Wildlife Photography In Low Light

Our (third) lockdown here in the UK has meant that the nature of my photography outings has drastically changed from what I had become accustom to over the past few years. I have always described myself as an 'opportunistic wildlife photographer' in that I have never been one for waiting hours on end to capture the perfect image of an elusive species and instead prefer to take a stroll around a local green space for a few hours, camera in tow, stopping whenever I see something worth capturing. That is not to say that I would not love to spend my time camped out in a hide deep in the woods, submerged to my waist in a lake or tracking an exotic species - that is the absolute dream, but unfortunately one factor stops me from doing so. Time.

By profession I am a secondary school teacher and that alone rules out any photography during the daylight hours of weekdays. On weekends, when I am not playing sport, I love to venture out somewhere and take the camera along with me. Whilst this strategy might not always guarantee amazing results (sometimes the wildlife is just not where you expect it to be) it keeps me entertained and I have been very happy with the body of work that I have produced over the years using this method.

This year, lockdown has brought with it a whole new set of challenges when it comes to my professional teaching work (I am now a master of managing a class full of children on Zoom if anyone needs any lessons) but it has also meant that I cannot be spending prolonged hours out at the weekend taking photos. Instead I have taken my camera with me on a few daily walks. This not only means that I have less actual time taking photographs when I am out but it also means that I have very little choice about when to take the camera with me. Previously, if a weekend day was looking rainy or cold I would leave the camera stored away and enjoy an indoor activity (crazy golf, a boardgame cafe, a trip to the cinema etc) but nowadays if it is miserable weather... well, I am going out anyway.


This has led me to trying something that I have not previously endeavoured with over the past four years of using a DSLR camera; photographing in poor light. By 'poor' light what I really mean is a low light level, where everything looks bland and grey. Without getting too technical, simplistic DSLR cameras like the one I own require light to take good quality photographs, especially when using fast shutter speeds. Quick shutter speeds are often needed when working with wildlife because, unlike buildings for example, wildlife tends to move... sometimes fairly quickly. Reducing the shutter speed to something slower, especially when using my camera handheld, often leads to blurry or out-of-focus images as the shutter is not closing fast enough to capture the action, so this is usually out of the question. The only other option I have is to increase the cameras ISO setting.

Common Wood Pigeon (Canon EOS 1200D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm @ 175mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO 800)

ISO is one of the three pillars of photography (alongside shutter speed and aperture) and, in very basic terms, it is a setting that can brighten or darken a photo. As you increase the ISO number in the settings, photos will get progressively brighter and, considering my camera's ISO starts at 100 and goes all the way up to 6400, you would think simply increasing the ISO would be an easy way to allow fast shutter speeds to still be used whilst also creating images at a decent brightness. Unfortunately increasing the ISO has consequences, mainly in that it produces photos with a lot of grain, known in the industry as 'noise', and this can leave an image looking low quality; as if it has a clear visual distortion.

I have spent the last few times out with my camera learning how best to address these issues and it has been fun to play around with different shutter speeds and ISO setting combinations to see what I can come up with in these low light conditions. One thing I have learnt is that it is sometimes interesting to produce images that are predominantly dark; it helps to create a gloomy mood for the photograph and adds something that might not be possible if the light level was high.

Mute Swan (Canon EOS 1200D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm @ 100mm, f/8.0, 1/640, ISO 800)

Take this image of a mute swan as a prime example. It was taken a week ago when the weather was cold, very overcast and it had actually just started to rain - not usually conditions required for taking images of swans. However, the dark surroundings played into my hands as they meant that I could really highlight the contrast of the shadows with the bright white colouration of the swan's plumage. This contrast between bright and dark is something that would have been improbable on a warm sunny day, as the white colours would have 'blended' in with the bright surroundings and white backdrop. Instead, choosing a suitable ISO setting, meant I was able to make the swan really stand out whilst also emphasising the blue colour of the gateway behind. It also allowed the white brickwork to be a tad more muted than usual, adding to the moody feel that I was hoping to achieve with this shot.

Prior to lockdown I would have avoided photography on days like the one that I captured this image. I was always led to believe that bright and colourful were what people looked for in a photograph and, whilst that probably is a generalisation that bares some truth, I have also come to understand that, with a little practice, it is possible to create some very interesting images, no matter what the UK weather throws at you (disclaimer - I am yet to try photography in the snow so that might be harder than I have made out here).

European Robin (Canon EOS 1200D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm @ 233mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 3200)

Low light photography is something that I definitely have enjoyed working on over the past month or so but I would be lying if I said I was not looking forward to some spring sunshine. Hopefully by then the whole lockdown situation might be looking a bit more positive and we can all go back to something that resembles a somewhat 'normal' life - if any of us actually can remember what that looks like.

As always I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog post. All the images above were taken on the same day during a walk around Chiswick House & Gardens. If you would like to learn a little about the history of the gardens or just love looking at squirrels then hopefully you might enjoy my previous blog post which can be found here.

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