Taking wildlife photos at night brings a number of challenges so read on for my tips on how to improve your night safari wildlife photos.
This also requires patience and I hope that these night time photography tips will assist most of the aspiring wildlife photographers out there.
Best Camera Settings for Photographing Wildlife at Night
We all know that photography relies on light falling on the camera sensor to produce images.
During a typical day on an African Safari you can usually expect to have bright sunshine. You become accustomed to shooting at high shutter speeds and manageable ISO levels to get sharp, clean images.
Once the light disappears altogether it becomes a whole new ball game.
As a photographer who perhaps seldom takes photos at night, or in very low light situations, you will want to reduce the risks of camera shake.
Suddenly the advantages of a ‘fast’ long lens, full frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras, camera supports, focus accuracy and frame rate become all too apparent!
If you have nothing other than a compact point and shoot camera or perhaps a smartphone then you need to know that you will not be able to keep shooting after dark without an external light source.
The newer generation mirrorless cameras have quicker auto focus than previously but you may need to manually focus from time to time before it locks on.
Lion 300mm,1/10 sec, f/2,8, ISO: 2500
If you are shooting in aperture priority mode you will need to drag as much light into your camera as possible.
To give yourself the best chance at having the lowest failure rate so you need to shoot ‘wide open’ i.e. at the widest aperture (f-stop) possible.
Lenses with a moderate to medium reach like the 70-200mm zoom lens and the 300mm and 400mm primes have a maximum aperture of f2.8 which is the most desirable aperture for photography at night.
The challenge is that lenses with longer focal lengths like the 500mm and 600mm have a maximum aperture of f4.
This is only one stop but did you know that an aperture setting of f2.8 lets in twice as much light than at f4 and a staggering 16 times more light than at f11?
It is little wonder then that the latest releases for Astro photography have a maximum aperture of f0.5
Shooting at these shallow depths of field also means that you should be able to achieve a blurred background.
You can see what your background is looking like by keeping your eye on the viewfinder as you compose another shot.
Lenses with f2.8 capabilities and prime lenses are very expensive, and so you may have to compromise in other areas to achieve the correct exposure, e.g. shutter speed and ISO levels, if you have a less expensive zoom like a 150 – 600mm zoom which has a widest aperture of f5 at 150mm and f6.3 at 600mm.
Genet 600mm, 1/320 sec, f/4, ISO: 12800
It stands to reason that you’ll likely want to shoot at as slow a shutter speed as is humanly possible when you are on a night Safari.
Unfortunately it’s important to remember that if this is too low then your images will be blurry.
The problem is that you’ll want a faster shutter speed in order to reduce camera shake.
You will also be trying to freeze the action at the right shutter speed. If you’re shooting at a midrange speed of about 1600 /sec you’re going to need to keep an eye on the aperture that you’re using.
Lenses with image stabilization do assist a lot and you also get better as you learn how pressing the shutter with care is more difficult handheld after dark than in the daytime.
Adequate support for your equipment is therefore critical and you should be using a beanbag or monopods whenever possible to ensure you capture a sharp image.
If you are shooting from a fully supported, 100% stable situation i.e. on a tripod then switch off the image stabilization and vibration reduction capabilities of your camera and your lens if they have any.
The more immobile your set up then the more likely it becomes that the machinations that ensure image stability within your equipment will cause the elements inside of your lens to ‘wobble’.
You will need to get the correct aperture and shutter speed to make sure you don’t severely underexpose the image.
Some of the older DSLR’s have very loud shutter sounds, particularly noticeable when in high-speed burst mode.
This can increase the chances that you frighten the animals which is not what you want!
300mm, 1/250 sec, f/4, ISO: 6400
Test out your camera before leaving for your African Safari so that you know your camera’s capability to handle high ISO settings.
YouTube reviews are a good source of information on this but I would recommend that you experiment yourself with the camera and lens combinations that you will be taking with you.
High ISO levels produce noise in images that manifest as grain on the digital file.
Modern post processing software does a fantastic job of reducing this in editing and my favourite tools to do this are:
- DxO Pure Raw or
- Topaz DeNoise AI
I routinely shoot at ISO 6 400 and 12 800 and manage to clean up the images pretty well. I prefer to shoot in manual mode and I set my ISO to auto. As a general rule of thumb I limit the maximum ISO level to 12 800.
The darker the shadows in your image the more apparent the noise becomes. Try and fill the frame as much as possible. The more you crop into a high noise image, the more apparent the grain becomes.
I also use quite a heavy vignette on many wildlife images taken at night.
What animals can I photograph on a night drive?
The type and accessibility of wildlife that you will encounter on a night game drive will vary depending on where you are on African Safari.
In general terms you should be able to see and (if you are very lucky) photograph the following:
Pels Fishing Owl
Spotted Eagle Owl
Pearl Spotted Owlet
Rufous – necked Nightjar
Fiery – necked Nightjar
FAQ's Photographing wildlife at night
Can I use a flash when photographing wildlife at night?
You may be allowed to in certain reserves but my advice is that you do not do this.
A battery of flashes firing off at a nocturnal animal is invariably going to cause the animal stress.
I use a speedlight on low power for fill light during the day and at dusk.
At night I may on occasion use an additional light source when photographing reptiles and scorpions.
I will also use one if I am alone on the vehicle with an animal that my ranger knows is not bothered by the light.
Having one speedlight go off now and again does not seem too intrusive however I do still try and avoid it wherever possible.
Your guide will be using a spotlight and he will advise you on when you can use any form of additional artificial lighting.
In some places a red filter is put over the vehicles’ spotlight as it is considered to have less of an impact on the animals’ night vision.
The red light may cause you problems in editing your images if you have been shooting using Jpeg format as you are unable to correctly reset the white balance.
If you find yourself with this dilemma my advice would be to convert the image to black and white.
If you shoot in RAW (which I strongly advise) then you should be able to correct both the white balance and the color cast in your images relatively easily in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
You will encounter both diurnal and nocturnal animals on your night drive.
Diurnal animals are animals that are active during the day and the glare of a spotlight robs them of their night vision.
It is unethical practice to put the animals under stress just because you believe that using a flash will increase your chances of getting a good shot.
Your guide will not shine the spotlight on these animals as they could then become temporarily blinded and make them more vulnerable to roaming predators.
You will note that the guide or tracker will divert the light to shine on the ground when passing such animals and sometimes all of the lights on the vehicle, including the headlights, are switched off.
There are reported cases of leopards using game viewing vehicles as cover at night in order to come up on their prey unheard and unseen.
My guess is that they are also hopeful that the vehicle approaching will distract the animal they are hunting.
I remember there was one such leopard in Sabi Sand Game Reserve who would walk alongside the vehicle when it was moving and stop whenever the vehicle stopped.
This habit has been written about often but rarely seen.
This is yet another example of man influencing the behaviour and habitat of animals.
Puff adder 70-200mm @ 200mm, 1/60 sec, f/2,8, ISO: 1600
Is it cold on a night game drive?
African nights can get very cold indeed! Of course it depends in which region you are as well as the time of year.
My recommendation is that you take at least one additional layer with you even if the temperatures during the day have been high.
I have seen many a visitor bemoan the fact that they left their jacket back at the lodge and dressing appropriately is very important.
I would also recommend that you wear closed shoes.
You may be allowed to get down from the vehicle at certain places and you not only want to keep your feet warm, you also want to protect them from nocturnal scorpions, spiders and snakes!
Many private game lodges will provide you with blankets and hot water bottles which makes things very civilized.
Are the predators more likely to be dangerous at night?
Although it is true that many of the nocturnal predators are extremely dangerous, they are no more or less dangerous to humans than during the day.
My advice is to remember that you are now in their world and their rules apply.
It often seems as though you are in more danger as you are acutely aware that a lion or a leopard can see fantastically well at night whereas we may not even know they are there.
All wild animals, including leopards and lions will stay out of our way if given a choice and as long as you respect their space and give them no cause for alarm you will be fine.
Your guide will be trained to spot any changes in behaviour patterns and you should respect any and all decisions he or she makes on a game drive as regards the proximity of the vehicle to animals.
The guides’ priority is your safety and such decisions override any concern over getting that final shot.
White-faced Scops Owl 500mm, 1/400 sec, f/4, ISO: 6400
What should I take on a Night Game Drive?
Apart from your camera and lenses you should have the following with you on the vehicle:
- Bean bag or mono pod for camera support
- A soft dry cloth or a soft brush to keep your equipment clean
- Warm clothing
- Mosquito repellent cream
- Tissues (for calls of nature)
How long is a night Game Drive?
Night drives (i.e you leave camp after dark), are seldom longer than two hours.
It is important to note that not all reserves offer night drives and will provide only morning and afternoon/evening drives.
Your afternoon drive departing at around 4 pm from camp often finishes at around 7 pm when you return for dinner.
In this case you will have about 30 mins of the trip in full darkness. These drives can sometimes get extended if you come across an amazing sighting and dinner gets delayed accordingly.
In East Africa they are very particular about their meal times and you will be whisked back to camp at the appointed time seemingly no matter what is going on at the time.
Night drives usually depart once full darkness falls and this depends on the time of year.
Leopard 500mm,1/250 sec, f/4, ISO: 4000
There is not much that beats the thrill of a night drive.
Finally free of the most oppressive extremes of the heat of the day, the nocturnal inhabitants of the African savanna come out to hunt and forage.
It is important to manage your expectations when night falls on a game drive.
Night drives are often quiet with few sightings but they can also suddenly explode into action with the charge of a lion or the rattle of a porcupines’ quills as it scuttles away from you.
Life in the African bush is unpredictable and often full of drama.
You never know what you are going to encounter when you climb on that game viewing vehicle on your African Safari and that knowledge is exactly what brings people back again and again and again.