Dusk to dawn: Wildlife photography after hours
There’s a magical world after dark few of us get to see, let alone photograph. Familiar beasts reveal a different side to their nature, predators go on the prowl and a host of strange and less familiar nocturnal creatures emerge from their daytime hiding places.
Without the distraction of background clutter, with shapes seemingly enhanced and features magnified in the velvet blackness of the ‘night-studio’ it’s possible to ramp up the intensity of your wildlife shots and make memorable captures.
The catch in all this wealth of untapped potential is that photographing between sunset and sunrise isn’t easy. To reap the rewards of low-light and no-light shooting you’ll face some unique challenges and no mean share of frustration. You’ll need dedication, a fair bit of field knowledge and the drive to succeed by trial and error - in short, all the qualities of a good wildlife photographer.
You’ll also need a night-time skill set and a certain level of technical expertise to get it all right, but here’s where our own experience photographing after dark can help get you started and inspired.
Night-hunting for Subjects
You don’t necessarily have to fly to exotic locations to photograph wildlife at night: your own backyard probably has plenty of scope, from little critters like spiders, scorpions, lizards and moths, to bigger stuff like mammals. The great thing about garden animals is they’re often more relaxed, living in closer proximity to people, so it’s not a bad place to start your hunt for good subjects.
For the same reason we’re always on the look-out for habituated nocturnal species living in and around camps when we’re on game reserves on safari in Africa, creatures such as genets, bushbabies, scrub hares, and owls.
Pay heed to the potential risks when you’re out and about after sunset, snakes, for example, are often more active at night, so be alert. It’s also very fiddly operating at night so it helps if you can locate subjects’ favourite spots in daylight hours first, or spend evenings getting to know their habits, before you start introducing a camera into things.
Buddy-up with a photographer friend where possible so you can take turns helping each other with gear and lighting. And when you switch to searching further afield for subjects bear in mind it’s going to be tough driving on rough roads at night while operating a spotlight, so co-opting a willing assistant is still a smart way to go.
If possible, concentrate your night-watching around honeypot sites such as waterholes, just as you would when photographing by day. It’s worth researching places where there may already be some lighting for floodlit ‘after hours’ wildlife-watching, which you can piggy-back off to keep things simple. For example, in southern Africa, where we do the bulk of our photography, custom-built low-level hides for photography are springing up on private reserves.
A couple of these we use on our safaris have been fitted with constant LED lighting so it’s possible to capture stunning wide-angle images of iconic big game at very close range after dark without the need for flash. But even some national parks have floodlit waterholes next to camps, attracting large numbers of animals in the dry season. Subjects won’t be close enough for you to shoot with wide angle lenses, but with sufficient ISO and a tripod you can still get strong captures when your subject’s 50 metres away under floodlights.
Working in the Edges of the Night
Before you go plunging yourself and a friend into total darkness don’t forget that some of the most exciting dawn to dusk photography is available to you just after the sun goes down, before darkness truly falls; when there’s still the faint glow of sunset in the sky. That’s followed by the ‘blue hour’, when the sun has gone further over the horizon - also rich in possibilities.
Too many photographers pack up when the sun disappears, missing the chance for some strong images with a different, almost eerie, feel to them. This is also when many wildlife subjects and crepuscular creatures are at their most active.
You need to work fast to harness all this potential, as light levels drop rapidly at this hour and the colour and mood of the sky changes minute by minute. Get into the habit of searching out usable late sunset and blue hour subjects well before the sun goes down. When we’re photographing on the Chobe river, in Botswana, famous for its sunsets, we spend time in the late afternoon ‘bookmarking’ animals that are feeding or drinking by the banks, that we can return to for the last light.
You might be able to get away with lower ISOs when shooting silhouettes of animals at sunset, especially as you’ll be underexposing to enrich the colour, but frontlit shots captured in the beautiful after-sunset glow, when illumination on subjects is much lower, require much higher ISOs, so be prepared to push things a bit.
For silhouettes we meter the sky, then underexpose by anything from one to three stops, so the colours pop and the subject is rendered truly black.
If you want more detail in your subject at this time of day a burst of flash or a spotlight used to light the animal in the foreground produces an effective nocturnal-looking shot of subjects. We’ve often used this technique to good effect when shooting owls at dusk. For flash-lit creatures against a glowing sky we meter for the sky, leaving the camera and flash to work out the lighting on the foreground subject, but then we dial in some negative flash exposure compensation to avoid an over-bright subject.
The key is to experiment. Try underexposing incrementally to create the desired amount of impact you want in your pictures. The golden rule here is to keep photographing until the very last dregs of the light have gone. Bear in mind you can also go out with your camera and photograph subjects just before sun-rise in the false dawn to repeat this whole exercise.
Photographing in the Dark
Once darkness falls you’re going to have to depend on artificial light to illuminate your subjects. What you opt to use may be determined by what’s available.
Some form of constant light source is easiest: this could be floodlighting on a waterhole, the LED panels at the specialist hides we often use, or your own portable LED panels, great for small stuff in your garden. Constant light allows you to compose, focus, and work out exposure with relative ease, and is also often more flattering to your subject than a hard flash. You can work on your own too, and once you’ve figured out exposure settings, it’s easy to reproduce results fairly consistently.
If constant light’s not available the options are using flash or spotlighting. Flash is relatively easy to use these days. Sophisticated through-the-lens metering takes away much of the decision making: just be prepared to adjust flash exposure compensation for a more appealing, naturalistic effect. Built-in camera flashes are unlikely to be suitable for anything but record shots of small creatures close to the camera. If you’re serious about photographing after hours you’ll need proper flash guns for most subjects.
The problem with flash, animal welfare aside, is that it’s the least flattering type of artificial light, being hard and unforgiving. Use on-camera flash and your images will almost certainly suffer from eye-shine (not necessarily red: different animals exhibit different colours of ‘red-eye’).
The solution is to move your flash off the camera, even better using two flashes off-camera, fired wirelessly. This works really well where you’ve the luxury of creating a ‘set’ –for example when photographing animals at their dens or burrows.
But if you’re on the move, on foot, or in a vehicle, it’s tricky – so like we said you may need to call a friend to hold an off-camera flash. They can also assist shining a torch on your subject briefly to help focussing, which can be tricky. It’s virtually impossible to manually focus on a dimly lit subject through the viewfinder. Some photographers use Live View to aid manually focussing. We tend to use autofocus and a torch.
Spotlighting produces a softer light than flash, and allows for easier focusing, as you can train the light on an animal for a few seconds at a time, but you still need help handling the light. If you can get a willing assistant some of the best, and most moody results come when one or two spots are used to sidelight or rim-light an animal. This also avoids the harsh, flat effect of frontlighting. When we spotlight lions after dark on safari, for example, we’ll often work with two vehicles, taking it in turns to backlight or sidelight the animals.
Fast lenses, typically with maximum apertures of f/2.8, help when shooting at night, they focus better in low light, and enable you to shoot at high shutter speeds. The downside of fast lenses is that they’re big and heavy. We enjoy the portability and flexibility of zoom lenses, which allow us to reframe quickly when an animal changes position.
Our two most used lenses at night are relatively slow, a 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 and a 24-105mm f/4. With built-in image stabilising we can handhold either lens down to 1/40th second, even slower if we can lean on a bean bag or use a tripod. Tripods are highly recommended where practical, and we use them when working from hides, but in vehicles it has to be beanbags.
We usually shoot wide open, to maximise shutter speed and minimise camera shake or subject movement blur, but we’ll stop down to perhaps f/8 or more, if there’s sufficient light, or we’re using flash.
Let’s Talk Technical
Don’t be put off, shooting at night isn’t scarily technical and modern cameras have made life a whole lot easier. There’s no single recipe for success, but it’s worth bearing a few factors in mind.
Around dusk and dawn and in the blue hour it’s possible to shoot with ambient light, and to get ‘natural’ looking shots. But once its properly dark, the challenge is supplying artificial light that still looks appealing and gives good exposures. It’s pointless trying to replicate daylight: the whole point is to show animals at night. They are not going to look natural, but that doesn’t mean the light has to be harsh or unflattering.
Our number one piece of advice is to shoot in RAW. As in daylight, the aim is to get the image right in camera, rather than rely on post-processing, but in reality this is a lot harder at night. Raw images will give you a lot more latitude to correct exposure and white balance in post-processing.
Artificial light sources such as flash, LED or spotlight can have significantly different colour temperatures. Shooting in RAW means you don’t have to worry about white balance. We use auto white balance and then tweak in Lightroom: sometimes a little warming can improve the feel of an image, but don’t overdo it.
Secondly, don’t be afraid of high ISOs. If your camera is fairly new, chances are it can function much better at high ISO than you think. We try to keep noise down by shooting at as low an ISO as possible, but we’d rather have a noisy sharp image than a clean blurry one.
So while ISO 1600 might be our preferred upper optimum, we’ll bump this up to 3,200 or even 6,400 when necessary. Noise reduction software is pretty good these days, so play with your camera to see what the maximum ISO is that you’re comfortable with, then make the most of it.
If you’re shooting with flash, you can often get away with a much lower ISO, especially if your flash is powerful and the subject fairly close. But remember, you don’t want to blind the animal, so if your camera produces clean images at ISO1600, use that, even if ISO400 would work. That way your flash will need to pump out less light.
We invariably shoot in manual mode at night, setting ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Your camera’s meter is very unlikely to give you a good exposure, typically it will be fooled by all the blackness in the frame and overexpose your subject by at least two stops.
Experience has given us a good idea of the starting points to try in different situations: for example, when spotlighting lions we will start at ISO1600 f/4, 1/125th second, or in a Zimanga night hide with LED panels we’ll start at ISO1600 f/4, 1/40th second.
It all depends on the amount of light hitting the subject, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We’ll take a shot, then review it on the rear screen, adjust settings to increase or decrease exposure, and shoot again. Once we’ve found the right settings we can get on and photograph, unless the animal moves nearer or further away, when we’ll have to readjust.
With shy wildlife, you don’t always have a lot of time to take many shots, so it pays to find your exposure starting point before the animal appears, by photographing an inanimate object such as a tree trunk at the range you anticipate photographing the wildlife.
Familiarity with your camera, so that quickly changing settings in the dark is second nature, helps. Using the rear screen to adjust settings can also help. We shoot in one shot, rather than burst, partly because the noise of a burst can spook a shy subject (not a problem with mirrorless cameras), but mainly because we’re regularly rechecking exposure, and we’re invariably shooting static subjects.
A common mistake people make when shooting at night is to over-expose their subject. It’s easy to blow-out highlights on shiny horns, antlers, wet noses, etc. We prefer to err on the side of a little underexposure, then bring back the image in Lightroom. If we’re shooting with flash we always dial in some negative exposure compensation, as Canon flashes seem overbright to our eyes. But try not to underexpose too much, or you’ll introduce a lot more noise when you correct in post-processing.
In most situations at night it’s not practical to shoot animal action, light levels are simply too low, unless you are using flash. Even with flash, focusing on a moving animal is very difficult.
Post-Processing Night Shots
We’ve touched on the importance of post processing to bring out the best of nocturnal shots. We probably apply heavier post manipulation to our nocturnal photography than most of our diurnal images. But we never go overboard with manipulation. Night shots are artificial to start with, we don’t want them to lose any semblance of reality.
We’re mainly looking to correct overall exposure - applying selective exposure adjustments to balance the image, for example by reducing excessive highlights - and reducing noise. We try to avoid too much ‘painting in’ of backgrounds as can look too obvious or heavy-handed. An entirely black background can look unnatural, the hint of some shrubbery or other animals gives context.
Keeping it Ethical
Using flash on nocturnal animals is a controversial subject, with some photographers believing it should be avoided at all times. The first rule of wildlife photography should always be to put your subject’s welfare first, and it’s certainly very important to avoid stressing animals, or doing anything that makes them vulnerable to predators or prevents them hunting.
Nocturnal animals can suffer a momentary loss of vision if there’s a sudden flash of light (whether artificial flash, or natural lightning), but no lasting damage. Nonetheless, it’s important to moderate your use of flash. Increasing ISO will allow your flash to fire on lower power.
We don’t use flash often, and when we do we rarely shoot more than two or three frames of an animal, then we leave it alone. If we’re worried that the animals will feel unduly stressed, or we’ll adversely affect its behaviour, we don’t shoot.
Spotlights and torches emit less intense light than flashes but should still be used judiciously. When we’re on safari, we won’t spotlight antelope or other prey species, as any risk of temporary blindness could make them very vulnerable to predators.
We’ll spotlight predators such as lions and leopards when they’re static: first thing after sunset is often a good time, as they wake up from their day’s slumber to groom, yawn, or play with each other. Once they get up and move to start hunting, we stop.
Be aware of local rules, as some nature reserves ban the use of flash or spotlighting at night. Local advice can also be helpful: when photographing newly hatched loggerhead turtles on a beach in South Africa, our specialist guide explained that the hatchlings get to the sea by heading for the light (the brightness of breaking waves under moonlight), so it was important to only shine a torch on them from their seaward side, and to keep it brief.
Play by the rules and exercise common sense and it’s possible to capture some stunning images of wildlife at night, without doing any harm. It’s certainly one of the most challenging forms of wildlife photography that we’ve tried, but also one of the most exciting and rewarding.
About the authors: Ann & Steve Toon are a UK-based, husband and wife team of award-winning, professional photographers with a specialist interest in the wildlife and wild places of southern Africa where they spend several months each year photographing and running photographic safaris.
Their work is published in a wide range of magazines and national newspapers, both in the UK and abroad, and they are reprepresented by several leading photographic libraries. They've also written three books, two on wildlife photography and one on rhinos. You can see more of their work on their website at toonphoto.com and follow their African adventures on on their 'Beat about the Bush' blog at toonphotoblog.com.