Low Light Fanatics

I must say that first, I can't take the credit for the inspiration of this blog entry, but I can tell you this is something I have thought about many times and even mentioned in a podcast episode not too long ago.
While reading Scott Bourne's book "72 Essays on Photography", he brought home a point which I think bears repeating. His point in one of his essays entitled "Photographic Religions: The Religion of Low Light", is that low light doesn't mean good light. From my perspective, we as photographers are always looking for good light.  A camera capable of handling higher ISOs with less noise and better image quality is at best a double edged sword in my estimation.  Let's look at what it means to take a photograph in low light.
Taking a camera in flat, low light is pretty much going to give your wildlife images a fairly boring look.  I say this, because blue light is bad light for birds feathers, and animal's fur and hair.  As soon as the sun crests the horizon, now we have some light we can work with.  For this light, we really don't need more than 800 ISO.  Just about any camera, even my old 1D Mark II, can handle this light.  So what's all the buzz about low light?
Scenario #1 - Birds on the Beach, First Light
OK, so the sun just over the horizon, and I am shooting with the sun at my back, illuminating the bird.  In this scenario, I can shoot at 200-400 ISO with a 5.6 aperture and still be at 1/1000th of a second.  This is plenty of light quantity and light quality to make the shot without using ISO 4 billion. No need to shoot at 6400 ISO here.

Scenario #2 - Elk in Shadow, Early Morning
First, I want you to think about this scenario deeply before reading anymore.  So what was your conclusion?  Well, first we have blue light and probably not even enough light to bring out details in the coat of the elk.  So what are you doing shooting the scene?  Now for some of you, it could just be a documentary shot and for you, OK, I get your point at wanting more ISO, but if you want to make great images, I don't think you should make the shot here unless the light levels and quality of light are favorable for good lighting.  This of course is a judgement call and not all shots are created equal. In my mind, you don't need more gain on your sensor, you need better and stronger light.
I am not saying you categorically should never take the shot, but I guarantee you, that it will not make your favorite shots of the year.  I often take these types of documentary shots, but they are never my favorite.  Note that I had to play around with the shot below quite a bit in LightRoom just to get this good on the lighting.  Having a higher ISO would just increase the gain of my sensor, not the quality of light.

Scenario #3 - Mourning Dove on Bright, overcast Days
Now we are talking about something totally different.  The sky has become this massive soft box full of soft, beautiful light.  This lighting is something I personally look for in mammal and bird photography.  Bear in mind that it is much different from beautiful, directional morning and evening light, but it is great light none the less.  Again, I really don't need a big boost in ISO.  I can shoot at ISO 400-1600 all day long without any really issues.  Honestly, I can shoot lower ISO than that if I am working with stationary subjects or panning.

So, in conclusion, in wildlife photography and other types of photography, low light performance might not be much of an issue for you after all.  Yes, I have been places where I am using fill flash and need a higher ISO for the ambient portion of the exposure, but this is an exception.  And, yes, some genres such as concert photography, astro-photography, and to a lesser degree landscape photography can benefit from better ISO performance, but for the most part, we want good quantity of light and good quality of light for great wildlife photography. 
 Just look at some of the greats like Moose Peterson and Scott Bourne. These guys have been shooting at ISOs around 100-200 for many many years and regularly produce good images. Note that I am not saying you should never buy a camera will great ISO performance, but what I am saying is don't think higher ISO performance is going to make you a great photographer. Great lighting and composition will make you a great photographer.


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