Low Light Photography: Shooting Wildlife When Its Dark

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Let’s talk about low level photography, which is the nemesis of most visitors to the African bush or when shooting wildlife when they travel.

For seasoned professionals and beginners alike, low-light photography can be frustrating. Be it in the dead of night or just before sunrise, or even on a cloudy day, the lack of adequate light can wreak havoc with your photographs. I know how frustrating it can be to not have a single photo come out the way I envisaged, especially when right next to me other photographers are producing crystal clear, razor sharp images.  Some may argue that it simply comes down to better and more expensive equipment, and although I will agree to a certain extent, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to capture at least a few decent photographs with some very intermediate camera gear.

Let’s look at a few situations in which light becomes a problem, and how you should handle them…

First and foremost, I want to say that low-light photography is like being in a relationship; you need to make a decision and you need to commit. Now while many will say that I’m the last person that should be dispensing relationship advice, and I’ll agree, that doesn’t mean the low-light thing is wrong. When confronted with a low-light situation, you need to decide what type of photograph you want to take and adjust your settings accordingly. The adjustments required can sometimes be minor, but most of the time they involve the manual manipulation of a number of settings, and switching back and forth between picture modes is going to be inconvenient and time consuming. Decide what you want, adjust your settings and go for it.

Please note that for the purposes of this blog, all settings discussed will be based on the camera being in Aperture Priority mode. That is Av on Canon Cameras and A on Nikon.

Low Light With No Movement

This is the easiest situation to have to deal with low-light in; when your subject isn’t moving. Stabilise, stabilise, stabilise, should be your mantra, so if you’re not shooting with a beanbag or a monopod, or at the very least resting your camera on something stable, you can forget about a decent picture. If the camera is dead still and your subject is also still, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to capture a sharp image with even a slow shutter speed. Take a look at the following photo of the now-deceased Tu-Tones male leopard:

Tu-Tones

This picture was taken at 1/25s shutter speed at dusk. Any photographer will tell you that this is an abominably slow shutter speed for wildlife photography, yet because I had the camera stable and the leopard wasn’t moving, the picture came out sharp. This was also taken when I was just starting out with photography, and was using a Canon 1000D (the equivalent of the Canon Rebel XS in the USA), which does not have great low-light capabilities, yet it shows what can happen if you have decent stability of the camera and an immobile subject.

Low Light With Movement

This is now getting more into the tricky end of the spectrum. If you are reasonably familiar with the exposure triangle, you will know that a lot of photography is about compromise. To capture a sharp image of movement, you need a high shutter speed. If you want to maintain high shutter speeds in low light, you need to do two things; boost your ISO and widen your aperture. Higher end cameras these days perform superbly at high ISOs. Whereas a few years ago one would notice some serious noise creeping into pictures at anything over 1000 ISO, these days some cameras can be shooting at closer to 6000 without noticeable difference.

Secondly, by opening your aperture as wide as you can, you allow the maximum amount of light to enter the lens, thereby maximising shutter speed. The extent to which you can open your aperture will be dependent on the lens you are using. Most beginner to amateur lenses will have a maximum aperture of between 4 and 5.6, while more expensive lenses will go to 2.8, 2 or even wider in some shorter lenses.

Back to what we were talking about; a high shutter speed in low light will generally need a significant boost in ISO and the widest aperture possible to achieve. Your ranger will know how to make these adjustments for you. Of course, you want to have the camera stable again, so use a beanbag or some kind of mount.

Lion 2

A photo that doesn’t quite work. This was taken with a Canon 1000D at an aperture of f4. My ISO was on 1600, and the best shutter speed I could get with those settings was 1/15th of a second, which is nowhere near fast enough to freeze motion. No matter how still I held the camera, the movement of the lions as they fed on the kill was always going to make for a blurred and unclear image.

Eventually though, especially if you’re not shooting with top-of-the-line gear, you are going to run into a wall. You won’t be able to raise your ISO anymore, and your aperture will be as wide as it can go. Don’t despair, as you still have a couple of options, but we’ll only go into two here.

Your first option is to use a spotlight. A spotlight can be a wonderful tool to provide extra light even before darkness has fallen, or before the sun has come up. It can also be very effective on a cloudy/rainy day.

Walk Airstrip

Even though the sun had not yet risen, I was able to get a reasonably sharp image of the Matimba males walking, thanks to Trevor McCall-Peat using a spotlight from the next vehicle to provide some extra illumination.

Another option is to change your metering mode and use the spotlight without a filter, although this is something one has to be sensitive about in order to not impact the animal(s) you are viewing. It is best used when there is still some light so the contrast between the ambient light and the spotlight beam is not too great.

Most of the time your camera will be using what is known as Evaluative Metering. This is when it looks at 90% of the image, asseses the amount of light available, and makes calculations accordingly as to what exposure to give. If you are using a spotlight on beam with Evaluative Metering, you will most likely get a picture with a completely blown out area where the light is shining, surrounded by blackness.
Spot Metering is different in that it only takes an area roughly 5% of the total image size and calculates the exposure required based thereon. This point will be where the little dot in your viewfinder is (your focus point for most cameras, unless you have customised your camera buttons, which is a post for another day).
Now, by pointing the beam of the spotlight on the subject and focusing your camera on where that beam is illuminating, the camera will disregard all the darkness in the rest of the photo and calculate a shutter speed based on the amount of light it sees at that point.

meter

The various icons for metering modes on a Canon camera. Disregard the Partial and Centre-weighted Average for now.

4-4

This photo of the 4:4 male was taken using Spot Metering mode. The camera disregarded what was happening in the rest of the picture and only calculated shutter speed based on the amount of light coming off his head. My ISO was on 1250 and my aperture was as wide as I could make it (2.8), and from these I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/1000s – more than enough to freeze the action.

Note that the closer a subject is to the light source (spotlight in this case), the more light your camera will be able to pick up. Again though, sensitivity must be stressed. Using a bright spotlight beam can potentially be intrusive, so we minimise its use; a quick photo and then we put the filter back on, which casts a much softer glow on everything.

Apart from switching to Spot Metering, a Panning photo is a good second choice when the light is low, although this can be very hit-or-miss.

A panning photo involves a slow shutter speed, and the tracking of the animal with your camera, keeping th ehead in focus while blurring the background to create the impression of movement. This is what I was talking about at the start of the post when saying how you should choose what type of photo you want to get and stick with it, as switching from panning settings to spot metering and trying everything in between is only going to make things confusing.

For a decent panning shot, I recommend a shutter speed of between 1/50s to 1/80s, although if an animal is moving quickly you can still get decent motion blur at 1/125s and above. Focus on the face of the animal you are photographing and pan the camera along with its movement across your field of view. Take as many photos as you can to maximise your chances of capturing a usable one; if you have a Continuous Shooting mode on your camera, I suggest using it. Ideally, you should get at least one photo with this kind of effect:

Hyena Drag

A spotted hyena drags an impala carcass back to its densite. A slower shutter speed of 1/50s was just enough to keep the hyena’s face relatively sharp while blurring the background.

The beauty of digital photography is that you can snap away and not pay for extra pictures, so practice as much as you can. In the next couple of weeks we will delve a bit deeper into proper night-time photography and look at Manual Mode, in which you have full control of your settings.

Ultimately, it is important to recognise when the scene in front of you does not lend itself to photography in the slightest. At that point it’s important to put the camera down and just soak it all in…

 

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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