Low Light Wildlife Photography for Beginners

Are you struggling with low light wildlife photography?

Frustrated by blurry images and grainy results? If left unchecked, this could mean a lifetime of missed opportunities and disappointing photos. What if you could turn the tables?

Let's explore the essential gear and discover the optimal camera settings, transforming your low-light shooting experience. But then we'll go further! 

By working together, we can ensure that you have the necessary tools and knowledge to excel in low-light photography and produce remarkable images.

swan taken in low light conditionsI needed a keen eye for detail, an understanding of wildlife behaviour, and the technical skill to balance the challenging lighting conditions for this swan photo.

Equipment for Low Light Wildlife Photography

Camera

On overcast days, I prefer DSLR or mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses for wildlife photography.

Switching lenses lets me adjust to various lighting conditions and approach subjects closely without disturbance. These cameras often have larger sensors, offering better low-light performance and detailed images.

Why does this control matter? It enables adjustments in ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, essential for capturing the perfect shot.

I started with Canon EOS cameras, gradually upgrading as my skills and needs grew. Nikon, Sony, and Fujifilm also provide excellent options for all skill levels and budgets.

Lenses

A 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens offers a close, undisturbed view of wildlife.

For beginners, consumer zoom lenses with f/5.6 or f/8 apertures are lighter and less expensive than the professional versions, making them ideal for starting in low-light photography.

If you find this type of photography ticks all your boxes, consider a lens with a wider aperture, like f/2.8 or f/4, for improved low-light performance. 

Tripod

A sturdy tripod is essential for reducing camera shake in low light. Choose between a ball head or a gimbal head.

A gimbal head provides a 360-degree rotation, ideal for birds in flight photography.

However, it's not without its drawbacks. They are bulkier and heavier than a ball head which can be inconvenient when hiking the countryside. 

A ball head, while not offering the same range of motion, allows easy adjustment and is lighter to carry.

If your budget allows, a carbon fibre tripod will be lighter to take with you than the alternatives. 

robin in the woodsThis robin was shot on an overcast day in local woodland, from a tripod. This kind of lighting is excellent for capturing the subtle details and colours of the bird's plumage without the distraction of strong shadows or blown-out highlights.

Camera Bag

A quality camera bag ensures your equipment is protected and comfortably transported, preventing aches and enhancing your photography experience.

Remote Shutter Release

For sharp low-light images, use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer in conjunction with your tripod, to minimise vibrations.

Flashlight or Headlamp

A reliable light source is crucial for navigating in the dark. Headlamps are particularly handy as they keep your hands free.

But, let's not forget, we're not alone in the wild. Our actions can have an impact on the creatures around us. A sudden beam of light might startle wildlife, causing them to behave unpredictably.

It's also worth noting that prolonged exposure to artificial light can temporarily affect your night vision. So, while these tools are handy, it's crucial to use them responsibly.

Extra Batteries and Memory Cards

Always carry spare batteries and memory cards to avoid missing shots due to power loss or full storage.

Image Stabilization

Image stabilization technology helps reduce the need for heavy equipment by compensating for camera or lens motion, enabling clearer shots in dim conditions.

This is accomplished through two methods: optical stabilisation, which adjusts the lens elements to counteract movement, or sensor-shift stabilisation, which moves the image sensor to correct any camera shake.

Bear in mind that using image stabilisation can consume more battery power.

Researching Your Subject and Scouting Locations

Low light wildlife photography is more than just taking pictures. It's about connecting deeply with nature and respecting the animals I photograph.

To really get to know my subjects—butterflies, owls, or deer—I need to understand their behaviour, habitats, diets, and breeding habits. This knowledge helps me predict their movements and plan my photography sessions.

Researching the best times and places for low light wildlife photography is crucial. I've learned that different species are more active at dawn or dusk and during certain seasons, like the spring mating season.

Knowing where to find them, such as at watering holes or along migratory paths, boosts my chances of capturing them on camera.

a sunset portrait of a servalThe warm glow of sunset provided rim light for this serval, accentuating the contours of its face and body. A wide aperture threw the background out of focus.

Now, let me share an important safety tip with you.

For my safety and the animals', I always keep a safe distance.

It's wise to stay at least 50 meters from large mammals. Trust me, you don't want to learn the hard way!

This way, I respect their space while capturing stunning images.

Camera Settings

ISO - Sensor Sensitivity

In my experience, capturing sharp images in dim light is always tough in wildlife photography. Using high ISO settings to let in more light often adds unwanted noise or grain to my photos.

Finding the right balance between light sensitivity and reducing image noise is a challenge. For example, a low ISO might require longer exposure times, which increases the chance of motion blur if the subject moves.

In very dim conditions, keeping the ISO low is almost impossible without a tripod or stabilised gear.

Shutter speed

Achieving the perfect shot with a slow shutter speed needs a careful approach since it allows more light but also raises the risk of blur from any movement.

To avoid this, I often use a shutter speed of 1/500s or faster, which freezes the action and keeps the sharpness I want in my photos.

Yet, using very fast shutter speeds in dim light poses challenges. It can result in dark (underexposed) photos.

Your photos aren't ruined if they're too dark. Visit my page for tips on brightening dark photos.

To address this, I widen the aperture, reducing the depth of field and challenging me to maintain sharp focus on the entire subject.

Choosing the correct shutter speed blends technical knowledge and creativity, encouraging me to find the perfect balance between exposure, motion blur, and depth of field.

Aperture

As a beginner in wildlife photography, capturing clear images in low light was tough. The main challenge was finding the right balance between aperture and shutter speed to get a well-lit, sharp picture.

A lower f-stop number meaning a wider aperture, lets in more light but makes only a small area of the photo sharp.

I aim to focus on the animal's eyes, as sharp eyes are key in wildlife photos. However, juggling light and clarity often feels like a high wire act!

Focusing in low light

Low light wildlife photography using autofocus comes with unique challenges that can affect your image quality and success rate.

Here's how to tackle these challenges for breathtaking wildlife shots.

wren photo taken in low lightThe dappled light within the woods made exposure and focusing tricky for this tiny wren.

Achieving Focus In Low Contrast Situations

If you've ever struggled to distinguish your subject from its background, you know the challenge. Your camera's autofocus might fail in such scenarios.

Imagine photographing an owl at twilight against a dark forest. It's a stunning scene, but your camera might not capture it accurately.

A helpful solution is using manual focus with Live View magnification. This lets you zoom in on a specific part of the image on your screen for precise focusing.

However, this method can be difficult with fast-moving wildlife. I recommend practicing in various conditions to improve your reflexes. This way, adjusting your focus quickly becomes instinctive.

Slow autofocus response

Talking about speed, your autofocus system focuses more slowly in low light, leading to missed shots.

If the subject moves quickly, speed might determine whether you capture a perfect shot or miss entirely.

Using the AF assist beam can help, but it might alert wildlife.

Here, knowing animal behavior is useful. It helps you decide when to use the AF assist beam and when to rely on your skills and patience.

Another solution is to invest in a lens with a wide aperture and a sensitive sensor to allow more light for the autofocus. However, these options are costly.

The key is to balance investing in equipment with improving your skills to maximize what you have.

High ISO noise interference

I mentioned earlier that high ISO settings make images grainy.

This can also disrupt the autofocus system's ability to see contrast and edges, making it less effective. You need high ISO for low light photos, but this also increases graininess, which affects autofocus.

The key is to use the lowest ISO that still lets you take sharp photos in action.

It's tough, but mastering this balance makes low light wildlife photography especially satisfying.

Post Processing

As a wildlife photographer, I've faced the challenges of low light conditions. Here are the main post processing issues.

Noise reduction

The biggest problem is noise, the grainy look that comes from using a high ISO setting. It's challenging, right? But photo editing tools can help.

Noise reduction software, like Topaz DeNoise AI or the tools within Adobe Lightroom are great at reducing graininess without losing photo details. These tools shine when fixing photos taken in low light.

However, I've learned from mistakes that too much noise reduction can make photos look fake, losing their authenticity and important wildlife details. To prevent this, I use noise reduction carefully.

How? By using masking tools to apply more noise reduction to the background and less to the subject. This keeps the wildlife subject in sharp focus, as it should be.

Sharpening low light photos

Just like me, you've probably noticed that sharpening is useful to bring out the finer details in your photos, especially when shooting in low light.

It's a delicate balance though. Over-sharpening can lead to unnatural edges and increase noise, while not enough sharpening can leave your images looking soft and lifeless.

The trick is to find that sweet spot where your subject pops without the image becoming harsh.

I often use selective sharpening, targeting the eyes and critical textures of the wildlife, to bring life and depth to my photos.

Remember, the goal is to enhance, not overwhelm.

I wrote a page all about how to sharpen a photo, which gives additional information on this topic.

Colour Correction

Low light wildlife photography can sometimes give your pictures a cool, bluish tint, or make them overly warm, depending on your light source.

Adjusting the white balance and colour settings can bring back the natural colours of the scene and the wildlife within it.

Features like the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) sliders in Lightroom are fantastic for making precise colour adjustments. You'll be amazed at how minor tweaks can transform a photo from good to breathtaking.

Final Thoughts

Low light wildlife photography is challenging, no doubt. It tests your patience, skill, and creativity.

But, the rewards? Absolutely worth it.

Capturing the elusive beauty of wildlife under the cover of dusk or the quiet of dawn is a thrill.

It's about telling the story of the unseen, the moments that happen in the shadows, where most don't dare to look.

Try it! Push your boundaries, take on the challenges, learn from the inevitable mistakes, and let your creativity soar.

With the right techniques, patience, and a bit of post-processing magic, you'll bring to light the hidden wonders of the natural world.

Keep exploring, keep experimenting, and most importantly, keep sharing the beauty you capture.

The world needs your unique perspective, now more than ever.

Happy photography!


Get closer to UK nature - Subscribe to Wild Lens!

I would love to send you my almost-monthly newsletter so we can keep in touch.

You might like these