The "bad" Light
Until a few years ago unless there was sufficient and evenly available light, wildlife photographers had a huge struggle to capture special and spectacular images. Film ISO sensitivity dictated the limits to shutter speed and there was only so much one could take with regard to the trade-off beteween grain and detail. Digital photography has redefined "good" and "bad" light, i. e. the conditions of available light in which expressive images can be captured in a phenomenal way.
Sure, up to about the year 2007 most digital cameras would not produce great results when ISO settings above 800 had to be selected. This was especially true for sensor types with patchy dynamic range and colour depth capabilities. But image sensor technology kept evolving and has now arrived at a point where in every camera class digitally captured images in low light simply blow away anything that could have ever be done on film. Yes, even medium format: With PhaseOne, Hasselblad and others launching new digital backs based on a 50MP CMOS sensor produced by Sony. In short, todays digital cameras are capable of capturing phenomenal images in light conditions where just a few years ago not even a poor photo could have been taken.
This transition clearly has had a significant effect on my own photographic work. Of course I always enjoy the warm golden hour light, and greeting a sunrise in the field or enjoying a spectacular sunset surrounded by wildlife is as amazing an experience as ever. Personally though, in many situations I prefer blue hour light or even an overcast, rainy day to golden hour light.
A similar development can be observed for harsh lighting / contrast conditions typcally encountered in midday sun. With the use of modern camera systems I find it has become much easier to be creative and I will sometimes go after subjects that allow for monochrome or high-key filter processing to create a special effect.
Some examples of blue-hour light images:
After spending time with a different jaguar about 400m further up a lagoon along Rio Tres Irmãos in the Brazilian Pantanal we were heading back to our lodge. The sun had set behind the horizon and there was very little light below the shoreline trees when suddenly we came across a young, female jaguar hunting in the area. From the moment I could lift my camera to the moment I captured this scene no more than 4 seconds had passed. Just to confirm again how important it is to be ready before the shot. (ISO was set to 3'200, aperture to f/4).
Another example from the same area, this time a female jaguar patrolling along her territory:
A stunning example from Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. Just as with the images above this light creates a much larger contrast in colour temperature than golden hour light: The further away an object is in the background, the cooler its colour tone turns out.
Equally spectacular are the images below that were taken on overcast, rainy days. The first capture is from the Atlantic Rainforest, south of São Paulo, Brazil.
The second capture shows the main falls at Iguaçu on a stormy day with heavy downpours and relatively high waterlevels carried by Rio Iguaçu. I processed this image in black and white to support the dramatic scene.
High-key images taken during midday sun can turn out equally spectacular, descriptive and with a very particular style. Again, only a couple of years ago it would have been considered pointless by most photographers to even lift a camera at a scene like the one below, captured at Savuti (Chobe National Park, Botswana).
A similar impression also with a high-key filter applied I have managed to photograph at the Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana:
These are just some examples of images captured in more challenging available light conditions. I hope to be able to move parts of my photographic work to a medium format camera system sometime soon. With the considerably improved dynamic range of these cameras and digital backs I expect to produce even more striking images in low and very high-key light.
Of course light is only one component in photography. Next to composition, focus, depth of field and contrast there is one phenomenon that fascinates me most. It is wildlife interaction with the camera. If ethically achieved without disturbing an animal this is the most fascinating dimension of wildlife photography for me. So the next will be titled "Taking it Personally". It will describe the status of observation, behaviour, interaction and artistic interpretation thereof.