This is probably one of the trickiest areas of wildlife photography to get right.
Photography is all about light, and the less there is, the harder it is to take a sharp photograph. After sunset or before sunrise, cloudy days, or even shooting with a spotlight; all present their challenges, some of which can be overcome and others not so much. But with a couple of trips and tricks, you should be able to get some very memorable photos even when conditions are poor.
1. Know Your Equipment
A good workman never blames his tools, so they say, but the simple reality here is that some camera equipment is significantly better than others. Certain lenses let in more light, some bodies can cope with almost complete darkness, and having this more advanced (but unfortunately more expensive) equipment will go a long way towards getting better photos when the light is poor.
The two things to look for are lens that has a wide aperture (f2.8 or below) and a camera body with high ISO capability (ISO is a measure of the camera’s sensitivity to light). If you have those two you can probably keep snapping away for awhile when the sun has gone down.
If on the other hand you don’t have the advanced gear that the serious amateurs or professional photographers will make use of, it is important to recognise when you are barking up the wrong tree. You will probably hear a very slow shutter speed coming into play (your ranger will identify it for you), resulting in blurry photos.
Simply put your camera down, forget about taking photos, and enjoy watching whatever’s in front of you.
2. Try Something Different
Low light can be an excellent time to experiment.
If a leopard isn’t bathed in golden light but is instead moving slowly along on a cold grey morning, it’s time to think outside the box.
Your camera will detect that there isn’t enough light around and use a slow shutter speed to compensate, but you can use this to your advantage.
By panning along with your subject, be it elephant, lion or leopard, and using a slow shutter speed, the background should blur out a bit whilst the animal (hopefully) stays sharp. This panning effect implies motion, and is a very effective way of conveying story, which is ultimately what wildlife photography is all about.
Understand Metering and Exposure
You are smarter than your camera. At least hopefully. Whilst you can clearly see that the world in front of you is veiled in darkness and the leopard illuminated in the spotlight is the only thing to concentrate on, and clearly the subject of your desired photo, your camera doesn’t know better. It will just see the darkness and try to compensate for it. It will open the shutter for longer to let more light in, thus massively overexposing the leopard and probably blurring it as well.
In a case like this, you need to tell the camera to keep things dark. You do this by adjusting the exposure. Have a read of a previous post of ours here to understand the concept a bit better.
Knowing how your camera reacts to different levels of light is crucial. The more advanced your photography becomes, the more control you will likely take away from it and put into your own hands (ie. you will be deciding all the settings for yourself).
Know What Your Subject Is
Is it the scene or is it the animal?
Do you want to accentuate the clouds or do you want detail in the wildlife?
A lot of the time in wildlife photography, you have to compromise. Make sacrifices. It’s like a relationship. Know what you have to give up on one side to gain something on the other.
Take a look at the photograph below, of wildebeest in the Maasai Mara.
Had the shot been exposed for the wildebeest, the dramatic colours in the evening sky would have been lost (the shutter would have necessarily been slower). Instead, the sky’s colours were prioritised and the wildebeest and lone tree were left as mere silhouettes. Which in turn tells its own story.
It would be very difficult (without the use of a flash or spotlight) to capture detail in both the sky and the wildebeest.
Ultimately, understanding exactly what shot you’re after, what settings you need to capture it, and what the limits of your equipment actually are, all combine to define how you can photograph in low light. But it’s certainly not a case of putting your camera away when the light fades.
Quite the contrary.
Feel free to drop any questions down below about all things wildlife photography related.