In low light, it is important to get close. On another overcast day in Juneau, I sighted a young black bear cub up a tree taking a nap while mom grazed. I was able to pull over, turn off my car, get out and take a show with my Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200, 1/250, F2.8 and ISO 800. (Courtesy Photo / Heather Holt)

Focal Point: How to nail low-light photos

In Southeast Alaska, you have to learn to shoot when the skies are gray.

By Heather Holt

For the Juneau Empire

Southeast Alaska weather observations for the week — showers, rain showers then snow showers, then scattered showers, cloudy, mostly cloudy, partly cloudy — you get the gist. Living in Southeast, we live in a perpetual weather zone where “all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.”

Our attitude must then be “What do I envision for my photo? And how do I nail it in these ever-present low-light conditions?” Auto ISO is your answer and an opportunity to be creative is your story.

In low light, it is important to get close. On another overcast day in Juneau, I sighted a young black bear cub up a tree taking a nap while mom grazed. I was able to pull over, turn off my car, get out and take a show with my Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200, 1/250, F2.8 and ISO 800. (Courtesy Photo / Heather Holt)

In this low-light environment in which we live, it is imperative to understand your camera settings. I shoot in manual 100% of the time; however, that is not necessarily the only way to go. Shutter Priority (TV) is a good option for shooting wildlife especially in low-light situations. You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the aperture for you. With ISO on auto this allows you to shoot with a low shutter for a slow-moving or still subject like the black bear cub or choose higher for moving targets such as the birds. The drawback is that you can’t choose the aperture, but when shooting one subject, it works. If you select the Aperture Priority (AV) mode, then you can choose the aperture thus controlling your depth of field (what’s blurry front to back). The con here would be the camera controls the shutter speed, so you need to understand what you want your end product to look like. If your shutter speed is slow you may need to override your camera and bump it up. For me, I shoot full manual and AUTO ISO as I can choose the all the settings. I have found however, there are times when you cannot quickly change all three when you encounter fast-developing situations. Be aware and know your camera.

Get low and get the eyes! During our first snowfall of 2020, I stumbled on a young cub in the woods chewing on a bone. It was snowing, late afternoon and he was in the woods under a tree. Prior to getting out of the car I had set my ISO to AUTO due to the low light and my shutter speed to 500 with an aperture of 6.3 with my 150-600 lense; be ready! (Courtesy Photo / Heather Holt)

Shutter speed is key not only in slow-moving subjects, such as these inquisitive bear cubs, but if you are out whale watching and you have to contend with a rocking boat and complicated light. Dial your aperture to the lowest number; adjust your shutter speed to 1/1600th or higher to compensate for the movement of the boat and fire off some shots and see how that looks. This works the same when shooting from a floatplane. Even though the ISO is on auto be sure to glance at it time to time! You want to push it so you can have the best image quality, but if it is too high you can quickly dial it back. The beauty of Auto ISO is that you can gamble and get low noise images when you have the opportunity but when the action comes you can quickly dial in the proper shutter speed. The con is that it will choose the ISO for you; so check your camera and program it so it is limited to how high it can go so you aren’t disappointed when you get home and your pictures are very noisy. Consider investing in TOPAZ DeNoise!

Don’t let a cloudy, wintry day keep you from getting out. I found a porcupine Out The Road, amid the first snow storm of 2020. It was a gloomy day that turned out to be a highlight photo shoot with this young porcupine resting under a tree in the snow. Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 150-600, 1/400, F 7.1, ISO 1600. (Courtesy Photo / Heather Holt)

Here is your homework: With our limited lighting opportunities, head out to the wetlands or Eagle Beach, find a flock of birds and try something different like a motion blur. Motion blur is excellent for low light conditions, cloudy days, predawn or dusk shots and hazy days. Sometimes it’s fun just to experiment, and it keeps the noise down. Shoot the low shutter speed and focus on a series of shots with a focus on getting that one sharp shot of the eye. Start out with 1/13th, F 8, ISO 250, on a group of birds and see what happens. Then, try something different; move around firing off shots and be creative!

You may end up with blurry motion in your subject, but you might come up with something interesting. Then dial back to your comfort zone and fire off more shots. When shooting low light, you have to be thinking outside of the box and maybe pulling a bit from your creative side always keeping an eye on your ISO! Happy shooting!

To capture a photo of a whale breaching, I used high shutter speed for the movement of the boat as the weather picked up. I chose the ISO in this case after firing off several series to dial in the ISO I was looking for. I was only after a whale breaching — I knew what I wanted for my end product! Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 70-200 2.8, 1/2000, F7.1, ISO 640. (Courtesy Photo / Heather Holt)

• Heather (Burford) Holt is a fourth-generation Juneauite who offers local and flyout photo workshops designed to improve camera skills while capturing photos in the Alaska wilderness. She can be reached at, or visit her website at “Focal Point” is a column meant to provide inspiration, education and opportunity for all with an interest in photography. It appears monthly in the Juneau Empire.

More in News

The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Jan. 29

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Winfree gets a standing ovation from the Alaska State Legislature as he enters the House chamber Wednesday to deliver his final State of the Judiciary speech. Winfree is stepping down next Monday when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Chief justice bids lawmakers a fervent farewell

Daniel Winfree, in State of Judiciary days before retirement, warns about mixing politics and courts

Alpine meals are great, but it's tough to beat the satisfaction of a hot meal on the shore after fishing through a run for steelhead. (Jeff Lund / For the Juneau Empire)
I Went to the Woods: Either or, probably not both

It’s really difficult to double-major both in college and in life.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

This photo shows frozen salmonberries for use all winter. (Courtesy Photo / Vivian Faith Prescott)
Planet Alaska: Salmonberries in winter

Sometimes in the winter, I dream of salmonberries…

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
Young students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School dance on stage Wednesday afternoon during a dancing-of-the-robes ceremony for over a dozen Chilkat robes that were weaved by student weavers who participated in a more than two-year-long apprenticeship to learn the craft.
Chilkat robes come to life in ceremony

The pieces were created by dozens of student weavers over the past two year

This Sunday, June 30, 2019, aerial photo released by Earthjustice shows the Alaska's North Slope in the Western Arctic on the edge of Teshekpuk Lake, Alaska. The Biden administration issued a long-awaited study on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, that recommends allowing a major oil development on Alaska's North Slope, and the move — while not final — drew immediate anger from environmentalists who saw it as a betrayal of the president's pledges to reduce carbon emissions and promote clean energy sources. (Kiliii Yuyan for Earthjustice via AP)
Biden administration takes step toward OK’ing Willow Project

Final decision expected no sooner than early March.

Bus drivers picket outside the bus barn in Wasilla, Alaska on Jan. 26, 2023. Bus drivers in Alaska’s second-largest school district have gone on strike after delivering students to classes on Tuesday,  Jan. 31, citing unfair labor practices. (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News)
Mat-Su school bus drivers strike

ANCHORAGE — Bus drivers in Alaska’s second-largest school district went on strike… Continue reading

The Juneau School District’s recently announced its new directors of teaching and learning support and student services who are set to start in their positions in July. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
District selects new directors for teaching and learning support and student services

The new directors will take over their roles in the district in July.

Most Read