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How to handle tricky lighting in wildlife photography

My journey into the world of photography started in the studio of Munish Khanna Academy learning to shoot models and products. Shooting in a studio setup let one control both the subject and light the way a photographer wants. The biggest advantage was the control over light whose amount and direction was controlled the way I wanted. In other words the shooting environment was under the full control of the photographer in a studio setup. Leaving the cocoon of the studio, I stepped out into the world of wildlife photography. The biggest challenge I was introduced immediately was that now neither the subject not the light is under my control. So I embarked on a new learning path to deal with these new variables. Subjects for many reasons will never be under a wildlife photographer’s control, so though will be light. But a better understanding of natural light will allow a photographer to get the best out of any lighting situation.

Let us discuss the first variable – Subjects in nature. They may vary from tiny insects to a small bird to an elephant, the largest mammal on land. Subjects are part of vagaries of nature and hence its appearance and then posing for your camera will continue to have an element of luck. You will never control it, but wait for things to happen. A better understanding of behaviour and habitat of the subject will reduce the element of luck to some extent. For example, people with good birding knowledge have set up birding studios at places that attract many varieties of bird. These studios are available across India from Nainital in North to Ganeshgudi in South. As a photographer you are provided a near perfect shooting platform on a platter. But as a wildlife photographer you are required to know the perfect season to visit each of these location to maximise your shooting opportunities. I have been shooting Asiatic wild elephants in Corbett for some time now. They are my favourite subjects. It took me some time to figure out the perfect window to visit the park to get the best out of shooting wild elephants. This kind of knowledge will come from experience of spending time in the field. There is no substitute to being in the thick of action. You cannot expect to be a wildlife photographer siting at your home.

This brings us to the second variable – Light. Like the subject, the light is also not under your control in wildlife and nature photography. The lighting that you may encounter also varies widely. It may be a no sunlight scene in dawn and dusk, or a mixed lighting scene with patches of lit and unlit areas together inside foliage, or a very harsh daytime light, or an overcast light due to clouds, or the ideal golden light in the morning and afternoon. If you are a landscape photographer, then you may try again next day or till the light is ideal for you to shoot. But in wildlife, the subject which is standing in front of you in difficult light will not come back next day to the same spot when light may be ideal. Therefore you will have to get the best of whatever lighting situation you have. Fortunately, the learning curve of this is less steep than the behavioural aspect of the subjects.

While in the field for shooting wildlife, the shutter speed requirement is my prime camera parameter that dictates my other camera settings. This may surprise you a bit because you always want an uncluttered or creamy background of a wildlife subject which can be controlled by Aperture priority mode. But in wildlife you are generally shooting subjects which are not static or static momentarily but can move at any moment. The subject’s size, speed of movement and the overall scene determine the minimum shutter speed you will require to capture it sharp. In fact, in one of the wildlife photography workshop organised by Canon which I attended as a beginner, we were handed a kind of a chart telling us the shutter speed we will require in different type of lighting that we will encounter in the forest. Therefore, as a newbie with basic equipment, I tried to control shutter speed through Shutter priority mode which soon started to deliver undesired results at times. In shutter priority mode, you set the shutter speed and ISO, and then camera sets the aperture value based on the metering of the scene. If the light is too low, or the scene is predominantly green foliage, then to get the correct exposure, the camera will try to open up aperture as much it can. However, most consumer level zoom lenses have max aperture at around f5.6-6.3 at tele or long end, which do not allow enough light to reach your camera sensor. So your camera may refuse to release shutter when you press the shutter button. Alternatively, if the scene is too bright then camera will stop down aperture to a value like say f8 or f11, which again is not ideal as you lose the opportunity to shoot with a creamy and uncluttered background at such high apertures. Therefore I decided to experiment with my old favourite – the Aperture priority mode. Now I was telling the camera that I want a creamy and uncluttered background as much as possible. So when I met a tiger dragging a kill inside a tree canopy with lots of green in the scene, my camera metering read the scene as dark and decided that more light is required. I had already set aperture at f5.6 which was maximum my Canon 100-400 IS lens would allow at 400mm. Thus camera compensated by setting a slow shutter speed of 1/60 sec to let more light in. The result could have been disastrous, but I was fortunate to get away with one sharp frame. But only one sharp image! So why not manual mode? Yes, I did exactly that after this incident. Switching to Manual mode allowed me to set both shutter speed and aperture. But by doing so I was actually overriding the metering capabilities of my camera. Now it is me who is setting the exposure, not the camera’s advanced metering logic. And hence results were again mixed. But number of acceptable image was more in manual mode than aperture or shutter priority mode. I had started to realise the value of quality equipment in wildlife photography. Or why we see wildlife photographers with long prime lenses. It was time to upgrade. I had upgraded to professional equipment which had dramatically change the way I shoot. There is a saying that equipment should liberate the photographer. You should only be concerned about framing and creative aspect of the image in the field, not the equipment limitations. My main lens is now a fast f2.8 lens which let me revert back to the old ways of shooting in aperture priority mode. A setting of f2.8 always allows me enough light with a creamy background, and then I control my shutter speed through exposure compensation. If light is not good enough even at f2.8, then I would relax and enjoy the scene rather than attempting to shoot something which I will have to delete later. But till the time you actually get true professional gear, your best bet will be manual mode where you will manually set both shutter speed and aperture for each of the lighting scene. Of course there will be some undesired results, but they will be fewer than aperture priority or shutter priority mode.

With these understanding of camera settings for tricky lighting scene in wildlife photography, I will like to present you some examples where light was not ideal and how I handled the light to get the best out of it.

Scene 1: Elephants in harsh light

It was harsh noon lighting. The reflections in the pool created a sparkle effect. But the harsh light had made the scene itself near colourless. Of course the elephants were already black and white subjects. When I shot the scene, I had in mind what output I wanted out this frame. A bit of post processing created this image which I had captioned as Sparkling Giants.

Scene 2: Egrets – low light panning

The egrets were on their way to roosting site. This was in SUndarban, the Indian amazonian. Sun has already set. The dark green foliage and green waters had made the scene further dark. But the white egrets stood out in the background. Given the very low light and flying subjects, I decided to create a panning shot.

Scene3: Garden Lizard in spotlight

Spotlighting is a concept widely used in wildlife photography. I waited for the subject to crawl to the spot nicely lit by the spotlight filtering through foliage. Spotlights are in abundance in forest. One needs to wait for subject to enter one of them.

Scene 4: Kingfisher - High key image

This was shot on a cloudy overcast day. Lack of sunlight makes even the most colourful subjects dull. I shot this bird a little overexposed keeping in mind that I wanted to create a high key image in post processing.

I hope these examples will give you ideas for any lighting situation that you may encounter in the wild. So, pick your camera and get out to shoot, Forget the light. It is you who decides what to shoot and how to shoot.


The author Rupankar Mahanta is a wildlife photographer, emapanelled with Getty Images. He is also a mentor for DCP Expeditions School of Wildlife Photography.

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