Have you ever tried to capture that great wildlife shot in low light? It’s often not easy, is it? Such is the case of capturing this rare and endangered Barn Owl in a Missouri barn:
In Missouri, loss of habitat and farms, including barns where the Barn Owl prefers to live, have caused the Barn Owl to be placed on the state’s endangered list. In fact, the above owl is only the second Barn Owl I’ve heard of in the state over the past few years. Photographing it was a high priority on my list. And I certainly didn’t want to cause it undue stress by using flash photography. In cases like this, shooting in very low light may be the only alternative you have.
Let’s explore some of the factors of shooting in low light and look at some things we can do to help us capture a great image in low light:
Shooting in low light conditions is influenced by our camera’s sensor. Simply put, the better the sensor, the better the quality of image in low light. With lesser quality sensors, there will typically be more noise in the image. As we will see, there are some things we can do to help our sensor capture a higher quality image.
Shoot to the Right
Shooting an image so that the histogram is well to the right of the box (as seen on the camera’s LCD screen) is a technique that will help to minimize noise in our image. To do this, we will want to first grab a “test shot” and check the histogram on the back of our camera (Note: if you are not used to using histograms, please consult your camera manual to find out how to set it so that the histogram will automatically display immediately after your image is made).
When reviewing our test image’s histogram, if the histogram’s right edge is not close to the righthand edge of the box, then we will need to add more light to our capture. The best way to do this is by using our Exposure Compensation feature of our camera. Add some exposure (maybe up to +1 EV), make another test shot and check its histogram. Continue this process until the histogram’s righthand edge is near the righthand side of the box. Now, you are ready to make your best capture in low light.
When shooting wildlife in low light conditions, always set your Aperture setting to the largest opening you can (i.e. the smallest f/stop number). This will allow the maximum amount of light into the camera, allowing you to shoot at the fastest shutter speed.
Select a High ISO
When shooting in low light conditions, we always want to shoot with as low an ISO setting as we can get away with. But in low light conditions, we will need to shoot at a higher ISO. Most of today’s digital cameras can shoot at ISO levels of 400 to 800, with little or no noise. But, often that does not give us a fast enough shutter speed, so we may have to go even higher. I always try to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/250 second. This will not always be possible, but I target this speed.
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot
When shooting in low light, always shoot a lot of images. You’ll find that often you will have some blurry images due to subject movement or camera shake. The more you shoot, the more likely you will get at least one image that is relatively sharp.
Understand the Subject’s Actions and Behavior
When preparing to shoot wildlife in low light conditions, always do your research first and determine if the desired action you’re trying to capture might be captured at other times of the day, in better light. Often this is not the case, but sometimes you might find that the same behavior can be captured during the low evening light, instead of the low morning light, and perhaps the angle of light falling might be better at one extreme, over the other.
As mentioned in this article, shooting in low light tends to yield images with some amount of noise in them. There are several standalone programs that can be useful for removing noise, in addition to Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. If you shoot a lot in low light conditions, learn noise reduction techniques from one of these programs.
Don’t Give Up!
Like most things in life, some things take many tries before we succeed. Such is the case with the owl images in this post. Go for it, shoot lots of images, and best wishes for a great capture!
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About the Author: Jim Braswell is a lifelong resident of Missouri, photographing nature in Missouri and beyond. His photographic passion is wildlife and wildflowers. When working with wildlife, his goal is to capture animal behaviors and actions. Besides photographing nature, Jim teaches photography and Photoshop at a local career center and participates in several art fairs/festivals every year. View more of his work on his website at: http://www.showmenaturephotography.com/