I found out far too late in the game that the first step in taking decent pictures of wildlife was to simply know my way around my own camera. What this or that button does, what happens if I turn this dial, and – often importantly – how to press these buttons and change settings while I am staring through the viewfinder at the action. Knowing your own camera’s ins and outs is crucial. I recently went back and looked at some of my photos from when I first came to the bush and cringed; overexposed, underexposed, glowing orange with the wrong white balance and a catalogue of other photographic faux pas and disasters that could easily have been averted had I known one or two simple tricks. Back then I would have a photo of a lion and think it was great just because it was a photo of a lion.
By simply tweaking one or two settings, pictures can be greatly enhanced and with that in mind I’m here to tell you about underexposure.
Ask any photographer to tell you in one word exactly what photography is all about – whether wildlife, studio or any other kind – and he or she will tell you that its about Light. You have a set amount of light to work with in any given situation, and aside from increasing this amount with a spotlight or flash, what you have to work with will determine the ISO, aperture and shutter speeds of your camera. By shooting on Auto mode, you let your camera decide on all these settings for you. Upgrading to Shutter Speed or Aperture priority modes (a lot of rangers at Londolozi shoot on Aperture Priority) gives you a bit more control and by shooting on full Manual you control all of the settings.
The combination of ISO, shutter speed and f-stop (aperture) will determine your exposure level ie. how much light is entering your camera.
I don’t want to go into too much detail in this post (mainly because big words and technical terms make me nervous) but I’m going to try help you enhance your photos of big dark animals, namely elephants, rhinos, buffalo and wildebeest, by altering the exposure level on your camera.
It’s very simple.
Basically, your human brain is smarter than the computer in your camera. Well, I hope so. So you are better able to read the situation in front of you than the little processed microchip that is reading the amount of light coming through the lens. Depending on what your camera is metering off (metering is a term that refers to the camera reading the amount of light), it will make a decision as to how wide it must open the apertures in the lens and how fast to make the shutter speed.
Now, big dark animals are…well…dark. As I’m sure you can imagine, pointing your camera at an elephant will give the camera a very different idea as to light conditions than, say, pointing it at a polar bear. Even if the ambient light is exactly the same in both situations (and no, we don’t have polar bears at Londolozi), the camera will think the elephant scene (big and grey) is too dark and try and lighten it, whereas it will think the polar bear scene (bright and white) is too light and try and darken it.
Are you still with me?
Have a look at the photo below; this was a photograph that I initially took, with the exposure settings on zero. As you can see, the sky is washed out and everything about the photo looks a little bit too light.
By lowering my exposure by one full stop (I’ll explain how to do this now), ie underexposing, in the next photo, I was able to reproduce a more realistic representation of the scene:
Can you see how the second photograph is darker?
What is happening is that your camera is reading the amount of light coming off this big dark thing (the elephant) and thinking that it needs to lighten the scene. Either by leaving the shutter open for a little longer, or widening the aperture, or both, the camera lets in more light (too much), and while the elephant gets lightened to a nice level, everything else in the photo can be overexposed (too bright).
The way to solve this is to look for a little button with a +/- on it. It looks something like this:
This is your exposure compensation button. Exposure is measured in thirds, with three thirds (and this is as good as my arithmetic gets) equaling one full stop, as seen on the exposure indicator below:
What you want to do when photographing elephants or other big dark animals, is to tell your camera that you want it to make the picture darker. This is called underexposing. The amount you want to do this by can vary, especially as some of the big animals can wallow in mud or roll in dust, changing their darkness. I will often underexpose by one full stop for really dark creatures like a buffalo or a rhino that has rolled in black mud, but only maybe a third or two thirds for an elephant that has been rolling in dust.
By deliberately underexposing, you are overruling the camera’s idea of what the scene should look like, and hopefully taking a more realistic photograph.
A lot of cameras will require you to hold down the +/- button while turning a dial of some kind in order to change the exposure, while some simply require a turn of a dial and nothing more. Exactly how your camera does it will vary between Nikon, Canon, Sony and the rest, but your ranger should be able to help you with no difficulty.
Take a look at some more pictures below to see the different results that can be achieved by underexposing:
One important thing to remember is to change your camera settings back. Too often I have been photographing buffalo, put the camera down and then half an hour later picked it up to photograph something else with the settings unchanged. Thankfully in this digital age this is not the end of the world, as post processing can fix many mistakes in your original photo.
However, for new photographers who don’t post-process, simple tricks like the underexposure in this weeks post are important to know in order to capture that great photo first time around.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell