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John and Barbara Gerlach have done it again!
on December 10, 2012
This is the third in a continuing series of books on digital nature photography by two of the most highly skilled and prolific photographers in the world. Through these books John and Barbara Gerlach share their techniques and insights with anyone who wants to improve his or her skills in the field of nature photography. I had the pleasure of reviewing their first two books on Amazon. The first, "Digital Nature Photography: The Art and the Science," is a superb digital nature photography foundations book. Indeed, it complements the present book in many respects. The second, "Digital Landscape Photography", is a classic presentation of the techniques required for obtaining outstanding landscape images with digital equipment. The present book is yet another brilliant work that provides critical information for successful digital wildlife photography. The Gerlachs are on an amazing roll with "Digital Close-up and Macro Photography" as their next project, and I would not be surprised if "Digital Flash Photography" followed.
This book is packed with so much information that I can only focus on a few key points, many of which are illustrated with superb photographs and accompanying shooting details. First, a common theme throughout the book as well as the two previous books is that correct exposure for a RAW file is obtained by setting the RGB histogram (color channel histogram) so as to expose to the right without clipping. This is a fundamental principle for any type of digital nature photography, whether it be wildlife, landscape, or macro.
Second, to stop wildlife action and obtain sharp images, one needs a fast enough shutter speed, and one must consider how fast the subject is moving, how far away it is, and the angle at which it is moving (p. 51). The photographs in the book illustrate different possible shutter speeds for different wildlife situations. The Gerlachs generally try to use 1/250s or higher for still subjects and 1/500s to 1/1000s or faster for moving subjects.
Third, Canon's Evaluative metering mode and Nikon's Matrix metering mode normally get you close to the ideal exposure and are "the most technically and operationally sophisticated metering modes in the history of photography." (p. 61). The Gerlachs use these metering modes exclusively.
Fourth, the Gerlachs have different preferences about exposure modes. Both use manual exposure mode a great deal and perhaps a majority of the time. However, Barbara favors aperture priority when the light is changing, whereas John favors shutter priority some of the time, generally starting with 1/320s, which freezes the movement of most animals and minimizes the problem of camera shake on a tripod. This is coupled with the Auto ISO feature on the camera in order to deal with dim light.
Fifth, the Gerlachs use a single autofocus point that coincides with the exact spot where they want the sharpest focus to be, almost always the eyes of an animal or bird. This may be the center focusing point in the viewfinder. In some cases, however, other focusing point options may also work.
Sixth, they use back-button focusing and keep the camera set to continuous focus to allow the camera to instantly change the focus as the subject distance changes. This is a technique that they promoted in their earlier books and one that they have been using for years. It is indispensable in the case of landscape photography, and it also greatly simplifies the focusing problem in the case of wildlife photography. Other focusing options nevertheless can be used in specific circumstances.
Seventh, in bright sun the native ISO is normally adequate for wildlife that is still or slowly moving. For wildlife action in bright sun ISO 400 is desirable. In overcast light, start at ISO 400 but don't be afraid to use ISO 800 if you need extra shutter speed or depth of field. In dim light conditions including before sunrise and after sunset, use ISO 800 or higher and use noise software to reduce any noise in the image.
Eighth, the desired aperture may depend on the shutter speed you need since a wider aperture (shooting wide open at the fastest f-stop in the limit) permits faster shutter speeds. The desired aperture also may depend on the depth of field you want, large or shallow or something in between. With respect to the best aperture for image quality, the Gerlachs' view is that "the quality difference between f-stops is quite minimal, so don't be overly concerned about it." (p. 108)
To keep this review manageable, I have focused on the first five chapters of the book. In addition, the book contains superb discussions of "The Crucial Role of Light," "Composition," "Electronic Flash," and "Getting Close to Wildlife." These chapters should be read carefully by anyone aspiring to pursue wildlife photography. Indeed, I would argue that the book should be thoroughly read and re-read and should accompany anyone embarking on a wildlife workshop.
In summary, I believe that the last statement that I made in my review of the Gerlachs' book on "Digital Landcape Photography," applies to their new book on "Digital Wildlife Photography": "The Gerlachs are to be congratulated for producing such an important book that I believe will become a classic in photography."
The reviewer has participated twice in the Gerlachs' Fall Color Workshop held in the Michigan Upper Peninsula and also has a keen interest in wildlife photography. He fully expects this book to improve his skills in this field.