One of the trickier aspects of wildlife photography that I personally love is that of nocturnal animals moving in the African darkness.

Many people coming on safari believe that nothing can be captured after sunset and tend to put their cameras down. Part of the reason is because many people are not entirely sure how to operate their cameras on Manual mode and so become afraid to step out their comfort zone.

Let’s go through a few simple steps that if you follow, can see you taking great after-dark photos in no time at all.

Photography is all about light, but just because the natural light of the sun has gone for the day, doesn’t mean you should put your camera down. With an artificial light source and the right settings on your camera, a picture like this of one of the Ntsevu lionesses drinking is relatively easy to capture. Photograph by James Tyrrell

The first step in improving your photography is to know your equipment. I recommend playing around with your camera and becoming familiar with which buttons change which settings before you ever come on safari. This will make you far more comfortable operationally, and you can even practice from the comforts of your home before arrivingi at Londolozi.

Once darkness has set in, a good starting point for spotlight photography would be to set your camera to Manual. Aperture mode can also work, but then you are starting to play around with metering modes as well, which complicates things a bit, so let’s stick to Manual for now.

It is always recommended that after setting up your camera, you take a test shot and adjust the necessary settings to capture the perfect shot you are hoping to achieve.

 

  • Set the ISO to 2000
  • Set aperture to f5.6 or as low as your lens will allow you – the wider the aperture (smaller the number) the better, as you want as much light as possible to be able to hit your camera sensor.
  • Set White Balance to Tungsten, or you can leave it on Auto White Balance, as this can be changed in post processing if shooting in RAW.

The final setting to adjust is the Shutter Speed; I would recommend starting around 1/160 sec.

Now, the brightness of the spotlight will determine whether you adjust the shutter speed or not.  If the subject is too bright you can increase up the shutter speed in small increments until you get to the exposure you looking for. If the subject is too dull/dark you can slow the shutter speed down. Make sure you don’t decrease it too much, else you will get a blurred image. This goes especially for animals on the move:

  • If the animal is moving towards you, increase the shutter speed as the light will brighten as the animal approaches.
  • If the animal is moving away, decrease the shutter speed as the light dims the further the animal moves away.

Finally I highly recommend using a bean bag or some support mechanism to keep the camera as still as possible as to prevent the photo from blurring.

Here are a few of the photographs I have captured at Londolozi to give you an idea of what is possible when changing a few basic settings. Hope you enjoy.

As one can see by the colour in the background, it was not completely dark when this picture was taken. Spotlights can be useful well before it is completely dark, and even during the daytime when it is overcast. f5.6, 1/200s, ISO 1600

10
Mashaba 3:3 Female
2008 - present

The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the camps and vehicles.

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Mashaba 3:3 Female

Lineage
Sunsetbend
Identification
markings
Timeline
49 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
5 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

Movement at night can be tricky. In this instance I was focusing on the second lion. f5.6, 1/160s, ISO 1600

The late Xidulu female and her male cub. Night photography with a spotlight should only be practiced on nocturnal animals that the spotlight won’t affect. f5.6, 1/160s, ISO 1250

The daughter of Sunsetbend female, is named Xidulu which means termite mound in Shangaan.

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Xidulu 2:3 Female

Lineage
Sunsetbend
Identification
markings
Timeline
18 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
1 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

A diminutive pearl-spotted owlet. Owls can be affected by prolonged exposure to a spotlight, so it is important to be quick when illuminating them in the beam. f5.6, 1/200s, ISO 2500

This post is dealing exclusively with front-lighting with a spotlight. We will run a post in the next few weeks that looks at side-lighting and backlighting. f5.6, 1/160s, ISO 2000

Yawning carnivores are exciting, as the yawn usually implies they are about to get active. f5.0, 1/250s, ISO 1600

10
Anderson 4:4 Male
2008 - present

Unofficially the biggest leopard in the Sabi Sands, the Anderson male is an absolutely enormous individual in north western Londolozi.

U
Spotted this leopard?
You've seen this leopard
7 sightings by Members
q

Anderson 4:4 Male

Lineage
Unknown
Identification
markings
Timeline
13 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

Remember, just because the sun has gone, doesn’t mean your camera needs to disappear too.

Filed under Photography

Involved Leopards

Mashaba 3:3 Female

Mashaba 3:3 Female

Spotted this leopard?
You've seen this leopard
Xidulu 2:3 Female

Xidulu 2:3 Female

Spotted this leopard?
You've seen this leopard
Anderson 4:4 Male

Anderson 4:4 Male

Spotted this leopard?
You've seen this leopard

9 Comments

on Spotlight Photography Made Simple

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

Stunning images Grant. Thanks for the tips. Will definitely try it next time I am in the bush.

Joanne Wadsworth

Thanks so much for these important tips and am awaiting the others on side/blacklighting. It’s good to know that night photography can be less intimidating.

Darlene Knott

Wow, these are terrific photos! The owl, the leopards, all of them are fantastic. Night photography is difficult, but is so rewarding when it turns out great. You have to be willing to chance it and with digital, you can! Thanks for the correct settings.

Dina Petridis

great pictures , it is true that spotlight can give some special effects

Callum Evans

Thanks for those tips! Done spotlight photography twice before, with mixed success, on black-footed cats and keen to try it in Botswana with the proper guidelines.

Sylvain Villeroy De Galhau

Dear Grant, thanks for those tips, they are very useful and your pictures are very nice. On thing I noticed in the past when taking pictures of animals standing directly in front of the spotlight is that their eyes tend to reflect the light and are therefore extremely bright and don’t look natural. None of your pictures seems to have this problem: how do you do this?

Gillian Evans

Great blog Grant! – and thanks for all your hands on help with manual photography settings when we were with you in November! Have some amazing spotlit photos – thanks for getting me out of my comfort zone!

Denise Vouri

Great photos Grant as well as good spotlight shooting tips. I’ve struggled with trying to capture good shots utilizing the assistance of a light, changing settings, etc. Finally this year I was able to capture a leopard up a tree, feeding on his prey. Coming away thrilled is an understatement. Let’s see if I can continue to get night shots properly exposed!!

Jeff Rodgers

Fabulous, important story . . . I’ve always wondered how to get better images while on the later in the day game drives.

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