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Sunrise & Twilight: How to Shoot in Low Light & After Dark

'Photography' essentially means ‘painting with light’. This is easy enough to understand - it is the process that occurs when light strikes a film or a sensor, producing an image that exhibits the interplay between light and shadow. What then, if you wish to take a photograph when there is no light or light that is so low that it's hard for your camera to discern? This is where photography gets interesting - and challenging! It's where photography becomes about exercising creative possibilities, not just taking the obvious shot.

Using three images, and the stages of twilight and darkness, I have broken it down into categories that I find the most challenging and the most interesting in terms of creative scope.

A leopard & her cub shot in sidelight. A leopard & her cub shot in sidelight.
A leopard shot in low light. A leopard shot in low light.

Twilight and just after dark

As a wildlife safari photographer, I have often found myself in a situation where a subject or action I wish to capture happens after sunset, which is particularly true with big cats as they are largely creatures of twilight. I have managed to get many a captivating image in the gloaming hours through techniques I've experimented with over the years. The following pictures all have three things in common – the correct ISO setting, a wide aperture, and very steady base for the camera.

The picture of Mmamoriri was an image I was desperate to capture as an illustration for a National Geographic article, featuring a maned lioness. I wished to demonstrate both of these factors in one image so as to exclude any possibility of doubt about this amazing cat. After weeks of searching for her, I found her with her pride just as the sun was setting. She was in an open area of a forest and, for a moment or two, in just the pose I wanted. The only problem was that there was no light! I had already pushed my ISO as high as I dared without going too high and spoiling the image with noise, which on an older camera like mine isn’t very much above 800. I then opened the aperture as wide as possible to f/2.8, rested the camera dead still on a beanbag, and fired off a burst of shots as fast as the camera could handle, which was eight frames a second.

Of those eight frames, this was the only one that froze the action without one of the two cats moving slightly.

My chance to capture an image illustrating that Mmamoriri is a maned lioness meant shooting in failing light. My chance to capture an image illustrating that Mmamoriri is a maned lioness meant shooting in failing light.

After post-processing the image in Adobe LightRoom, lightening it as much as I could without spoiling the overall feel, the picture was accepted by National Geographic to accompany their article. I think this illustrates how knowing your equipment and its limitations well, utilising the available light, and a good dose of dumb luck come together to get what you are after!

Using a light or off-camera flash

Once darkness has completely set in, I usually put my camera away in respect of photographing animals. There are, however, exceptional circumstances where there is a subject you have to photograph, and the only way to do it is to use an external light source. In order to get a decent wildlife image, I never use a camera-mounted flash. The effect of a burst of light from directly in line with the lens creates ugly shadows and a 'rabbit in the headlights' effect that is visually unappealing. In 'normal' circumstances you could use a remotely triggered flash set at an angle to your subject but with wild animals this is impossible. What can be done, however, is to use a secondary light source held by another person - whether it be a flash or a spotlight. I have even used a powerful torch on occasions. By having the light source at an angle to the camera, you are able to frame your subject with its shadow in a far more interesting manner.

Using an off-camera flash allows you to capture the image without the 'rabbit in a headlights' effect. Using an off-camera flash allows you to capture the image without the 'rabbit in a headlights' effect.

Once again, in order to achieve the shot, the ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings have to be as fast as possible to make use of the limited light, and the camera needs to be absolutely still, either resting on a beanbag or on a mounting.

Long exposure & star trails

Star trail images always make for compelling subjects, especially when you have an interesting static object to use as a visual anchor in the frame. Bear in mind that in the Southern Hemisphere, the stars rotate around a southerly axis - so point your camera southwards to achieve a circular effect as the earth rotates 'moving' the stars across the heavens.

In order to get this shot of an iconic baobab tree in the Mombo concession of the Okavango Delta, I combined a very technical approach with an unusual but expected natural phenomenon: a lunar eclipse. This gave me two advantages: moonlight during the eclipse would paint the side of the massive tree silver, while the darkness of the eclipsed moon would reveal the stars. This sequence took hours to photograph, and the on-the-ground technicalities involved placing a lantern out of sight at the base of the tree to light the other side of the tree and give it shape. The camera was firmly fixed on a tripod, and I set an intervalometer to take a sequence of 30-second exposures one after the other. By breaking it down into chunks like this, I was able to avoid burning out the images with moonlight, as well as avoid spoiling a 3-hour single exposure by an unexpected intrusion into the frame, like an owl flying past the lens. The result was 180 frames, each at 30 seconds exposure at f/4, which I compiled in PhotoShop to create the final image.

Shooting star trails requires careful planning but the results can be stunning. Shooting star trails requires careful planning but the results can be stunning.

The really technical part came next: to individually open and layer 180 consecutive files will take forever, unless you use ‘File’®‘Scripts’®‘Load files into Stack’. This automates the process and results in a single file with 180 layers. These layers are all opaque, however, so the next thing you do is select one layer in the layers window, and using the drop down layer style menu, select ‘Screen’. While that layer is highlighted, right-click on it, and select ‘Copy Layer Style’. Next, deselect that layer; select ALL the other layers, right-click, and select ‘Paste Layer Style’. Finally, flatten the result into one layer, and there you have it.

Depending on your processing power, you should have an awesome image in a few minutes or a few hours - my MacBook Pro took eight hours to perform this feat with all those high-res files in the stack- twice as long as it took to shoot the original sequence!

To sum up, shooting in low light can be a technical challenge, but with the right know-how and utilising the current advances in digital camera technology and software, you are able to set your imagination free and create some truly stunning images!