Push Your Camera to the Limits: Tips for Photographing Wildlife in Low Light

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge

There’s one major frustration that all wildlife photographers will face. Wildlife tends to be most active at dawn and dusk, but cameras perform poorly in low light. It seems like a cruel joke; an unnecessary barrier. Why can’t they come out earlier?! When I first got started with photographing wildlife, this was probably the biggest limitation for me. I just couldn’t seem to get a sharp, well-exposed shot at these prime times for animal activity.

Thanks to thousands of binned photos, I have come up with some handy ways you can push your camera to its limits and increase your chances of taking a perfectly usable photo in relatively low light. Hopefully, you won’t have to face the same frustrations I battled with for so long!

Ok, your camera makes a difference

Before I start listing alternative ways to photograph wildlife in low light, it’s definitely worth saying your camera makes a difference. It’s one of those inconvenient facts that the more expensive equipment tends to perform best at low light. If you’re serious about wildlife photography, then you probably want to be shooting on a camera that performs well with high ISO speeds. I used to shoot on a very basic DSLR camera, although I now have a Nikon D4 in my arsenal–a camera known for its great high ISO handling.

Having said that, it’s not the only factor in the equation. The tips I am about to give you in this article can be applied to any photographer with any model of camera. Don’t feel disheartened–you can still get great low light photos with basic equipment! I suffered with a Nikon D80 for years. Even the entry-level DSLRs available now leave the Nikon D80 in the dust!

#1 Know your camera’s ISO capabilities

Following on from my point above, be sure you know how your camera can really perform at higher ISOs. You will be pleasantly surprised. I hear again and again of photographers who will absolutely refuse to put their ISO above 400. But even the cheapest DSLR cameras are capable of going a bit higher than this and still spitting out usable shots.

It’s better to get a sharp shot than a noisy shot. Plus, even if the ISO speed brings in digital noise, you can do quite a lot of noise removal in Adobe Lightroom.

Red Squirrel
Photo by Will Nicholls

Taken at ISO 400 on my old Nikon D80, this image of a red squirrel was awarded in a prestigious wildlife photography competition back in 2009. Sure, there’s noise in the background – but there’s actually fairly little and I would occasionally push that camera to ISO 800 and beyond if necessary. So if you’re shooting with something like a Canon EOS 1300D, you may just find you can shoot at ISO 800 happily.

It’s worth noting digital noise will become more apparent in lower light conditions. Shooting an image at ISO 400 in the daylight will look better than ISO 400 at dusk. It’s just another hurdle to jump over for wildlife photographers!

#2 Don’t be afraid of a slower shutter speed

If you have to, slow down your shutter speed. There’s no point shooting a black frame, so slow things down and learn how to cope with the challenges it brings. You can shoot sharp wildlife photos at 1/30th second. Don’t believe me?

low-light-wildlife-2
Photo by Will Nicholls

This bear was shot at 1/30th second. It’s done by using the panning technique. If an animal is walking along in front of you, pan along with it. If you manage to keep your camera moving at the same speed as the subject, whilst only moving to the side and not vertically, you may find the animals head remains sharp whilst the limbs suffer motion blur. This is actually a great technique for conveying motion, and can really add to an image.

Panning can be a bit hit and miss though, so make sure you fire off a number of frames. One of them will, hopefully, be sharp in the right place. As long as the eye is sharp, then you’re ok!

#3 Switch on image stabilisation

If your lens is equipped with any sort of stabilisation, turn it on. It may be called optical stabiliser, image stabiliser, or vibration reduction–they’re all the same thing. Switching this on will allow you to stay camera shake free with your shutter speed set a number of stops lower than normal (depending on how good the stabilisation actually is).

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It’s usually just a flick of a switch on the side of your lens. You may hear the lens whirring into action when you half-press the shutter button. One thing to remember when using stabilisation is to always shoot at least 3 frames. Sometimes the stabilisation turning on of off will knock the elements in the lens and blur your photo for you. If you shoot 3 frames, the one in the middle should be the sharpest. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes it happens.

#4 Tripods are essential

It’s almost totally cliché to say this now, but a tripod will make your life much easier. It will almost entirely remove camera shake, which is a real killer at low light. You’ll then just have motion blur to deal with (the subject moving), but the two at the same time is a recipe for disaster.

Make sure you have a good, sturdy tripod and tripod head. If your equipment is too heavy for the tripod, it’ll start to wobble and introduce shake. Check the payload of your tripod and make sure you don’t exceed this. I’ve also written a handy guide to the different tripod heads available.

#5 Beware of the variable aperture lens

If your lens has a variable aperture, then beware of a couple of things. Some telephotos, like Sigma and Tamron’s offerings, may be f/5-6.3 lenses. That means that when you are zoomed out, you’ll have an aperture of f/5. It lets in the most light for that particular lens, but when you zoom in you’ll move up a sliding scale until you can go no wider than f/6.3. You let less light in when you’re more zoomed in. So, if light is an issue, consider zooming out and taking a wider style photograph. You could include more of the environment in the shot, whilst at the same time letting in a little more light to make your life easier.

Also note that if you zoom in and then later zoom out, your aperture may still be set to f/6.3 or so. Remember that when you zoom out you can have a wider aperture, so be sure to check the aperture has opened up again. It won’t always do this automatically, depending on what camera mode you are in.

#6 Use burst mode

I’ve eluded to it in a few of the points I’ve made above, but burst mode will, theoretically, increase the number of usable shots you come away with. If you fire of just one frame, chances are it could be blurred when you’re shooting in low light. So if you have a number of frames, hopefully, one of them will be a bit better than the previous ones.

There are so many variables when it comes to photography that this will actually make a difference. All it takes is for an animal to twitch and your shot is blurred (assuming your shutter speed is fairly slow at this point). A frame taken a fraction of a second later may save your skin, but if you’ve only taken one then you are out of luck!

Your subject could twitch, or blink, and the frame is 'ruined'. If you have another taken just after, you'll be safe. (Photo: Will Nicholls)
Your subject could twitch or blink, and the frame is ‘ruined’. If you have another taken just after, you’ll be safe. Photo by Will Nicholls

#7 Don’t underexpose

If you are underexposing your shot to keep it sharp, you will find that brightening it later during post production introduces a lot of digital noise. This is a real pain and there is almost nothing you can do when the quantities of noise are so high. Instead, keep your shot well exposed, by utilising the points above. That way you don’t end up dumping noise all over the image during your edit.

Shoot in raw format too. This will give you more room to play when you’re editing, allowing you to pull more detail out of the shadows and be able to hopefully rescue more shots teetering on the edge of underexposure.

In Conclusion

Low light is one of those things we just have to buck up and deal with as wildlife photographers. It’s a real shame when you miss a shot because of the light conditions. But sometimes that is just unavoidable and should be taken as part of the challenge.

However, properly utilising the tips above should help you to keep shooting later into the day. Don’t worry too much when you miss a shot, and just keep trying to improve your technique and manage the conditions. But it’s also important to know when to give up, instead of sitting out in the dark to no avail!

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