Low-light wildlife photography tips

Lion, Maasai Mara, Kenya


Low-light wildlife photography doesn’t need you to have loads of expensive gear. You don’t need the very best full-frame electronic camera and even the best lenses for wildlife photography. If you’re patient and follow the very best practices detailed here, it’s possible to get terrific images with the gear you already have.

Professional photographer, Ian Plant takes a trip the globe looking for fantastic places and topics in his quest to catch the charm of our world with his video camera, with a particular interest in low-light wildlife photography. In this guide, Ian explains the subtleties of animal and night photography and shares his finest suggestions below.

‘ Always shoot with the sun at your back’ is a mantra popular with many wildlife professional photographers. Not me. While front lighting can be appealing and is easy to work with, I prefer to picture my wildlife topics at the very edge of the light, pushing the limits of my devices and my imagination.

Extreme and low-light wildlife photography presents numerous special obstacles, but the benefits for your efforts are moody and meaningful images that actually stand out from the crowd.
Low-light wildlife photography, Polar bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, USA
Polar bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Ian waited until the setting sun was low enough for the light to be warm and colourful. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 200-400mm with built-in 1.4 x extender, 1/1000sec at f/6.3, ISO 320. Credit: Ian Plant

I have actually been an expert photographer for 12+ years, and in addition to landscape and travel photography, wildlife is among my specialities. I enjoy it due to the fact that it adds an expressional measurement that is typically missing out on when shooting landscapes; with wildlife, your topic’s posture, behaviour and expressions can enhance the overall visual style of your photographs, and connect mentally with audiences in a way that is entirely different from other kinds of photography.

With all of my imagery, however, I seek to move beyond the literal, getting creative with composition, light, and exposure, to change my topics into something creative and unforeseen. When shooting wildlife, I work with extremes of light to help me produce images that bring my vision to life.

Low-light Wildlife photography– Aim towards the light

When working in strong light, I contend extreme angles for dramatic impact. For this shot of a polar bear (see above), I waited till the setting sun was low enough for the light to be warm and vibrant, but still high enough for the light to be much brighter than the shadows, resulting in a considerable amount of contrast. I intended my electronic camera towards the light, producing strong backlighting. I intentionally underexposed the image to reveal the highlights however permitted everything else to fall into deep shadow, revealing only the colourful rim lighting around the edge of the animal. The outline is immediately recognisable.

Gelada monkey, Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. The combination of creative exposure and additional light can yield moody and meaningful wildlife images. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, 24-70mm, 1/100sec at f/2.8, ISO 200, flash. Credit: Ian Plant
Gelada monkey, Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

Low-light Wildlife photography– Work with flash

I love working in low light too. I just recently went on a prolonged backcountry journey to the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, house to the gorgeous gelada monkeys. These grass-eating monkeys have thick golden manes and unique red chest markings, making them perfect wildlife topics.

One night, a big troop of geladas boiled down to a dramatic wilderness gorge, getting ready to climb up down the cliffs to their night-time roost. I took lots of images of cooperative geladas poised on the edge of the cliff neglecting the canyon, using fill flash at low power (-2 or -3 flash payment) to carefully brighten the animals versus the darkening landscape under a dramatic golden sky.

I have actually found that the mix of creative exposure and additional light can yield moody and meaningful wildlife photos. When dealing with flash, I typically use a variety of accessories to avoid an obviously ‘flashed’ look: a flash bracket enables me to angle the light, for example, and accessories such as a flash grid or snoot permit me to narrow the flash beam so that I can selectively brighten my subject It’s constantly worth exploring.

Brighten the topic.

One evening, while photographing lions in Kenya, I discovered a male lion resting under rainy skies. I chose a dark direct exposure (-3 direct exposure payment) to record the gloominess of the golden sky while allowing the landscape to fall under shadow.

I used flash to selectively illuminate the lion in the lawn. When a space with a provocative shape appeared in the clouds above the lion, the composition finally came together. I was close adequate to the lion that I might utilize a wide-angle lens and capture the entire scene.
Low-light wildlife photography, Lion, Maasai Mara, Kenya
Ian used flash to selectively light up the lion in the grass, and utilized a wide-angle lens to include its surrounding environment. Credit: Ian Plant

Include innovative curviness

One of my favourite wildlife photo destinations is the rainforest of Sumatra in Indonesia. Very little light penetrates below the canopy, making wildlife photography in the forest interior hard.

I had a lucky close encounter with a mom orangutan and her infant as they visited me on their way through the forest, so I reached for my fisheye lens to add some innovative curviness to the picture. I underexposed the background to emphasise the dismal jungle environs and to minimise visual interruption brought on by intense highlights where the sky was revealing. I used my flash at low power to selectively brighten the orangutans, bringing out the brilliant orange colour of their hair, and making them stand out from the dark background.

Orangutans, Sumatra, Indonesia. Producing wildlife pictures in the forest interior is hard. Ian utilized his flash at low power to selectively brighten the animals, bringing out the abundant colour of their hair. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, 8-15mm fisheye lens, 1/40sec at f/9, ISO 400, flash. Credit: Ian Plant
Orangutans, Sumatra, Indonesia

Low-light Wildlife photography– Try changing reality

For the image of elephants crossing in front of a water hole at sundown, I picked a dark direct exposure, obscuring the elephants and focusing the viewer’s attention on the sundown sky and reflections. Angle is extremely essential when photographing reflections; here, my picked angle of view developed some ‘cognitive dissonance’; the landscape and its reflection don’t appear to match, as the elephants accountable for the reflection are deep in shadow. This is a fine example of how a photographer can utilize structure and exposure to ‘modify’ the reality of a scene, creating a more fascinating presentation for the audience.

Here Ian ensured that the elephants were in shadow so just their reflection appeared. Credit: Ian Plant
Elephants, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Utilize a wide-angle lens

King penguins in the Falkland Islands are extremely tolerant of humans. In reality, if I remained low and didn’t move much, the penguins strolled right as much as me. For this shot, I got on my knees and used a wide-angle lens, handholding the cam almost at ground level while using live view to compose. I waited for the 3 penguins to deal with one another, shooting my flash at low power to brighten the animals versus the darkening golden sky.

Penguins, Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands. The penguins were really tolerant of humans, enabling Ian to use a wide-angle lens to capture a relaxed minute. Canon EOS 5DS R, 11-24mm, 1/30sec at f/4, ISO 400, flash. Credit: Ian Plant
Low-light wildlife photography, Penguins, Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands

Take advantage of dust

I love shooting through what I like to call ‘environment,’ which is essentially particles in the air that scatter light, including things like fog, mist, or dust.

Atmosphere softens the light– having an extensive influence on light intensity and colour– and can also help to separate a topic from a busy background.

In this image, a bison is giving itself a ‘dirt bath’ stimulating plenty of dust into the air. I picked a position where the dust would be backlit by the setting sun and then awaited my topic to do something interesting to complete the composition. When the bison looked straight up from the ground and wailed, whatever came together perfectly. The backlit dust helps add a colourful and mystical aim to the image.
Bison, Yellowstone National Park, USA.
Bison, Yellowstone National Park, USA. A bison giving itself a ‘dirt bath’ stimulated a lot of dust. Ian selected a position where the dust would be backlit by the sun, and waited. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 500mm, 1/1250sec at f/5.6, ISO 400. Credit: Ian Plant

Low-light Wildlife photography– Simplify the composition

This plan of snowy egrets seems like something out of Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. The apparent visual mismatch in between the birds and their reflections, caused by my option of camera position relative to the scene, creates an image that is unexpected, and one that tells a story to the viewer.

I chose an exposure that guaranteed the white birds weren’t overexposed and allowed their hectic environments to fall under shadow, which helped to simplify the structure and concentrate on the birds. The dark exposure also helped to stress the spooky state of mind I wanted to convey.
Egrets, J N Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, USA
Egrets, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Credit: Ian Plant

The next time you are out taking photographs of animals and wildlife, don’t be afraid to press past the ‘safe’ light so frequently used by others. Delve deep into severe and low-light circumstances. If you accept the technical and artistic obstacles used by these conditions, you will wind up with shots that challenge perceptions and reveal viewers something they have actually never ever seen before.


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