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Low Light Wildlife & Nature Photography T RENT S IZEMORE P HOTOGRAPHY A simple guide to help you learn your camera so you can enjoy your time outdoors

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Page 1: Low Light Wildlife & Nature Photography - … · Low Light Wildlife & Nature Photography T RENT SIZEMORE PHOTOGRAPHY A simple guide to help you learn your camera so you can enjoy

L o w L i g h t W i l d l i f e & N a t u r e P h o t o g r a p h y


A s i m p l e g u i d e t o h e l p y o u l e a r n y o u r c a m e r a s o y o u c a n

e n j o y y o u r t i m e o u t d o o r s

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Introduction In order to understand how to expose correctly in low light s i t u a t i o n s , y o u ’ l l n e e d t o understand the three aspects of exposure and how far you can push each one to your camera’s limits.

By grasping the concepts of exposure in low lighting or difficult lighting situations, you’ll be able to get the “correct” exposure for any scene you may encounter. I say “correct” because nothing is set in stone. There may be a technically correct exposure for a given scene, but you can creatively expose to get the image you want. When you understand the effect each setting has on the image, you’ll be able to expose more or less to create the image you imagined.

The goal of this guide is to get out of automatic mode so you’ll be more comfortable adjusting the exposure on your own!

Light All light will have a direction (front, back, side), intensity (brightness), and quality (hard vs. soft). Modern

cameras are great at exposing correctly for most scenes you’ll encounter, but when you can manually expose using each of the camera settings, you’ll be able to fine-tune the exposure to take advantage of the different attributes of the light you see.

Metering In the simplest terms, your camera tries to find the correct exposure by averaging things out to a middle gray.

The standard mode, evaluative metering, takes into consideration the entire scene, finding a similar scenario built into the camera to find the best exposure.

Center-weighted metering works in a similar way to evaluative,

but gives more preference to what’s in the center of the scene. If you have something really bright on the edges of the scene, center-weighted can be helpful for a better exposure.

Spot metering only measures a small area of the scene, usually a circle visible in the center of the viewfinder. Ideally, this is the metering mode you’ll want to use with manual exposure controls.

The problem with automatic mode aiming for a middle gray is that it’s not always the “correct” exposure. You can try to prove this by photographing a pure white and then a pure black subject that fills the viewfinder. Both photos will end up being middle gray (in automatic mode).

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ABOVE: ISO 500 - ƒ/5.0 - 1/200s Dark clouds, shadows, and dim lights all make for difficult exposures that can push the limits of your camera and lens. There is always a compromise between enough light to freeze the action through shutter speed and keeping an ISO with an acceptable level of noise and grain.

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Exposure Exposure is made up of three c o m p o n e n t s : s h u t t e r s p e e d , aperture, and ISO.

ISO is the easiest to understand, just an adjustment of the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. The downside of higher sensitivity is higher grain and noise, which is g e n e r a l l y ( b u t n o t a l w a y s ) considered a downside.

Shutter speed is the amount of time the camera shutter is open to expose the sensor to light. A longer time means more light, and a shorter time means less light. This can range anywhere from 1/8000th of a second to several minutes or longer.

Aperture is a physical opening that determines how much light goes through your lens to the camera sensor. A wider aperture lets more light through, and a smaller aperture lets less light through. The counterintuitive part of this setting is that higher aperture numbers equal less light. Lower numbers mean more light. Aperture usually ranges from 1.2 to

45 or more. The aperture is a ratio of the lens opening diameter to the lens length. and is typically expressed as “ƒ/2.8” or similar.

Stops Exposure in your camera is measured in increments called stops. Increasing your exposure by one full stop will gather twice as much light. It’s difficult to visualize what your camera sees as twice as much light because your eyes are constantly adjusting themselves. Most cameras are set up to allow 1/3 or 1/2 increments in between full stops.

Putting it Together By adjusting any of the three exposure settings, you can change the amount of light gathered.

It’s much easier to think of making adjustments to one setting at a time. If you change one setting, but want the same exposure, you will have to adjust one of the other settings an equal amount to compensate. Later on in this guide, you’ll find a chart of equivalent exposures to explain this visually.

All three components work in tandem, but you don’t have to adjust all three at the same time. If you want to increase or decrease your exposure, you only need to adjust one setting.

The next few pages will go into more detail about each of the three settings, and the changes each will make to your final image.

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ABOVE: ISO 1000 - ƒ/5.6 - 1/500s This elk was in a brighter area near the river, so I was shooting at 1/500s in order to freeze the action. When he moved up to the darker area of the trees, I just adjusted the ISO up to 1000 to get a brighter exposure with other settings remaining the same.

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ISO ISO is the sensitivity to light of the camera’s sensor. Regardless of the camera brand or model, all ISO sensitivities are the same, so ISO 100 on one camera is the same on any other camera.

The lowest ISO is 100 (although some cameras offer ISO 50). ISO 100 offers the least amount of grain, the best colors, and highest dynamic range (the range between lights and darks). ISO 200-800 and even 1600 are unlikely to show any noticeable loss in quality when compared to 100, but it’s still best to keep it as low as possible.

Noise & Grain The difference between the sensor in an iPhone camera and the sensor in a full DSLR is how much grain and noise each increase in ISO will introduce. Any modern DSLR should have no problems shooting up to ISO 1600 without any noise or grain issues. I often have to use ISO 3200 or even 6400 after the sun goes below the horizon. These high numbers are when noise becomes

more visible, but it’s worth it if it allows you to continue shooting.

If you have a camera made within the last few years, you shouldn’t hesitate to raise the ISO to whatever it needs to be in order to expose correctly with the aperture and shutter speed you choose. If you need a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second and can’t open the aperture any wider, you should raise the ISO until you can get 1/1000th with a good exposure. With that said, the shutter speed only needs to be as high as you need in order to freeze the action (if that’s what you’re going for). If you shoot at 1/1000th when you really only need 1/500th of a second, y o u ’ l l b e d o u b l i n g t h e I S O unnecessarily.

Even if you find noise in your images, programs like Adobe

Lightroom and Nik software plugins can get rid of most, if not all, visible noise. Then again, most people won’t even notice a noisy image when it has a much deeper story or emotion behind it. There are those that will nitpick every l itt le technical flaw in an image, and there are those that simply enjoy the subject you’ve captured. I’d MUCH rather appeal to the latter of the two.

Expose to the Right If you are using a high ISO, it’s worth noting that the brighter your image is, the less noise will be visible when compared to a similar underexposed image with the same ISO. You’ll want to expose as bright as possible without cl ipping highlights to minimize the quality loss of a high ISO.

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ABOVE: ISO 400 - ƒ/8.0 - 1/250s The left half of this image has artificial noise introduced to show how a higher ISO would introduce more noise to the image. This is a dramatic example and would likely represent an ISO of 12,800 or higher.

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Shutter Speed Measured in fractions of a second or full seconds, shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s shutter remains open to expose light onto the sensor. More time means more light. Less time means less light.

Focal Length When handholding your camera, a general rule of thumb for choosing a shutter speed is this:

1Focal Length (mm)

For instance, if your lens is 100mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/100th of a second in order to avoid blur from your hands moving. This only gives you a minimum shutter speed. If you want to freeze the motion, you’ll likely need a faster speed than this.

Stopping Motion A shutter speed of 1/100th of a second would be sufficient to “freeze” some slow moving subjects, but nothing moving quickly.

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ABOVE: ISO 800 - ƒ/8.0 - 1/400s Even though this was taken in the afternoon, I still shot at ISO 800 to get a higher shutter speed. I could have even doubled the ISO to 1600 and chosen a shutter speed of 1/800th to freeze the water more. I use an aperture f/8.0 when shooting with a teleconverter on my lens to improve the sharpness reduction that the teleconverter introduces.

BELOW: ISO 100 - ƒ/16.0 - 1/15s This elk was running through the river and I wanted a shot to show his movement. By panning the camera and using a slower shutter speed, I was able to blur the background and the splashing water, while keeping at least his eye relatively sharp.

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For stationary wildlife and a telephoto lens, a shutter speed of at least 1/400th of a second is recommended. For moving wildlife, you’ll want to double that and aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/800th of a second. If you’re photographing action like a jumping fox, fighting elk, or birds in flight, you’ll want a shutter speed of 1/1000th or faster. The more light you have available, the easier it will be to achieve that shutter speed.

As with anything, there are always exceptions. You can choose any shutter speed you want once you learn the effect it will have on your photo.

Blurry Images? The cause of most blurry images is likely a shutter speed that is too slow. It may be too slow to freeze the subject completely, or it may be so slow that your shaking hands are shaking the image. A sturdy tripod or a lens with image stabilization will allow you to use slower shutter speeds, but it won’t help you freeze the motion of your subject. If you’re seeing blurry images, try doubling your shutter speed (don’t forget to

compensate by doubling your ISO or opening the aperture) and see if you get better results. If you try this and still can’t get it sharp, send me an email with the photo and settings used, and I will try to help.

Creative Blur When you have a low light situation, you have another option instead of trying to freeze all the motion. You can work with the low light and use a longer shutter speed to get a good exposure while getting a creative blur effect. The elk photo on the previous page was shot in the afternoon, so even with a low ISO of 100, I needed to close the aperture down to ƒ/16 to get the correct

exposure with a long shutter speed of 1/15th of a second.

To achieve a visually pleasing image with a slow shutter speed, you’ll need to pan the camera horizontally (or vertically) to follow your subject (running wildlife). The better you follow it, the less the subject is moving in the viewfinder. This means a part of your subject can be sharp, while the background will be blurred from the panning motion. The faster your subject is moving, the more blur will you get in the background. If something on your subject is moving faster (wings, legs), that part will be more blurred.

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BELOW: ISO 800 - ƒ/8.0 - 1/640s This great gray owl was flying towards me, so there wasn’t much motion to freeze. The exception is the tips of its wings, which are slightly blurred. I may have benefited from doubling the ISO to 1600 and halving the shutter speed to 1/1250th of a second. Then again, the slight blur in the wings adds a hint of motion, so it can be a matter of taste. When your subject is moving quickly towards you, you have to trust your camera’s AI Servo focus mode to get it right. That’s a topic for another book!

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Aperture Aperture is the only one of the three exposure components that is not actually a part of your camera body. Aperture is the opening through your lens, and more expensive lenses have a wider aperture, letting more light through. It is still adjusted through your digital camera settings, although older lenses used to adjust the aperture physically.

When using telephoto lenses for wildlife photography, you’ll most likely want to use the widest aperture of your lens. This allows the most light to pass through to the camera. If you have a low quality lens, your images may be less sharp at the widest aperture, so closing the aperture down a stop can help if that is an issue.

Many landscape photographers want everything in the scene to be s h a r p , f r o m f o r e g r o u n d t o background. The nature of optics means that not everything can be in focus at the same time, unless you use a smaller aperture, which lets in less light. If you’re using a smaller aperture for the sharpness benefits, you will have to increase the ISO or use a slower shutter speed to compensate. Since lower ISO is desirable, the use of a tripod makes it possible to use a shutter speed as l o n g a s y o u n e e d . I t ’ s n o t uncommon to take exposures that last several seconds even when there is plenty of light.

Wildlife photographers typically prefer only their subject to be in focus and have the background as blurry as possible. This is known as a shal low depth of f ie ld . A combination of a wide aperture,

closeness to the subject, and long focal length combine to shorten the depth of field. It’s possible to have only a few inches on your subject in focus (perpendicular to your camera).

Lenses In regards to wildlife photography, the best lenses have an aperture of ƒ/4.0 or ƒ/2.8 depending on their focal length. A 500mm or 600mm f/4.0 lens is the go-to lens for professional wildlife photographers, but it comes at a very steep price.

You can get a 300mm or 400mm ƒ/4.0 lens for much cheaper and still be happy with the professional results when shooting with larger s u b j e c t s . I f y o u ’ r e a b i r d photographer, you’re going to want that extra focal length of a longer lens.

Landscape photographers have much cheaper lens options, and because they often prefer tripods, t h e y d o n ’ t a l w a y s n e e d t h e advantages of a long ƒ/2.8 lens. There are many affordable wide-angle lens options to get started.

BELOW: ISO 640 - ƒ/6.3 - 1/200s With a still subject like this moose, you don’t need a very high shutter speed. The widest aperture I can use with the lens/teleconverter combination is ƒ/5.6, but it’s a little sharper if the aperture is stopped down. An ISO of 640 allowed me to get a comfortable shutter speed of 1/200th, which is acceptable for the effective focal length of 420mm while using a tripod.


ƒ/5.6 ƒ/8.0 ƒ/11 ƒ/16 ƒ/22 ƒ/32

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An aperture scale with one full stop of light in between each step. Moving left to right, each step will have half as much light.

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Metering Once you understand the role each setting plays in the exposure, you will want to start using the spot meter mode to determine how many stops above or below middle gray your subject is. The spot meter will take a measurement of light from a small circle, usually visible in the center of your viewfinder.

Unless your settings are already correct, the meter could read anywhere on the scale at first. By adjusting your settings, you can place the area (where you’re pointing) at middle gray (0) above middle gray (+1, +2) or below middle gray (-1, -2).

Real World Applications When photographing wildlife, you have the option to expose for your subject, or expose for something in the background or foreground.

If you’re certain of where to place your subject on the scale, it’s best to meter the subject, but it’s certainly not a requirement.

If you have a middle colored grass around your subject, it’s easy enough to expose that at 0 and you’re ready to shoot.

In the photo above, I knew that I wanted the white snow to be at +2 stops above middle gray. In the viewfinder (or the back of your camera) you’ll see a scale of (-2…-1…0…+1…+2) or something similar. When pointing the spot meter at the snow, you’ll adjust your settings so the point on the scale indicates that you’re at +2 above zero. This will render the snow as white.

If you know you need a fast shutter speed (1/800s in this case), you can set that and forget it. In most cases, you’ll want to keep the aperture as wide as possible (ƒ/5.6 here), especially if you need a fast shutter speed. The only adjustment to make

now is the ISO. Adjust it until the spot meter reads +2 on the scale, and you’re there! You can continue shooting at these settings until the lighting changes and you need to adjust again. It just so happened that my ISO was 100 here, so I didn’t have to adjust any higher.

If you don’t have snow around, this won’t be a real world example for you to practice on, but anything pure white can be metered at +2 above middle gray. A white wall, a white bird, white floor can all be metered at +2.

Colors Average colors like blue, green, or red can all be metered right at 0, or middle gray. Wildlife like deer, elk, fox, and gray birds would all fall around this middle gray. Green grass can also be at middle gray.

ABOVE: ISO 100 - ƒ/5.6 - 1/800s I’ve indicated in the photo above different areas that could be metered. You’ll adjust your settings to expose the area of choice as above, below, or at middle gray.



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Yellow is a brighter color and would be metered at +1. Brighter pastel colors can also be metered at +1. Examples of these colors in nature would be things like light gray birds and light brown grass. Since orange is between red and yellow in brightness, you could put it at +.5 stops above 0.

Knowing the bison’s fur in my photo is very dark, I could have metered that at two stops below middle gray. Dark browns, dark greens, and dark grays can all be metered at -2. The fur of other darker animals like bears can be exposed at -2 or -1 if they’re a little bit lighter.

Guidelines With practice, you’ll be able to quickly dial in your settings when you start shooting, or even have your settings prepared before you arrive.

There is a standard rule that makes for a good starting place when working in bright, sunny weather. Understanding this will be a starting point to make adjustments when the light gets lower. On a sunny day, with no clouds, you can

adjust your settings based on the “sunny ƒ/16 rule.”

With your aperture set at ƒ/16, the correct shutter speed will be (1/ISO). If you choose ISO 100, your shutter speed should be 1/100. If you choose ISO 800, your shutter speed should be 1/800. As long as your subject is in bright sun, you’ll be able to quickly get the correct exposure. By opening the aperture up to ƒ/8, you’re allowing four times the light in. To compensate and still expose correctly, you will either lower the ISO or increase the shutter speed by two full stops. Each exposure in the chart to the right will give the same correct exposure on a sunny day.

If you’re going out and don’t know what light to expect, you can set your aperture and shutter speed and use auto ISO. If you come across something and only have a split second opportunity, you’ll miss the shot if your settings are wrong. When you have time and can settle down, then you can dial in the ISO and adjust other settings as needed.

-2 -1 0 +1 +2

-2 -1 0 +1 +2

-2 -1 0 +1 +2

-2 -1 0 +1 +2

ABOVE: A scale of exposure for a few different colors, from -2 to +2. Slight variations can also be placed in 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments in between each full stops. BELOW: ISO 200 - ƒ/8.0 - 1/800s By adjusting the aperture and ISO from the “sunny ƒ/16” rule, I was able to get a higher shutter speed to freeze the coyote’s movement.

ISO Aperture Shutter Speed

100 ƒ/16 1/100

400 ƒ/16 1/400

400 ƒ/11 1/800

100 ƒ/11 1/200

100 ƒ/8 1/400

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Low Light Since our eyes adjust automatically when we move from bright sun to dark shade, the actual difference between the two is hard to perceive. Our camera sees digitally, so the differences between light and dark become mathematical.

Exposing correctly in low light is very dependent on the scene you encounter, so there is no standard rule to follow. You could have shade, clouds, fog, or just a low angle sun reducing the amount of light that reaches your subject. The light in these situations is often changing quickly, adding another challenge.

If you allow your camera to automatically expose on a very dark subject, it will likely overexpose the image. If I filled the frame with a dark colored bison or bear on automatic mode, it would try to make that a middle gray color, which is much too bright for that s u b j e c t . W h e n y o u r c a m e r a overexposes something, it often results in any highlights in the image being completely blown out. Those cannot be recovered in post-

production, but dark shadows can be (to an extent).

Weather Although many people will have a different opinion, my favorite weather for photographing wildlife is dark, overcast, even rainy/snowy weather. The soft, even lighting allows you to shoot all day and get great shots that capture the full dynamic range. Even in the middle of the day, you probably won’t need to use any higher than ISO 800 or 1600 to get the faster shutter speeds you may want. When the sun is out, direct light creates harsh shadows that just kill the image. Clouds scatter the light, making it a much better quality for photographing.

The best landscape (and wildlife) photos are often created with dramatic, colorful lighting. The last light of the day can create strong red, orange, or yellow hues across the landscape. These make great backgrounds for a backlit wildlife subject, or can be the subject itself with a wide angle landscape.

All of these scenarios involve low light and difficult lighting scenarios, so you can’t be afraid to raise your ISO to get the other settings you need. Every scene is different, and the best exposure is the one you’re happy with! By having a full understanding of all the settings available to you, you’ll be able to adjust each one to suit your personal taste.

ABOVE: ISO 1600 - ƒ/5.6 - 1/80s During the fall I would photograph the elk from late afternoon until the sunlight was completely gone. As the sun went farther down past the mountains, it put everything in shade. As it got lower still, I would keep raising my ISO to be able to maintain an acceptable shutter speed. 1/80th of a second is quite slow for wildlife, but as long as they aren’t moving too fast and you’re on a tripod, it can work.

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Light Direction Front l ighting Assuming you’re working at sunrise or sunset (to get the best light color), front lighting occurs when the sun is directly behind you and not behind the subject. This puts warm hues on the subject, whether it be wildlife, a mountain range, or a sky full of clouds. The downside of front lighting is that it’s often flat across the front of your subject. There are no shadows to give definition to its shape.

Back l ighting When the sun is directly behind your subject, it’s known as back lighting. On a strongly backlit subject, the difference between light and dark is so great that you won’t be able to capture all of the shadow detail without overexposing in the highlights, but you can get a desirable rim light around the outline of your subject.

The standard exposure for a back lit s i l h o u e t t e i s t o e x p o s e t h e highlights correctly. In the case of the photo above, I wanted the green

grass in the sun to appear as I saw it, and the highlights on the bear would match. Everything else would fall in place naturally.

In post-processing, you can add or reduce contrast to your personal taste. If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see just a hint of shadow detail in the bears face. These shadows can be brightened just a little bit without a reduction in quality.

Depending on the surroundings and the color of your subject, it’s possible to have backlighting and still have a significant amount of detail on the front side. If you have bright snow or a bright ground acting as a reflector, this is relatively easy to accomplish.

Side l ighting When the light comes from the side, your subject becomes more defined.

A combination of light and shadows gives more shape and form to your subject than you can get from back or front lighting. Side lighting also works great at sunrise or sunset when the colors are at their best.

Quality Light quality is defined by it’s harshness. If you observe a shadow, you’ll see it’s edge as being either hard or soft (blurred). This is caused by the quality of the light. On a sunny day, shadows are harsh, making photos less appealing. With overcast weather, shadows are so soft that they essentially disappear. This isn’t to say you cant take great photos on a sunny day, but it can be more difficult to find one. When the sun is close to the horizon, light is filtered through more of the atmosphere, adding colors that also enhance the quality of the lighting.

ABOVE: ISO 800 - ƒ/5.6 - 1/800s This backlit photo of a bear in the shadows is three full stops darker than a sunny exposure, equal to one-eighth the amount of light.

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Shooting RAW & Processing RAW file shooting is used by professionals in any genre of photography. If you aren’t shooting in RAW, you’re losing out on 90% of your camera’s capabilities and I HIGHLY recommend you start. RAW files are much larger than JPEG, but external storage is cheap and reliable to store all the large files you’ll ever shoot.

A larger file size means you have a lot more information to work with when you go into processing when you get back home. You can adjust the exposure up or down more than a full stop without any noticeable loss in quality. You can recover highlights, brighten shadows, and more. White balance can also be set after you take the photo, just as you would select it in camera. For this reason, I typically shoot in auto white balance.

White Balance White balance is the temperature and tint of the light that changes depending on the source of the

light. If sunlight is considered white, then clouds will have a blue tint, and shade would be even more bluish. To compensate, white balance offsets the bluish tint with orange. On the other end of the scale would be indoor lightbulbs, which appear orange or yellowish when compared to sunlight. The white balance would add more blue to your image to make things appear more naturally colored (white). White balance can be set later in processing, just as you would select it in camera. For this reason, I typically shoot in auto white balance and fine-tune later.

Lightroom Adobe Photoshop Lightroom has become the industry standard for photography post-processing. Apple

used to offer their Aperture program, but it has been discontinued.

Just the basic settings in Lightroom can fine tune your image almost to the point of being finished. In addition to these settings, you can adjust colors, sharpness, noise, lens distortion, and more. Most adjustments are also available in brush form, as a graduated filter, or radial filter as well.

ABOVE: ISO 500 - ƒ/5.6 - 1/640s The above photo of a jumping bear was underexposed after I chose a faster shutter speed. Using Adobe Lightroom, I was able to increase the exposure by 1.5 stops to brighten the image back to normal. There is no significant loss in quality, so you can see how much latitude you have when shooting in RAW.

Before After