6 :30 am. Alarm, roll out of bed, put on thermals, more layers, more layers, gloves, get in car, head to Richmond park…freeze. The weather has definitely turned during my month long break for the Deer cull. My car’s steering wheel is ice cold!
I begin on my usual walk past “the spot” and as usual am disappointed to see not a single deer in sight. One day they will be there, I tell myself. Sunrise is now fairly close to 8am. The park is dark, very dark, and would feel eerie if it were not for the steady stream of morning fitness enthusiasts cycling past. The great thing about sunrise being so late now, aside from getting up later, is that I have plenty of time to find my subjects and position myself correctly.
This week I want to talk about natural light and when is best to shoot. In previous episodes we’ve discussed safety tips, as well as how to approach and where to find the deer. All of these topics are vital to success but without the right light you will never achieve the shot you were hoping for. The same can be said for all types of photography.
Wildlife photography is different to many other kinds of photography as our subjects actions are totally out of our control. We cannot ask them to move a little so the light hits them just right nor can we move to another location and expect them to follow. Due to this WE have to work around them.
My first step is to always shoot at the right time of day. A consideration here is not only when the light will be the most pleasing for your desired aesthetic but also what the behaviour of the animal is at that particular time of day. For instance the deer of Richmond Park are more active in the mornings, they’re also usually located in different places and are more cautious of people. The light may be exactly what you want but if the animals are not in the correct position you will never get the shot you want. That’s why I always base the time of day I will be shooting firstly on the animals themselves and secondly on the light.
Once you know the habits of your subjects it’s time to think about the light. I personally love to shoot just after sunrise and just before sunset, what some people call the golden hour or magic hour. I love the light during these times of day. It brings dimension to the landscape, can often have stunning skies and is a time when the deer are quite active.
I sometimes use mobile apps to help me figure out where the sun will be on any given day. One app I use is called Sun Surveyor and it’s available for both Android and iphone. Using this app I can see where and at what time the sun will rise and set. If these times and places coincide with the deer’s position then I know there’s some potential for capturing great images. Throw in some mist and I’ll be running out the door.
One challenge with working at these times is dealing with low light conditions. By that I mean times when the amount of light is so low that you’re having to make compromises to get proper exposure. Here are a few of my tips for working in low light conditions:
Bring a tripod – A tripod will allow you to shoot at shutter speeds which would be slower than usually advised. The issue here is that you may still need to freeze action in which case this won’t help too much.
Buy a lens or camera with image stabilization – Image stabilization works in various ways to steady your shot allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. Again if trying to freeze action this will not help.
Boost your ISO – When the light is fading and you still need a relatively fast shutter speed this is a great option. However, use with caution. Certain cameras perform brilliantly at high ISO’s whereas others do not. Do some tests and figure out the maximum ISO you can shoot at where you’re still happy with the overall quality.
Use a fast aperture – If you have a lens with a fast aperture shoot wide open. Fast aperture lenses are expensive, especially on the telephoto end, but if you can afford one it really makes a big difference.
Use manual focus – Some camera are great and focus well in extremely low light, however, others like my 5d mk ii are not so good. If you’re having trouble with autofocus try manually focusing. You may miss some moments but at least the ones you do get will be sharp.
If possible, wait – When the sun is rising 10 minutes could be enough to give you an extra stop of light, which may be all you need. If the light is too low back away from your subject and wait. Hopefully they’ll stay roughly where they were and you’ll be able to get the shot you were hoping for.
Try a silhouette – If there’s not enough light try exposing for the sky and creating a silhouette.
Knowledge really is top of my list when photographing animals. Rather than going out and hoping for the best analyse your subjects, pick a suitable time of day, location and bring the necessary equipment. If you do all of those things you stand a much better chance of capturing a great image.