Photography: Working Low Light

Hunting photography tips for low-light conditions

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Photo © Drew Leary

by Bill Konway

With the advent of quality, yet affordable digital SLR cameras on the market, being able to capture images like a professional becomes a simpler task than one may think. Through this series I will try to offer some advice and specific techniques that may garner you more "Oohs and ahhs" with your hunting photographs than you might have had from past attempts.

One of the first things to know is that there are very few concrete rules in photography. Mistakes made with a digital camera are a click or two of the reformat button away from being forgotten. In the old days the saying was "Film is cheap, just shoot." Now however, inconveniencing a few electrons with your digital camera is free. The new rule should be, "Shoot, and then shoot more."

You can never take enough pictures.

One of the most aggravating problems many photographers encounter is trying to get images that aren't motion blurred in low light conditions such as sunrise and sunset. There are a few ways to overcome this, and a couple of strategies to use low light to your advantage. The quickest and sometimes easiest way to take better photos in low light is simply to increase the ISO setting on your camera. By increasing the ISO from 200 to 400 you can gain a full stop of speed, allowing you to shoot at 1/125th of a second rather than 1/60th.

In the same situation, increasing the ISO even further to say 800 will gain you a shutter speed of 1/250th. Don't be afraid to increase that ISO even higher if needed. Considering that most pictures will either be viewed on a computer or as relatively small prints, grain, or in the case of digital, noise, is of no real concern.

The most expensive way, but by far the best solution to gain picture quality in low light is to shell out dollars on a fast lens. A lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8 will allow you to shoot pictures in low light conditions you never dreamed of. Years ago film cameras usually came equipped with a 50mm lens that was usually a f1.8 lens, (Read, SUPER FAST). They were never too well received in the pro ranks by most, but man could they shoot incredible pictures in low light.

There are a lot of both new and used 50mm lenses out there that you can grab up for your cameras for probably under $100. You may not have the coolest looking, most high tech gear in the blind, but you'll likely out shoot your buddies who will still be waiting on the sunrise before they can shoot with their fancy zoom lenses.

Another approach to shoot in low light is to simply pan your camera with the subject, most likely ducks or geese as they pass by your blind. Just like shooting your shotgun, panning the camera with the birds will typically yield some improved images. The wings may still show motion blur, but for the most part, it will add to the picture. The background of course will be completely blurred but the colors will in most cases blend together, giving you an unusual background that will add even more appeal to the photo.

Another option is to allow the birds to blur and keep the background crisp. This works great right before sunrise or after sunset when the sky begins to take on some unique, warm colors. Resting the camera on the edge of the blind or holding the camera securely with two hands and your elbows braced against your chest will offer a stable enough platform to make this work.

One final thought is to not forget about shooting silhouettes. Let the camera meter for the sky which is usually the brightest portion of any picture and let the birds, cattails, hunting buddies, whatever the subject might be, go to a black silhouette. Now obviously, none of these techniques will work perfectly on their own every single time, but with practice the desired results will eventually present themselves.

By combining any or all of these strategies on a given hunt you should be able make your photos the ones that everyone desires to see.

Good luck and remember it's impossible to shoot too many photos.