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Low Light Photography - Beating the challenge!

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Ansel Adams - "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it"

The bane of low light photography is every photographer's challenge. After my recent trip to the jungles of Northeast Bengal at the end of March for 10 days, I decided to pen down my thoughts and share the experience of getting better captures in low light. It was funnily cloudy all thru the day at the locations of Rong Tong and Neora Valley, and light was really low for most of the time. But despite that, I still ended up getting photographs that I was pretty proud of.

In this article, I will speak about the techniques of meeting the challenge head on and getting a grip to try and overcome what is thrown at you especially when it comes to wildlife photography. As the famous American photographer said, "Where there is light, one can photograph". And the test of your skills lies here.

Most wildlife photographers have big telephoto zoom lenses, and capturing images comes as an automatic challenge. This is more so accentuated since the best times are the golden hours, the early morning and late evening shoots. Not everyone has a f2.8 lens in their arsenal. A lot of us use lenses that stop down at f5.6 or 6.3. So, what can be done, to get those much needed captures.

Bumping up your ISO: One of the quicker ways to be low light is to bump up the ISO, so the cameras operate at a higher shutter speed. Some cameras end up doing a great job of ISO above 1600 and 3200, but the lower end DSLRs throw in a lot of noise. Not everyone can own the top end cameras, so you have got to make do with what you have. As a wildlife photographer, my call is to prefer getting a sharp image with a lot more noise than risk a blurry shot with lower ISO. For me, the image being crisp matters. Remember, the higher the ISO, the better the shutter speed, and higher the noise. But the cameras that are coming out now and some that have been in the market for a while, do a great job at managing digital noise even at higher ISO values. So don't worry. Also at the rate technology is moving, there are great ways to use the available tech and tools to address the noise issues, and there are software's out there that just do that. Which I will talk about in a separate blog.

The marriages of Tripods and Shutter speeds: The brave attempts of using big lenses handheld, takes a toll on your arm and shoulder over time. And when you are on a long day’s trek in the wild, the realisation kicks in fast. And ever since I started using a tripod, I realised it was a total boon, especially when you are in those regions that have low light challenges. Every time I am out in any location, I have got my gear mounted on a tripod, unless light is so great, that I can shoot handheld.

Again, my decision to have my tripod with me all the time helps me in several ways. My gear is mounted, and I heave the tripod on my shoulder, with the shoulder cushion mounted to make it comfortable on my treks and walks. The tripod serves it role as a lever when I need it over tough terrain. And the most important one being the ability to shoot at much lower shutter speeds when in low light conditions of dark clouds or under the canopy of huge trees. The tripod provides the much needed stability, which being handheld does not and you can go down quite a few stops to get a far better exposure. When handheld, the thumb rule for shutter speed has to be 1/focal length of the lens or faster. For example, if you are using the sigma 150-600 mm lens on a full frame body, the minimum shutter speed has to 1/600. And if you are using a crop sensor body like my Canon 7D Mark 2, it has to be 1/1.6 X 600, which is 1/960. This means I have to use a 1/1000 of a second for using my camera handheld. Compare this to getting great captures as low as under 1/100 in low light conditions. An example is the Blue Winged Laughingthrush below, which I captured at Rishop at 1/80 of a sec at an ISO of 1600 and at f7.1. So, my advice is to not hesitate in using a sturdy tripod as often as you can in low light and take as many shots as you can. The key remains in not underexposing your photographs.

Using the Aperture: My stock f-stop value is f7.1 or f8 as a thumb rule. But if the light is really challenging, then one way to mitigate it even after bumping up the ISO and using low shutter speeds using a tripod, is to shoot at the widest aperture your camera-lens combo can offer. So, in the case of my Sigma 150-600 mm, I go down to f6.3 and on my Canon 100-400 mm, I use the f5.6 option. This happens when I am still struggling to capture images at f7.1/f8.

Exposure compensation: Another way to to get a better exposure if you aren't happy with what the camera light meter has come up with is to use the exposure compensation setting. You can add a few stops by exposing to the right to get a brighter image. You can use this when you are shooting in the aperture priority, shutter priority and program modes. You may want to take different shots at different to determine which one gives you the best exposure. But by doing so, the shutter speeds do drop, and that tripod becomes so important to ensure stability to prevent blur/shaky images.

Using fill flash: While I have never ever used a flash for my wildlife, I have noticed that several photographers have adopted the use of this method to supplement light. You can even out the lighting as well as make up for low light challenges where you can eliminate undesirable shadows. This method is getting popular and there are still debates about if this is ethical or not.

Now while the above will largely hold good, the surer ways are to have fast lenses. The lenses that offer focal lengths of f2.8 and f4 are ideally suited, since they allow for a lot more light to be captured for the shot. But then, the prices associated with these prime lenses is one to contend with. So, everything depends on your budget for the gear you choose to purchase.

I have managed pretty well with my Canon 7D Mark 2 and the Sigma 150-600 mm lens. Below are a few captures, which were taken in severe low light, and very noisy, but I managed to deal with them in the post-processing workflow. All the shutter speeds for the below images were under 1/320 sec mark and below. The Bush Robin is the exception at around 1/640 sec.

Golden Bush Robin from Rishop

Gold Naped Finch

Blyths Shrike Babbler

Maroon Backed Accentor

Verditer Flycatcher

I hope you enjoyed the read. Please share feedback and any comments you may have. A short video has been added covering the above mentioned points.

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