Part 4 of my knowledge-packed 5-part guide to safari photography. This time, I’m discussing low-light photography, dealing with harsh-light, how to shoot high-key, and panning motion blurs. Over time, this entire series will be re-edited and refreshed. Bookmark it now, so that you can refer back to it later…
Making the most of it
It’s not always golden light or blue skies. There are challenging conditions to be mastered: Thunderous skies, white skies, low-light, hard-light, torrential rain, dust storms, etc. And your photography will be all the better for it. Trust me. Below you’ll find useful advice and example photos that will inspire you to make the most of every situation. As long as the animals are looking good or doing something interesting, you’ll want to capture a photograph worth keeping.
What do I mean by low-light? Essentially, when the ambient light-level is so low, that your shutter-speed is no longer fast enough to ‘freeze’ the subject, or prevent camera shake. It’s just not possible to capture sharp images, even with the camera supported, stabiliser switched-on, and the aperture is wide-open.
Out on the savannah, you’re going to encounter low-light at either end of the day (obviously), around sunrise and sunset, and when the skies fill with threatening thunderstorms. You’ll also have to watch out for slower shutter-speeds in dense undergrowth, in the shade of trees, and when you close down your aperture too far, e.g. f/16, f/22, etc.
To get a faster shutter-speed in ‘the old days’, you’d either break out the flashguns and sync cord, and/or load faster film (high ASA). Now, all we need to do is increase the ISO sensitivity setting. And forget about using just ISO100, 200, and 400. I mean really use the ISO, as in 1600, 3200, 6400+.
“But image files must be clean and noise-free.”
Really? Says who?!
My noisy rant…
It’s high-time to rethink an out-dated mentality. Analogue/film photographers appreciated the character of film grain. In fact, many insisted on grain for the photograph’s particular character and the photographer’s identifiable style. In contrast, digital photographers are obsessed by clean images. Why? Are we all suddenly high-end studio-based fashion photographers?
First and foremost, the only person that will seriously analyse your images at 1:1 or 100%, is you. Personally, I’m concerned with subject sharpness and composition. Not noise. You don’t see image noise in web images and it’s almost entirely lost in print. Competitions do not throw out potential award-winners because of digital noise. Stock libraries? Potentially. If it’s ridiculously bad. But, professional stock shooters won’t be reading this and even their ‘noise acceptance bar’ is rising all the time. I should know. I’m one of them.
In truth, unless you have some weird noise-fetish party, where you and your pixel-peeping buddies huddle round your screen for a session of ‘Guess The ISO’, again, it’s only you seeing that level of magnification.
“Have a look through this image slider above. Every image has been photographed between ISO1600 and ISO3200. Both the ‘cheetah cub leaping up at its mother’ and the ‘roaring lion’ images are among my very best sellers. They’d simply not exist, if I was worried about noise.”
Let’s breakdown the myth of noise
Every camera creates digital noise when capturing an image. Some cameras create less noise than others. Unless you’re throwing £5,000+ at one aspirational DSLR body, like a Nikon D5, you’re going to have to live with some noise. The trick to shooting with high-ISO is nailing the exposure. Compared to a low-ISO RAW file, a high-ISO RAW file creates disproportionately more noise when you adjust its exposure during processing. Get the exposure correct to begin with and the difference is marked. The less adjustments you have to make, the cleaner the final image will be.
The majority of DSLRs currently on the market (even as far back as 2010) have superb low-noise sensors and inbuilt noise-reduction technology. We’ve come along way from the Canon EOS 10D where anything above ISO800 was like a dot-matrix printer (sorry, you’ll probably have to be over 30, to appreciate that one). Furthermore, Adobe Lightroom, Camera Raw, Capture One, etc. all have extremely effective noise reduction tools.
Saying all that, perhaps this hardware/software noise-reduction argument is irrelevant anyway. When you upload an image to social media or your website, the resulting image size reduction, resampling, and compression, practically eradicates all digital noise. It’s the same when printing. When I print my grainiest images, the digital noise almost entirely disappears into the grain of the print and paper texture. I can only see it if I stand with my nose against the print with a loupe. So I ask you… “Who looks at a print on the wall like that?” Shall I conclude?
- Images for web use: Noise removed during resize and compression.
- Images for print: Noise lost in print grain, paper grain, print dots, etc.
- Only place you will notice noise: On your screen at 100% 1:1 zoom.
Ranting aside, above all else, if there’s something amazing happening, don’t worry about the minutia of aperture settings and image noise. Just get the shot! Make sure your priorities are in the right order for wildlife photography. Your primary focus should be capturing a stunning photograph. Not worrying about pixels. Crank-up the ISO and shoot! Don’t fear the ISO – it’s your best friend. Quite simply, it’s better to have a sharp shot with noise, than a clean shot with blur.
“When the light is low… Use the ISO!”
Manual ISO vs Auto-ISO
Manual ISO is a real asset. Perhaps entirely under-appreciated unless you previously shot with film. No more changing/pushing film for different light levels. No more worrying about whether the film lab will push the film as requested. Need a faster shutter speed? Just turn the dial and shoot. Marvellous! As mentioned above, there is a general resistance to using high-ISO settings, for fear of noisy images, but for goodness’ sake, just use it!
Auto-ISO is a relatively new feature and not every DSLR has it. In essence, you can set a manual exposure (aperture and shutter speed) and the ISO sensitivity will scale up and down, depending on the available light. You set parameters for both the baseline ISO (your default), the highest ISO you wish to use, and the slowest shutter speed. On some cameras, this ‘slowest shutter speed’ can be set automatically with the camera identifying the current lens in use. Clever! In theory, Auto-ISO works 90% of the time and I’ve been using it more and more. It’s one less thing to think about. Here’s the Auto-ISO blurb from Nikon:
“Auto ISO sensitivity control lets the camera adjust ISO sensitivity automatically if optimal exposure can not be achieved at the value selected by the user.”
Maximum sensitivity: Choose the maximum ISO sensitivity (ISO 200 to Hi 4) to prevent auto ISO sensitivity control selecting too high a value. The minimum value for auto ISO sensitivity control is ISO 100.
Minimum shutter speed: Auto ISO sensitivity control will automatically raise ISO sensitivity to prevent shutter speeds slower than this limit in exposure modes P and A. Choose from values between 1/2000 s and 1 s, or select Auto to allow the camera to choose the minimum shutter speed according to the lens focal length (CPU lenses only). For example, the camera will select a fast minimum shutter speed with telephoto lenses to reduce the camera blur that tends to occur at long focal lengths.
There are certain situations where I still switch to Manual ISO: During sunrise and sunset went I want full manual control of exposure; When I deliberately under-expose; When I don’t want the Auto-ISO kicking in as I recompose a shot. In these situations, I tend to use Manual Mode and Manual ISO.
If you’re using Auto-ISO, be aware that unless you use Exposure Lock, when you recompose your shot, the Auto-ISO will change your overall exposure. For example, when you focus-lock a subject on the horizon and recompose the frame to include more sky. You might find the ISO drops as there is more light hitting the metering sensor. Just something to look out for.
The Panning Motion-blur
verb (pans, panning, panned) [ with obj. and adverbial of direction ]
swing (a video or film camera) in a horizontal or vertical plane, typically to give a panoramic effect or follow a subject.
As light-levels fall, you can either: Pack-up and go home; Capture some very average photographs of animals in poor light; Learn to spot opportunities and experiment, making the most of each and every game drive. I’m going for the latter. Panning ‘motion-blurs’ hit mainstream popularity decades ago but they can still generate a “Wow!” They shout ‘Creativity’. Originality? Not so much. However, they are fun and the results are often surprisingly good.
In my own humble opinion, a good motion blur has a recognisable subject with a reasonably sharp head/face. It’s a highly subjective style and most photographers will have their own preference. It’s always a ‘marmite shot’ with lovers and haters equally vociferous. As motion blur photography involves sustained panning, you’ll need either a very steady hand, or panning tripod head (maybe a panning plate on a beanbag).
When I’m handholding, I find it best to tuck my left elbow into my left ribs. I then rotate my torso from the waist. The effect works best on subjects moving laterally, i.e. from left-to-right or right-to-left, rather than head-on. Below you’ll find a technique breakdown for beginners. As your skill improves, you can set the shutter-speed slower (my slowest is a one second pan) and use a manual exposure to set both shutter-speed and aperture. I’ve added instructions for both Canon and Nikon:
- Set camera focus mode to AI Servo (Continuous);
- Switch your Canon lens IS mode to Mode 2 for panning, Normal mode for Nikon lenses;
- Set the program mode to Tv (S);
- Set shutter-speed to 1/30th sec initially – slower when you’re more experienced;
- In brighter conditions you’ll need to reduce the ISO sensitivity to L.03 (ISO50 or less);
- Use centre focus-point (group or expanded is fine) and focus on the subject;
- Pan the camera (rotate your position/torso) in the same direction, matching the subject’s speed and trajectory;
- You may find it easier to match speed by focussing for several seconds on the subject before pressing the shutter release;
- As you match speed, pulse the shutter.
- This is a numbers game – the more you shoot, the higher the probability you will capture a decent shot.
Harsh Light, White Skies
After about 8:00am, with clear skies, the sun really starts to burn with ultra harsh light. We’re fighting stark, desaturating, high-contrast light with deep shadows and black, lifeless eyes. Not a great look for any animal.
You could manage these harsh-light conditions in a selective way – only shooting if something truly spectacular is happening, wait for a little cloud cover, or simply drive on and head back to camp. Standard animal portraits are relatively easy to come by, so why do it when the sunlight is so fierce? Turning your back on bad light is one option, but if you want to maximise your time, consider the following techniques as part of your ‘Ready For Anything’ arsenal.
Panning in harsh light
Although the majority of photographers reserve panning ‘motion blur’ for low-light, there’s nothing to say that it cannot be deployed in broad daylight. In fact, it’s a very useful technique for creative photography in harsh sunlight. Blurring the photograph creates a soft painterly effect that works brilliantly when you want to blur a scrubby grassy background.
Take a look at the African wild dog images above. These were photographed within 1-minute of each other, in broad daylight. I didn’t have time to attach a filter, so I quickly dropped the sensitivity from ISO400 to ISO50 and closed the aperture down from f/5.6 to f/16. The last image is a Lightroom preview using the Spot Removal tool and the “Visualise Spots” overlay. Each circle is a dust spot! Horrendous, isn’t it?!
So, how do you capture panning motion blurs in bright daylight, without spending the rest of your days removing dust spots? The trick is knowing how to slow your shutter speed, without closing the aperture and exposing a dirty sensor…
The answer is quite simple. Use a 6-stop ND filter.
I briefly discussed screw-in ND filters in Part 2. Essentially, these are circular filters that screw into the ‘filter thread’ located at the optic end of your lens. The 6-stop ND effectively slows a shutter speed of 1/1000th sec to just 1/15th sec – perfect for panning motion blurs. Because a 6-stop ND filter (aka ND1.8) is so dark, I’d recommend using them with fast lenses, like the 70-200mm f/2.8 – an excellent panning lens. The faster the lens, the more light enters the viewfinder, the more you will be able to see through the 6-stop filter and, critically, still autofocus.
Forget 10-stop filters for panning as they are basically opaque black. You can’t see through them, no matter what lens you have and autofocus is completely inoperable. Here’s a useful buying guide to ND filters on TechRadar.
The Polariser Filter
Polarisers are well-known for their ability to add a punch to blue skies, but they can also reduce contrast by controlling glare – the same effect they produce when you use them to take the reflection off water. But this time, you’re taking the ‘glare’ off animal fur.
There are three filter options: Screw-in polariser for the filter thread at the end of your standard zoom and wide-angle; Drop-in polariser for super-telephoto lenses; Slot-in circular polarisers for Cokin or Lee Filters et al 100mm adapters. If you’re buying a screw-in circular polariser filter, it’s definitely worth investing in a high-quality product with a low-profile, so the metal bevel doesn’t vignette on your wide-angle lens.
Be sure to check reviews and experiment with your polariser before the trip. Some polarisers can adversely effect image-quality with horrible colour casts. Also, be wary of using polarisers with super-wide lenses. There can be an uneven effect on expansive blue skies, with areas of intense and unnatural dark blues.
High-key (also high-keyed)
adjective. Art & Photography.
having a predominance of light or bright tones.
My favourite subjects for high-key photography are: Any mammal or bird in a bare-branched tree; The long necks and elevated heads of giraffes; Monochromatic patterns of zebras; Animals in long sun-bleached grass. These subjects would be with or without a washed-out sky. Sometimes, I use a polariser to control the glare and help protect highlights from blowing, especially on the bright white-stripped pelts of zebra, or any animal that’s been in water.
For high-key photographs, you need to over-expose the image, taking the highlights and whites to the point of clipping, e.g. 2+ or 3+ stops. White’s should be bright white. When you over-expose an image to such an extreme, you’ll also capture increased detail in the mid-tones and shadows. You then control and correct the contrast, saturation, and exposure during RAW processing.
Generally speaking, my high-key photographs require a boost to contrast, clarity, and saturation (if processing a colour image), as well as fine-tuning the tone curve, along with black and white clipping. I find that monochrome high-key photographs can usually benefit from varying degrees of sepia toning, using the “Split Toning” panel in Lightroom.
“As sensor technology advances, a disproportionate level of detail is captured in the highlights, compared to shadows and mid-tones.”
I routinely over-expose images by 2+ stops or more with or without the polariser and still retain full detail in every aspect of the image. Even when the JPEG preview on the back of the camera looks to be clipping (flashing black or red), I know that the RAW image file, with it’s greater bit-depth and tonal latitude, will still retain highlight details.
It takes practice to work out how far you can push the over-exposure (shooting to the right), before detail is truly lost. Every camera model is different. It’s worth mentioning that the histogram displayed on the camera is also from the low-quality JPEG preview and cannot be relied upon entirely – just use it as a guide. It’s still far more accurate than just looking at the preview image on the rear LCD.
It’s worth bearing in mind, that if you intentionally under-expose (shooting to the left) for fear of blowing highlights, you will have more noise and moiré-effect in the mid-tone and shadow areas, when you correct the exposure during RAW processing.
Working With Obscurers
If you’ve photographed wildlife, then you know the frustration caused by The Obscurers. You know… That twig, those leaves, that stem of grass. All those naturally occurring elements that fall directly between your lens and the subject. On the savannah, it’s usually tall grass stems that miraculously appear right between the eyes of a male lion. The precision is amazing. It’s so frustrating! Sometimes, it feels like a damned conspiracy.
The savannah is not a manicured garden. Practically every shot will have something to distract from its perfection. With leopards in a tree, it’s that thin useless, pointless twig with just two leaves on it. With cheetahs, it’s that one extra tall blade of grass, swaying right in front of the face. Bush, stem, grass, branch, it’s all very annoying. Unless you have a pair of 30ft telescopic secateurs (I’m working on a patent), you have no choice, but to smile (through gritted teeth), issue a gracious nod to Sod’s Law, and persevere.
Framing & Diffusing
These situations always challenge your creativity and your patience. Standing up in the vehicle rarely works, if ever. You just bring more grass and scrub into the background, resulting in a record shot with messy vegetation. If there is vegetation ‘around’ the subject, then that is something you can work with. Make sure you’re sitting down, with your longest lens positioned as low down in the vehicle as possible. Open the aperture to its maximum and focus precisely on the subject’s eyes. With this combination, the vast majority of the vegetation will now be diffused, creating a pleasant haze of colour.
“Have a look at the example image selection above. Each photograph was a challenge. If the grass is swaying, or the subjects is walking, I time the shots for when the eyes are clear. I may have to move the vehicle to find a window. I use precision focus and a shallow depth of field to enhance the focal point – the subject’s eyes. The monochrome images show how well distracting foliage can be softened when you remove colour.”
The eyes are the windows…
I can make most situations work. Just as long as there is enough of a view, through the clutter, to capture sharp focus on the subject’s eyes. The viewer connects to the subject through the eyes. If these are clear and sharp, then the viewer can engage. In some ways, having a partially obscured subject can actually improve the composition and increase the power of an image. The vegetation frames and focusses the viewer’s attention on the subject.
Get in close and tight
Using a super-telephoto (400mm+) with a teleconverter, you can cut right through to the subject and diffuse almost anything between you. You then need to master composition of abstract details and elements. This is my primary tactic when photographing in dense vegetation and long grass. Using a 600mm f/4 has enabled me to capture plenty of images in difficult situations. My friend and colleague, David Lloyd, uses a 2x teleconverter with his 400mm f/2.8 to get even closer, selectively isolating abstract details through the obscurers.
Move the vehicle
When you first pull-up to a wildlife sighting, you might not spot the grass or foliage in between you and the subject. It’s only when you look through the viewfinder that you spot it. So, take decisive action and move the vehicle, if you can. With just a slight repositioning you might find a window through the vegetation. Admittedly, this is easier if you’re on your own, not so easy if you’re already surrounded by other vehicles.
Always remember, just because the vehicle has stopped, doesn’t mean you cannot move again. I have moved the vehicle 360°, inches at a time, around feeding or mating lions, just to find a clear window through the grass or to change the background. Same with cheetahs. Same with practically every animal.
Timing the shot
Thankfully, unless they’re sleeping, animals do eventually move. You have to be ready to snap that shot as soon the obscurer is out of frame. If there’s a breeze, you might be lucky. Time your shot with the breeze, as it blows the grass aside. If the animal is walking through the grass, time your shots for when it passes over shorter grass, or vehicle tracks. There are usually windows through the vegetation. Often it takes just a little patience and methodical observation.
Unfortunately, when the obscurer is right next to the animal’s face, there’s not much you can do. Moving the car won’t help. However, processing the image in monochrome can be quite effective. The bright yellow of the straw-like grass is far less distracting in grey-scale. Have another look at those monochrome shots above.
Thunderstorms & Heavy Rain
I love a good thunderstorm! Especially on the savannah. Golden evening sunlight, illuminating the plains, under towering gun-metal blue thunderheads. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. Not to mention, photographic nirvana. It’s a joy photographing plains animals in these conditions. Everything glows. The sky is worryingly ominous, but somehow I feel quite at peace with it all.
It’s very common to have afternoon showers in the Masai Mara and Serengeti. The heat builds, the clouds develop, the rain pours, it all clears ready for the next day. Pack a light jacket and you’ll be fine. Pack a rain jacket for your lens too. In heavy rain, we pull the covers over the vehicle roof, but the lenses project out the side and will get a soaking. A neoprene cover is enough to protect lenses. Full rain jackets might just put your mind at ease.
Photographically, I like to find subjects on a ridge, silhouetted against evening skies, under stormy clouds. If there are sun rays punctuating the gloom, all the better. I underexpose my shots to really give punch to the clouds and define the sun rays. If you spot-meter off an area of bright sky, your shots will be underexposed by roughly 2-stops. This is how you reveal the sun rays. With under-exposure, the beams of light become mid-tone and the surrounding clouds are dropped into deep shadow and near-blacks. Moody!
Lions always seem to wake up when it rains. Adult lions take longer to wake, lying around, licking the rainwater from their fur. But lion cubs seemingly burst with energy and scamper about, play-fighting in the rain. A word of caution through. Light levels are always deceiving. Our human eyes are so good at adapting to light levels, we barely even notice the change. But, you’ll get a shock when you look through the viewfinder and see your exposure. If you’re hoping to freeze-frame lions play-fighting in the rain, you’ll need 1/500th sec minimum – ideally 1/1000th sec, so it’s time to crank-up the ISO.
If you want to completely freeze falling rain drops, you’re going to need a shutter-speed of 1/1000th sec or faster. Not easy in the gloom of a thunderstorm, so (again) you’re going to have to push your ISO. You can capture definable rain drops with short streaks with 1/125th sec to 1/500th sec, but the effect really depends on how heavy the rain is falling. For really long streaking rain drops, you’ll want to shoot slower than 1/100th sec, ideally less than 1/30th sec with heavy rain.
Closing Tip: To really emphasis the rain, photograph the subject with a dark out-of-focus background with the light coming from the side or behind the subject (backlight). The eland photograph above works well because the rain was very heavy (close-up you can see rain drops bouncing off the eland) and the background was fairly dark, making the rain drops really pop.