NOTE: Check out our Ultimate Guide to Nature and Outdoor Photography.
Most wildlife is active during dawn or dusk, and photographing animals in low light can be frustrating when you’re pushing your equipment to the limit. Even if you’re shooting on the latest and greatest DSLR camera, you’re still going to reach a point where the light is too low to use the ideal settings. It’s at this point that you need to start calling on your skill and technique to improve your success rate.
Here are a few tricks that I use in my own wildlife photography to get better, more usable images in low light.
1. Choose the perfect aperture and shutter speed for low light
When shooting in low light, you should use the widest aperture you can (i.e., the lowest f-number) to let in the most light possible.
If you’re using expensive telephoto lenses, then you’ll probably have a maximum aperture of f/4 or even f/2.8. However, the majority of midrange and budget telephoto lenses have a maximum aperture of about f/5.6 or f/6.3. Still, keep the aperture as wide as possible to give yourself the optimum baseline.
With regard to the shutter speed, the rule most people learn is to use a speed of at least 1 over the focal length of your lens. For example, a 400mm lens would need a shutter speed of at least 1/400s to eliminate camera shake effectively. However, this rule often isn’t possible in low light conditions. So you’re going to need to break it!
Drop your shutter speed as much as you can while still keeping the image sharp. You can go much slower than you think. 1/100s is totally plausible.
To prevent camera shake, enable any image stabilization technology offered by your lens. It’s important to use a tripod, too, as it’ll keep things steady.
Once your shutter speed starts to get really slow, then you’ll almost definitely introduce motion blur from the subject moving. But if your subject is walking or running along, you can pan your camera along with it.
With practice, you can move your camera at the same rate as the animal and freeze its body – even with a slow shutter speed. You will get a blurred background, but it’s actually a rather cool effect (see the bear photo above!).
2. Don’t be afraid to boost your ISO
ISO might be the most feared setting among photographers. However, it shouldn’t make you tremble! I meet many photographers who don’t move the ISO above 400, even if their cameras are more than capable of handling the increase.
Sure, higher ISOs introduce noise into your photo, but a noisy image is better than a blurred one.
Test out your camera and see how far you can feasibly increase the ISO before shots become unusable. You can also remove noise in post-production, so you can sometimes salvage a too-noisy image.
The image below was taken at ISO 5000, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the value was much, much lower. The camera in question was a Nikon D4, which has notoriously good ISO capabilities. But this is an extreme example, and at ISO 5000 there was still noise. Even lower-level DSLR cameras can still be pushed to ISO 1600 or so while achieving fairly good quality images.
Be brave and increase your ISO when you need a faster shutter speed. It’ll help you keep shooting as the light gets lower, meaning you’ll have more time to wait for wildlife!
3. Be careful when using a zoom lens
Zoom lenses sometimes use a variable maximum aperture.
What does this mean?
Zoomed out, you may have an aperture of f/4 – but as you zoom in, this can increase to something like f/6.3. If your lens has a constant aperture throughout, then you don’t need to worry. But if it doesn’t, then be conscious of the fact that you’ll have less light reaching the sensor when you’re zoomed in.
When your lens is limited by a variable maximum aperture, think about zooming out and taking a more atmospheric or environmental image. You’ll have a larger aperture to play with, and you may be able to achieve a more usable shot than if you zoom in all the way with less light.
4. Utilize burst mode
Don’t forget that you have a burst mode. If you’re worried about blurry images, fire off as many frames as possible. This will increase your chances of ending up with a usable shot.
You see, slower shutter speeds mean more chance for both camera blur and motion blur. If an animal moves its head, your shot may well be ruined. But if you’ve been shooting multiple images at once (via burst mode!), then chances are that you’ll get another shot, taken a fraction of a second later, that isn’t blurred.
Burst mode is honestly one of the most useful things you can do when photographing wildlife in low light. It really helps to get usable photos and works like magic alongside the other techniques in this article.
5. Don’t underexpose
It can be tempting to underexpose your photo, knowing that you can brighten it later. While this may give you a quicker shutter speed, the photo will likely need significant brightening in post-production. And lightening an already-dark scene will introduce a lot of digital noise.
Instead, try to keep your exposure as balanced as possible. If you can keep your histogram happy, then you’ll have a smoother ride through the editing process. The worst thing would be to take an underexposed shot, only to find out later that it’s unusable because brightening it up ruins it.
I prefer to risk blur but fire multiple frames than to take an underexposed, sharp shot. Maybe that’s just me, but the technique frequently works in my favor.
Photographing wildlife in low light: conclusion
No matter how good you are at photography or how good your gear is, you’re going to have times when your shots are ruined by low light. That’s just part of the game – but, with luck, you will manage to capture strong low light shots some of the time.
With practice, you’ll learn when there’s no point battling against depleting light levels. And a combination of the techniques I’ve shared here should keep you in action for longer.
Do you have any other low light tips to add? Please share them in the comments below!
FURTHER READING: Check out our new Ultimate Guide to Nature and Outdoor Photography.