Coping with low light


Some of the most enthralling wildlife action occurs in early evening, when the light can be very tricky. As Lou Coetzer explains, it takes quick decision-making to predict where the picture might lie and to set your camera up to capture it successfully.

HR_Chobe-26-30-May_2013_05605THE STORY
Shortly before sunset at the end of May, we spotted two adult lionesses lying in deep shade fifty metres from the banks of the Chobe River. I slowly positioned my photography boat so that a glorious sun was behind me. A herd of elephant coming down to drink picked up the smell of the cats. The anxious elephant cows immediately ushered their calves to safety – but not so this cheeky young bull elephant. He rushed over to the lionesses, trumpeted and tried to intimidate them. One of the cats took exception to this show of bravado and charged.

There was very little available light and the scene was dominated by deep shadows. Shooting at a high enough shutter speed was always going to be difficult. Predominant shadows in the background will lead to a dramatic drop in shutter speed as the camera – which is programmed to render around 18 per cent grey exposure – tries to bring detail into the blacks. As the lioness was charging diagonally across the frame I knew that rendering both the elephant and lioness sharp in terms of depth of field was going to be a major challenge.

Exposure:  To counter the dramatic drop in shutter speed as the camera tried to render the blacks – and in the process risk blowing the highlights of the image – I pushed the EV to -2.3. This increased the shutter speed dramatically and protected the highlights.
Shutter speed:  I realised that the pictorial value of the scene would be very high because of the animals’ unusual behaviour. I decided to not push the ISO up too high, which would risk creating excessive noise levels. Going up to ISO 1600 from my base ISO 800 added some more shutter speed on top of what was already achieved by under-exposing the image to EV -2.3.
Depth of field:  Before this scene changed I was shooting a 400mm f2.8 lens with a 2x converter, rendering 800mm f5.6. I decided to replace the 2x converter with a 1.4x in case the action came my way and my lens proved too long to capture the scene effectively, and also because there was very little sunlight left to work with. As the lioness reached the elephant she was still behind him, obscured and in deep shadow. I moved the focusing sensor from the centre of the scene to the head of the elephant, which was now to the right of the frame. This guaranteed greater depth of field as there is always more sharpness behind the point of focus than in front of it. I then held back pressing the shutter release button until the female became visible after she slowed down, and fired away, nailing just three images with both the elephant and lioness in the frame.

All of this spilt-second decision making resulted in a record of really interesting behaviour with beautiful light on the lioness as the point of focus. Both of the animals are sharp, with sufficient depth of field and a high enough shutter speed.

Learn more about Lou Coetzer and the photographic safaris he runs, at

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