5 Tips for Photographing Wildlife in Low Light Conditions

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NOTE: Check out our new Ultimate Guide to Nature and Outdoor Photography.

Most wildlife is active during dawn or dusk, and photographing when the light is low can be frustrating when you’re pushing the limits of your equipment. 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 with my own wildlife photography to get better, usable images in low light.

roe deer

#1 – Aperture and Shutter Speeds

It goes without saying that you should use the widest aperture you can (lowest f-stop number) to let in the most light possible. If you’re using really expensive telephoto lenses, then you’ll probably have a maximum aperture of f/4 or even f/2.8. However, the majority of mid-range or budget telephoto lenses have a maximum aperture of about f/5.6 or f/6.3. Still, keep it as wide as possible to give yourself the optimum baseline.

With regards 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 1/400th second to eliminate camera shake effectively. However, this most likely isn’t possible in low light conditions. So, you’re going to need to break the rule! Drop down your shutter speed as much as you can whilst still feeling comfortable about shooting. You can go much slower than you think. 1/100th of a second is

Drop down your shutter speed as much as you can while still feeling comfortable about shooting. You can go much slower than you think. 1/100th of a second is totally plausible. To remove the shake, enable any vibration reduction you may have on your lens. It’s a must to use a tripod too, as it’ll keep things steady.

wildlife low light

1/30th second, f/4, ISO 8000

Try panning

Once your shutter speed starts to get really slow, then you’ll almost definitely introduce motion blur from the subject moving. If it’s walking or running along, you can pan your camera along with the animal in question. With practice, you can move your camera at the same rate as the animal and freeze the body even with a slow shutter speed. You’ll get a blurred background, but it’s actually a rather cool effect (see the bear above).

#2 – ISO for Low Light

It might be the most feared setting to touch, but the ISO shouldn’t be something to make you tremble. I meet many photographers that don’t move it above about 400, even if their cameras are more than capable of doing so. 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 there’s still hope for decreased noise. The image below was taken at ISO 5,000, 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 5,000 there was still noise. Lower level DSLR cameras can still be pushed to even 1,600 or so while still achieving fairly good quality images.

1/100th, f/4, ISO 5000

Be brave and increase your ISO when you need a faster shutter speed. It’ll help you to keep shooting as the light gets lower, meaning you have more time to sit in wait for wildlife!

#3 Using a Zoom Lens

Be wary that a zoom lens may have a variable maximum aperture. 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 not, be conscious of the fact that you’ll have less light reaching the sensor when you’re zoomed in.

Instead, think about zooming out and taking a more atmospheric or environmental style image. You’ll have a larger aperture to play with, and may be able to achieve a more usable shot than one zoomed in all the way with less light.

If your lens has a variable aperture, try zooming out to utilising the widest option and take minimalist images that don't focus on the animal entirely.

If your lens has a variable aperture, try zooming out to utilize the widest option and take environmental images that don’t focus on the animal entirely.

#4 Utilize Burst Mode

Don’t forget that you have a burst mode. If your settings risk blurred images, fire off as many frames as possible. This will increase your chance of having a usable shot. Slower shutter speeds mean more chance for both camera blur and motion blur. If an animal moves its head during your shot, then it may well be ruined. If you’ve been shooting multiple images at once, then chances are you may have another taken a fraction of a second later that isn’t blurred.

This is honestly one of the most useful things to do when photographing wildlife in low light. It really helps to get usable photos and works like magic alongside the above techniques.

#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 when the scene is already dark, you’re going to be introducing a lot of digital noise.

1/60th, f/4, ISO 5000

1/60th, f/4, ISO 5000

Instead, try to keep your exposure as optimum 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 a shot underexposed, only to find later that it is unusable because brightening it ruins it. I prefer to risk blur but fire multiple frames than to take an underexposed sharp shot. Maybe that’s just me, but it has worked a lot in my favor.

In Conclusion

NO matter how good you are at photography, or how good your kit 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 it some of the time. With practice, you’ll learn when there’s no point battling against depleting light levels, but a combination of the above techniques should help to keep you in action for longer.

Do you have any other tips to add? Please share in the comments below.

FURTHER READING: Check out our new Ultimate Guide to Nature and Outdoor Photography.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Will Nicholls is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.

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  • David

    sometimes underexposing can be the only option eg in a indoor sports centre (in my case for karate sparing). Panning is not an option unfortunately. ISO1600 @f/2.8 and underexposing by a stop increases the shutter speed sufficiently. Pushing it in post has consequences (less latitude in highlights/shadows and more noise) but better than blurred shots of course. The participants are quite tolerant of the negative aspects as long as it is sharp.

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  • Claudia

    Thank you. Thank you! Thanks for putting these tips into verbiage that a VERY amateur photographer can understand! I have read and viewed hundreds of tutorials that were so complicated and confusing to me. I am just learning the nomenclature of photography and I need repetition. The one thing I would suggest, and have not seen, is posting the undesirable images that professionals take. I would like to see the undesirable images, then the corrections made to settings, then the new, usable image! Thanks again!

  • Tammy

    Very good article. I am realizing that my tripod is becoming a very good friend in low lighting situations with wildlife photography.

  • Emad ud din Bhatt

    Amazing articles and tons of knowledge. I am not into wildlife photography but there are many situations in which you have to shoot handheld and in low lights. There are many places, monuments or historical places where you cant setup tripod. My most effective method of shooting in lowlight is burst of frames. This is certainly most effective way. I hope you can go and try well below 1/100th of second with 400mm telephoto.
    underexposing birds or animals is still not a good idea as some birds/animal skin and feather details are lost. Some pro photographers use flashgun to litup wildlife. Flash+flashextender lens. Its just a fresnel lens that acts as a telephoto lens for your flash. It works as a fill flash and can be helpful.

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