What is the best time to take wildlife photos? Most wildlife photographers are under the impression that we can only take technically correct photos during the golden hours just after sunrise and just before sunset. During these times, golden rays of sun trickle through grass and trees resulting in perfect lighting that complements everything it touches. 

There will always be a certain appeal to these times – but that should not limit us as photographers in what we decide to photograph. We can practise quality photography throughout the day, whatever the lighting conditions, without limiting ourselves to those one or two hours.

The three types of techniques that I find most suitable in less than ideal lighting conditions are motion-blur images, high-key images and star photography. For these techniques, understanding the basics of photography – aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, ISO – is essential. This will make you realise that you can play with light, using the camera as a tool to capture light in a controlled way whatever the lighting conditions. In contrast to realistic photography, for these techniques, a busy (cluttered) background and digital noise (grain) can work in your favour to paint, as it were, a canvas that captures the imagination of the viewer.

Motion-blur images

Any motion-blur image has two aspects – its technical correctness and its artistic quality. These two are not mutually exclusive but integrated. Not every motion-blur image requires panning, where your camera tracks the speed of the subject. However, panning is the ideal approach to motion-blur images. Blurring derives from the moving parts of the subject that move at a higher speed than your shutter. Blurring without panning is when you have a stationary focus on a subject with moving parts, like the wings of a hovering kingfisher.


High-key images

For the artistic eye, these images appear to be the most pleasing, but this technique’s washed effect may not appeal to everyone. When unfavourable lighting conditions yield very high contrast, this is a very handy technique to apply and can yield beautiful canvas prints.

In a high-key image, unlike an overexposed image, the lighting on the subject is still acceptable.

I apply these techniques because it gives me the joy to create an artistic image even though my success rate may be low. To create art when conditions are less than optimal gives me the freedom to use any hour of the day. Having said this, we will of course always still seek out the golden hours of the day where these techniques can indeed both be applied with great effect.

There are many surprises out there when you use these techniques and you do not have to be in the Kgalagadi with its sublime light to do so, but you can apply them wherever you happen to be.

So, next time you spot a few thirsty Zebras by an open watering hole just as the best light has gone, still take the photo! Afterward, you will be able to easily overexpose the surroundings in Photoshop. This is because, with high-key photography, you are focusing the attention on the subject rather than its environment, which brings out more detail. The more you do this, the better you will become at finding the best camera settings to take these photos.


Star trail photography

Star trail photography is something that many people admire, but few commit to (especially in the wintertime). When shooting the starry night skies, it is essential to set your camera up on a stable platform. Play around with the settings while keeping in mind what you want your results to look like. Basic settings to start with can be using a slow(ish) shutter speed with your widest aperture, for example, f/2.8 at an ISO of around 3,200.

To blend star trails with light painting, position your camera with the object in the correct position so that the stars are still visible and then (quite literally) paint the subject with light using a flashlight or spotlight.


In my gear bag

In my bag, you will find two camera bodies, namely the 5D Mark III and 1D Mark IV. I have three lenses that I use in collaboration with these camera bodies: The highly versatile 70-200mm f/2.8 is my go-to for wildlife, but for wider shots needed for star trails, I use the wide-angle 24-105mm f/4. Depending on the distance from the subject of course, I also alternate this with a 500mm f/4 L IS USM.

It is important to use the camera’s benefits to your advantage, so if you have a higher ISO or lightning shutter speed – make it work for you!

Motion blur image of running wild dog
Black and White motion blur image of running warthog