – ISO Auto. The advances in sensor technology in conjunction with incredible AI editing capabilities these days make shooting at very high ISO levels feasible. I put a maximum level of ISO 16 000 in the settings and the camera chooses from ISO 64 up to ISO 16 000 depending on my shutter speed and aperture chosen.

I switch ISO back to manual when I wish to have more control and this would usually be when I am taking a landscape photo or when I am photographing something immobile. I then shoot at the lowest native ISO setting possible.

Camera Mode: Manual

I shoot in manual or aperture mode most of the time and increasingly prefer manual mode with Auto ISO. Manual mode allows you to change all of the settings to get the correct exposure. By putting my ISO setting to Auto I am effectively putting the camera into what I would call ‘semi auto’ mode.

Those readers who are intermediate to advanced photographers would know that the three settings that impact the exposure of your image are aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

My method of shooting allows me to choose the aperture (depth of field) that I want and the freeze motion (shutter speed) that I want. The ISO then automatically adjusts upwards or downwards to correctly expose the image.

White rhino calf

300mm, 1/1250 sec, f/6,3, ISO: 2800

Metering mode: Matrix

Depending on the make of your camera this is also known as multi segment,  evaluative or multi metering mode. This mode works in the vast majority of situations and I seldom move from this setting. This mode calculates an average across the range of the frame and I find it to work 90% of the time.

Every now and again I will use spot metering to control the exposure of a specific small area and I will be doing a separate article on metering modes and exposure compensation techniques soon. 

giraffe silhouette

70-200mm @ 200mm, 1/125 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 560, White balance: Auto

Focus mode: Continuous

The best auto focus mode for wildlife photography is continuous auto focus mode. This means that the focus will track even a moving subject as long as you have the focus button engaged.  Depending on your camera this may have a different name – Nikon: AF-C, Canon: AI Servo AF, Sony: Continuous AF.

Focus area : Single point

In my list of recommended settings at the top of this page you will note that I highlighted this as a variable. I do switch back and forth between focus areas and the main two that I use are single focus and dynamic range.

Now that many of us are switching to mirrorless the subject becomes more technical.

As most of my images are taken in situations where subjects may be partially obscured by a busy foreground, I prefer the accuracy of single point focus to avoid focus latching on to the foreground or background.

The extreme work around for this is manual focus but this only works if your subject is immobile at the time.

The image of this female leopard was taken using single point auto-focus on her eye, thus avoiding the potential of focus locking onto the foliage in front of her.

Leopard in tree

500mm, 1/250 sec, f/5,6, ISO 200

White Balance : Auto

If you want the most control when editing your images you should be shooting in RAW rather than Jpeg. RAW files allow you to adjust colours and white balance to your liking during editing so I feel this WB setting is fine left on Auto.

If I was shooting Jpeg I would pay more attention to this setting and there are a number of options to choose from – sunny, cloudy, flash – all of them produce a different colour temperature measured in Kelvin.

Daylight is around 5 500 kelvin and numbers higher than this ‘warm’ the image and lower than this ‘cool’ the image. 

Color TemperatureLight Source
4000-5000 KFluorescent Lamps
5000-5500 KElectronic Flash
5000-6500 KDaylight with Clear Sky (sun overhead)
6500-8000 KModerately Overcast Sky

File Format : RAW

RAW files cannot be printed and you will need a RAW converter as found in Adobe Camera RAW or Adobe Lightroom RAW to process these files.The main advantage of shooting in RAW is that you end up with high-quality files to edit into the best possible image.

Capturing and storing all the details that pass through your camera’s sensors means RAW files contain a wider dynamic range and far greater colour spectrum than JPEGs. In terms of file size, a RAW file is also a lot larger than a JPEG file. 

If a RAW image is under or overexposed, the wider dynamic range makes recovery a lot easier, with greater control over sharpening. Because RAW files are lossless, unprocessed and uncompressed, they maintain their original high-quality and don’t experience any drops in resolution due to resizing.

When your camera compresses a RAW file into a JPEG image, it undergoes a lossy compression process. While the compression makes the file smaller, you will lose some of the data and detail from the photograph and the image could appear grainy or pixelated. Because JPEGs are 8-bit, there are also colour limitations compared to RAW files that can be 12 and 16-bit.

Drive mode : Continuous high

For wildlife and bird photography it is best to keep your burst rate, or frame rate setting at the highest possible speed. The newer mirrorless full frame cameras are now shooting full size RAW files at between 20 (Nikon Z9) and 30 (Sony a1) frames per second.

By comparison the Nikon D850 can fire off only 7 frames per second without the optional vertical battery grip and 9 frames per second with it attached. 

Shooting hundreds of RAW files at 20 or 30 frames per second takes up a huge amount of storage space so you need to consider memory card sizes and write speeds to ensure that you can extract the full potential of your cameras’ frame rate. 

yellow billed duck in flight

500mm, 1/3200 sec, f/5,6, ISO: 500

Final thoughts

I hope this short article has given you an insight into how I set up my camera for wildlife photography.

I have recently purchased a Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera and I will be updating this page in due course.

camera settings for wildlife photography nikon z9
Nikon Z9 with 24-120 mm lens
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