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Camera Settings For Wildlife Photography In Low Light

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Wildlife photography is a popular and rewarding genre, but it is also challenging. One of the common challenges is figuring out the most effective camera settings, particularly in low light conditions. Animals often don’t always like to be out in the open under bright natural light. They are frequently found in the shadows of trees, or perhaps, they’re most active at night.

For that reason, the photographer has to know the best camera settings for wildlife photography in low light conditions. So we’ve put together 11 essential camera settings for capturing stunning wildlife images.

1. Make a Plan

Planning and scheduling is one of the most important factors for your success. It’s particularly important as you think about how to best utilize the light you will have. Some of the best light for photographing wildlife occurs in early morning or late afternoon, and this is when many animals are active as well.

silhouette image of an elephant.
Making a plan will allow you to take advantage of the light you do have.

If you can anticipate the kind of light you’ll be dealing with as well as its position in the sky, you can think about where to position yourself so that you can take the best advantage of what light you do have.

2. Switch to Manual Mode

In low light conditions, your camera is going to struggle in the automatic mode with the exposure, so you’ll need to switch to manual mode. In the manual mode, you can adjust the settings until your camera’s histogram confirms a good exposure. This will be essential for getting sharply focused images.

using a tripod in the jungle.
Using a tripod can help in capturing steady images.

3. Use a Tripod

Using a tripod is essential for getting sharp images. With the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings you need in low light conditions, you’re going to need a tripod to avoid shaky or blurry images. You can get some great tripods, which are very steady, for under $100. 

Recommended Tripod: Platypod Ultra

4. Wide Open Aperture Settings

This is one of the most important camera settings for wildlife photography in low light conditions. Your best bet is to open up the aperture (use a smaller f number) to let in more light. But, that often means you have to slow down the shutter speed.

image of a snow leopard.
Open aperture is important to let in more light.

Therefore, you should consider the lens you are using too. Fast aperture lenses have a larger maximum aperture, but they achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed. That’s helpful when your subjects are most likely in motion much of the time. Here are a few examples of fast aperture lenses: 

You’ll notice these lenses aren’t exactly inexpensive, but they are well worth the money, particularly if you’re getting into wildlife photography professionally.

5. Shutter Speed Settings

The rule most photographers learn is that your shutter speed should be 1 over the focal length of your lens. So, if you’re using a 300mm zoom lens, your shutter speed should be 1/300th of a second to effectively eliminate camera shake. 

Shooting in burst mode and using a tripod.
A wide open aperture will necessitate a slower shutter speed, but using modern cameras, a tripod, and shooting in burst mode should result in clear images.

But for photographing wildlife in low light conditions, this won’t do. You’re simply going to have to break the rule. Using a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, particularly if your lens has vibration reduction, usually works just fine, but shooting in burst mode and using a tripod will help ensure that you get at least one image in sharp focus.

6. ISO Camera Settings

Your ISO in low light needs to be higher. The ISO represents how sensitive your camera is to light, and most photographers are loathe to move it above 400. But, for low light settings, you’re going to need more, perhaps as much as 3000 or even a little more. 

The problem with higher ISO settings is that you introduce more noise–that is, a more pixelated appearance–to the image, but you can remove noise in post production. And, most modern cameras have good ISO performance, meaning they can produce a good quality image even up to an ISO setting of 3,200.

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7. Shoot in Burst Mode

Another of the most important camera settings for wildlife photography is to put the camera to shoot in burst mode. Shooting in burst mode causes the camera to take a series of images very quickly. 

On most cameras, you’ll find this setting on the dial. It may be labeled as C for continuous shooting versus S for a single image. Some cameras have the option of CL, that is, continuous low, or CH for continuous high. The high mode captures more photos faster, but it might limit the autofocus capabilities or other features, so be sure you know what those limitations could mean for your image.

Using burst mode to capture action.
Shooting in burst mode can help capture action, as seen with this squirrel.

Shooting in burst mode increases the chance that you’ll get at least one image that is in sharp focus. This is essential not only because of the low light conditions, but also because your subject might move, and this will help you capture one sharply focused image even with fast motion. 

8. Avoid Underexposure

It can be tempting to think you can just fix underexposure in post production. But, the reality is that you’ll introduce much more noise that way. It’s better to avoid the underexposure in the first place by adjusting the other important settings.

exposure settings.
Avoid underexposing the image so that you preserve the clarity of your subject as seen with this sleeping fox.

9. Shoot in RAW

Shooting RAW in low light conditions means your camera will preserve more of the shadow detail as compared to the compressed jpg format. That gives you better control for manipulating the image in post production, and it often produces more dramatic images.


10. Lock the Focus

This is one of the more useful camera settings, particularly if you use the back button focus setting. Because you’ll be shooting with your aperture wide open in low light conditions, your depth of field will be very shallow. For that reason, you want to make sure you lock your focus.

Depth of field settings for wildlife photography

Normally, you do this by pressing down halfway on the shutter button, the image focuses, and then you take the picture. But there is another way as well. It’s called a back button focus. This was a feature introduced by Canon in 1989 that never really caught on, but it still is included in almost all brands of DSLR or mirrorless cameras today. 

You have to go into the settings menu to enable the back button focus, but once you do, there will be a separate button on the back of the camera (hence the name) that will allow you to focus the camera separately from using the shutter button. That leaves the shutter button to do one thing–take the picture.

11. White Balance Settings

You need to set your white balance to match your environment. There are settings for indoor shooting that include Tungsten for regular light bulbs and Fluorescent for fluorescent bulbs. There are also settings for outdoor photography. There’s Cloudy for the low light on overcast days, and then, there’s Shade for the low light created by shadowy areas, such as under trees or areas deep in the forest.

varying light conditions

Determine your white balance and adjust it according to the lighting conditions: White balance is an important camera setting for wildlife photography. It ensures that what looks white to your eye, such as the white on this tiger, also looks white in the image.

By using the correct white balance settings, you’ll remove unrealistic color casts so that objects that appear white to your eyes will also look white in the image. If you shoot in RAW, you can also remove the casts in post production, but if you’re shooting in the compressed jpg format, it will be difficult to do, and therefore, when shooting in jpg format, you must get your white balance correct.

These 11 camera settings for wildlife photography in low light conditions will help you capture crisp, clear images in stunning detail.

By planning your shoot to take advantage of the light you will have and using a tripod, you can help yourself get better images.

low light image of a lionesses.

You also have to understand the settings on your camera. You need to open up your aperture to let more light in and use as fast a shutter speed as you can to avoid camera shake, but as slow a shutter speed as you can to compensate for a more open aperture. That may mean using a fast aperture lens, a purchase that will be worth the money if you want to be a professional. 

You also need to use higher ISO settings, and shoot in burst mode to increase your chance of getting at least one good image. By doing this, you can avoid underexposed images, which are difficult to correct in post production. Shooting in RAW, locking your focus, and using the correct white balance settings can give you great images that are also amenable to post production processing. 

Wildlife photography is a thrilling, rewarding genre, but you must know the right camera settings to use to get the images you want. If you do, you will be rewarded with incredible images of your enchanting subjects.

Explore the 5 Best Cameras For Wildlife Photography

  1. The Art of Wildlife Photography
  2. Beginner’s Guide to Bird Photography
  3. Wildlife Photography: How To Get Close
  4. Wildlife Photography – How to Edit Your Photos in Lightroom
  5. Masterclass: Ultimate Field Guide to Wildlife Photography
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Catherine Gaither
Catherine Gaither is a professional bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.
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We know that most people will ignore this message. But if photographycourse.net is useful to you, please consider donating $2, $5, $10 or whatever you can to protect and sustain Photographycourse.net. 

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