With advances in technology, nature photographers are now able to easily take great images no matter the weather or time of day. By Lou Coetzer
nusual weather patterns and events are becoming more frequent and unexpected, which makes it harder to predict what conditions you may experience on safari. I once took a client to the Chobe River at the end of July expecting guaranteed sunshine all day every day. It rained or was so deeply overcast and cold all week that we ended up photographing malachite kingfishers with flash day in and day out. So how can you ensure you take excellent photographs no matter the conditions?
In the past, nature photographers working with film were very restricted in extreme weather. For landscapes we would use tripods and shoot at very slow shutter speeds. Occasionally we succeeded in portraying artistic motion with blurred images or we could use flash if we could get close enough to active wildlife subjects. But mostly we were confined to working only under ideal light conditions.
With film we simply did not have enough shutter speeds to work with. I was shooting with Fuji Velvia 50 ISO film pushed to ISO 100. At sunrise on a perfect winter’s morning in Etosha, using a 600mm F4.0 lens with a 1.4x converter, the highest shutter speed my state-of-the-art gear offered was just 1/640 secs.
The only real advantage of the first digital cameras was that we weren’t limited to just the 36 exposures of film. We still had to shoot at low ISOs because the digital sensors then generated very noisy (the digital equivalent of film grain) images at higher ISOs of 200 and above. To avoid excessive noise, we were taught to expose our photographs with the histogram to the right, risking the over-exposure of highlights in images with EV+ values and robbing us of even more shutter speed.
There has been a massive advance in the sensor capabilities in today’s digital cameras. A base ISO of 800 produces far better image quality that we could have achieved with 50 ISO film (and virtually noise-free) and gives us eight times more shutter speeds to work with.
The dramatic improvement in the sensors’ dynamic range allows the opportunity to shoot at EV- values (under expose) to prevent whites from blowing out, while still retaining the details in the blacks back in post-process editing. Moving from EV+ to EV- generates a further four-to-eight times more shutter speeds.
In recent years, full-frame cameras with much higher pixel counts—60 million and counting—have emerged, without sacrificing the previous advancements of higher ISO, noise-free images with a great dynamic range. Managing depth of field has become much easier.
Nature photographers have never had it better. Today’s digital sensors enable us to use extreme shutter speeds in any situation. The question is not if we can or should shoot at slow shutter speeds (which we obviously can), but rather what can we achieve with the dramatic increase in speeds now available to us? Understanding the capabilities of our cameras, and setting them up with a simple recipe in mind, we are now able to deal with virtually any weather conditions.
Lou Coetzer is a pioneering wildlife photographic guide, whose custom-designed boats and vehicles and forward-thinking tutorial have transformed guided photographic safaris. He offers a Mentorship Support Programme to help photographers develop their craft from their own home. Details at http://www.loucoetzer.co.za/mentorship/
Lou will also be running a series of webinars starting from 23 April 2020. For details and to sign up to attend, visit https://www.cnpsafaris.com/mailer-sign-up/
All images copyright: Lou Coetzer.