Wildlife Photographer And Low Light

Wildlife photographers are faced with a unique set of challenges. Not only do they often have to travel long distances to find their subject matter, but their success is dependent upon whether or not they have the understanding of the animal and the patience to wait for just the right moment. And yet ask any photographer what is the toughest part of shooting wildlife, and you’ll likely get a response that falls somewhere along the lines of dealing with low light. The majority of animals, and especially those where I shoot in Africa, are most active once the sun begins to go down, making early evening the perfect time to snap a great photograph. This is when the predators are hunting (or at least doing more than cat-napping), and the watering holes are flush with the harder-to-spot animals such as rhinos, big cats, and hyenas, to name but a few.

The Scene

In one recent case, I was parked less than a mile from one of the busiest watering holes in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, where two rivaling prides of lions had a small herd of giraffe flanked. I could see this situation turning into any number of great shots, and started setting up for one in which one of the pacing lionesses finally decided to charge a smaller yearling giraffe, one of the many jackal lurking nearby, or better yet, a lion from the rival pride.

The Challenge

Once the sun starts togo down in the African bush, there is very little natural light and too many deep shadows. Most DSLRs are programmed to render about 18% grey exposure, meaning that your camera will likely slow its shutter speed dramatically in an effort to find detail in the black space. As a wildlife photographer, you do not want this. Even the best editor cannot turn a blurry photograph into a masterpiece, so your subject matter should remain sharp in terms of depth and field. This becomes an even bigger challenge when your subjects are moving or charging, like I hoped mine would be.


If you take a photograph with a dramatically low shutter speed, you risk losing the highlights of the image. in Africa, there is nothing like the low glow from the setting sun, so this is not something I wanted to lose in my photo. To solve this issue, push the Exposure Value (EV) to around -2.3. This will increase your shutter speed enough to protect those magical highlights.

Shutter Speed

In a case in which you are shooting moving animals in low light, resist the urge to set your ISO speed too high, as this could create unwanted noise levels. Earlier in the day, I was shooting at an ISO speed of around 800, but as I watched the lions and the giraffes, I increased this to ISO 1600. I’ve already under-exposed my image by setting my EV at -2.3, so the ISO 1600 will add some additional shutter speed to this.

Depth of Field

First, if you’re close enough to the action, or have a feeling that the animals might come closer, it could be in your best interest to switch to a lens shorter than what feels natural in a place like the African bush. This will give you more room to move, and will also help you with the fading light.

Though your instinct may be to aim your focusing sensor at the center of the frame, think instead of other places on which you can focus. For example, if you are shooting a mother rhino as she stands behind her calf drinking from the watering hole, consider moving the sensor to the calf’s head. If you are shooting a lioness charging an elephant — or, just as likely, an elephant charging a lioness — aim the sensor at the head of the animal in front, the one being charged. There is always more sharpness behind the point of focus than in front of it, so using it strategically will achieve a greater depth of field.

Once everyone is in your frame, and the animals are exhibiting the behavior you had previously anticipated and hoped for, press the shutter release button and capture your shot. In my case, I ended up with a great shot of a lioness just beginning to actively stalk a young giraffe. The natural highlights are gleaming off her back and put a hungry  look into her eyes that only increases the power of the image.

Post processing

Taking beautiful wildlife photography in low light is a challenge and can call for a number of split-second decisions. Knowing your camera and its functions, knowing your subject matter, and knowing what you want to achieve for a finished product are all things that can help you turn out a photograph. Phowd editors will then be able to take your image and focus on the more artistic editing elements such as sharpening contrasts, further highlighting natural color, reducing any noise, and whatever else you may be hoping for.

For examples of how professional editor could enhance wildlife photography, take a look at this photograph of the elephant, editors were able to sharpen and highlight the image without sacrificing any of the scene’s natural color.


View Africa 2013 retouching contest on Phowd.

Happy shooting!



Kelsey Fox

Kelsey Fox

Kelsey Fox is a freelance writer and photographer from Louisville, Kentucky. She specializes in wildlife photography, and travels each summer to Southern Africa in search of the perfect photo.
Kelsey Fox

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