I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, I just happen to work in an environment that offers incredible daily opportunities to take photos.

After a year or two of being a guide, I decided to purchase myself a DSLR camera and lens to take the odd picture, as I knew I would kick myself one day for not taking the opportunities that most guides here are presented with daily. But after the novelty of taking a photo of everything that moved had worn off, I wanted to take my photography to the next level; this is when I started taking very tentative steps into the world of night photography.

For the most part in my early photographic days, when the sun went down I turned my camera off and would put it away for the night drive back to the lodge.
That was until I realized the potential there was for taking photos after dark.
After much trial-and-error, today I thought I’d share with you some of the photos I’ve taken after dark over the past few months.

This is more a Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do post. Many mistakes along the way have eventually got me to a point where I can take one or two photos that I am really happy with, and hopefully by the end of the post you might be able improve your night photography by learning from my mistakes and a few simple camera setting suggestions.

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Owls like this African Scops owl are great nocturnal subjects. One doesn’t ever want to shine the light on them for too long though in case you compromise their vision. A quick shine, snap a picture with the right settings, and you should be golden.

Think of this almost as a ‘Dummies guide to night photography, by the Dummy.’ And remember, there is usually more than one way to accomplish something; the settings and advice given here are simply the way I doing things. 

If you don’t already take photographs on Manual Mode, you’ll need to turn the dial over now.

This can be a daunting thing to do for the first time, as you now have full control over your camera’s settings. Not that I’m a pilot, but I would imagine it would be like taking the controls of a light aircraft for the first time; so much potential for catastrophe! For night photography however, the more control you have the better, and this is best done in Manual mode.

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Another Owl shot, this time of a Verraux’s eagle owl. Large owls present ideal photographic subjects, as they are typically perched in dead trees just after sunset, resulting in a simple and uncluttered background.

I’ll run through the below photos in just a second, saying what was done wrong (or right) in each one, but my basic setting suggestions for night photography (with the use of a spotlight) are as follows:

  • Lift your ISO above 2000. I often get this wrong and it is either way too high or too low, but I think 2000 ISO is the best starting point.
  • Your Shutter speed should be at a minimum of 1/125. If the light source is close and bright you can go higher. Ideally you want to be using some kind of stabilisation as well. The same goes for all photography, but it’s particularly important at night.
  • Your f-stop should be the lowest number your lens will go to; this will allow as much light as possible to be let into the lens. 
  • I find it important to change my white balance to Tungsten. The light from most spotlights is far too warm and your photo will have a very orange look to it if your white balance is too warm.

It is very important to keep reviewing your images after you take them so you can adjust your settings. As I am by no means a professional, I’ve limited myself to merely changing the ISO; if the image is too dark, lift the ISO and vice versa if it’s blown out. There are other ways to do it eg. changing the shutter speed, but this way works for me, and I like to know that my shutter speed is secured.

Take a look through the following photos to see where I went wrong:

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A disaster! A leopard drinking after dark. At least the suggestion of a leopard drinking after dark. My shutter speed was only 1/4s here (WAY too slow) and my ISO was at 1250, when it should have been at least 2000. I’m pretty sure I just panicked and tried to snap a shot without even checking my settings.

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Too dark. My shutter speed was at 1/320s. I could have afforded to go slower (thus letting in more light), especially considering the lion wasn’t moving, so motion blur wouldn’t have been a problem if the camera was stabilised.

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This one is much better. With a stable camera, a shutter speed of 1/200s and an ISO of 2000, the exposure worked out just fine and the shutter speed was high enough to deal with the relatively stable lion (motion-wise, not emotionally).

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The fact that owls will need to be spotlit means isolating them as a focal subject is relatively easy. The background clutter – if there is any – will generally remain un-illuminated or only faintly so. ISO was 2000, shutter speed was 1/160s.

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This one was touch-and-go at a shutter speed of only 1/80s. I shoot with a Canon 100-400mm, the aperture of which only goes down to 5.6; not ideal for low-light. If you’re happy with some extra noise you can still get away with it with a high ISO.

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A higher shutter speed of 1/320s kept these lionesses sharp.

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The original photograph of the Nkoveni female before editing. My white balance was way too warm.

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The edited image. By cooling the temperature down in Lightroom, I was able to get it back to the real colours. My WB should have been on Tungsten to begin with.

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I included this picture to remind you to change your settings back either after night drive or before setting out on game drive the next morning. This photo of one of the Majingilane was still on Tungsten White Balance the next morning. Thankfully, if you shoot in RAW, white balance is relatively easy to correct in post-processing, but it’s always best just to get your settings right to start off with.

Night Photography is a steep learning curve, but pretty soon you’ll find a formula that works for you. Some people stick with aperture priority and then use spot metering, some fix their shutter speeds and leave the rest up to the camera, but as I like to be in control, I stick with Manual mode. This isn’t for everyone, so I suppose this post is only aimed at those who are willing to go with that daunting “M” icon on your camera.
Whichever your choice, persist. Make mistakes. Then make more.

Just make sure that you realise what your mistakes were, and learn from them.

Filed under Photography

7 Comments

on The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Starting Night Photography

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Marinda Drake

Thanks for the useful tips Fin. I put my camera away after dark as I have realized the images are a disaster. I will definitely try to set the camera up in manual mode.

Callum Evans

Thank you so much for this, it is very helpful!! I only recently tried out night photography, where I got some success with lions in Mabuasehube. I just need more opportunities to practise.

Alessandra Cuccato

Thanks for this great blog! The first picture of the leopard and the last one of the lion look very familiar and similar to many of my pictures in terms of quality. And this is another wonderful aspect of Londolozi, you guys help us tourists with our camera settings. I cannot remember how many times Nick had to adjust my settings…I have learned so much about photography on Londolozi. Thank you so much for that!

Malavika Gupta

Thanks for the tips. One of the most important was checking camera settings the next morning to make sure they been changed from the previous night’s settings.

Keith Fincham

A really interesting and informative article thanks Fin. Night photography is definitely more challenging but can equally be more rewarding. Whilst my own efforts have a long way to go, I look forward to our next Londolozi experience to try again. How do you change your settings, do you use a red filtered torch to avoid losing your night vision, or do you do it by feel and the info display? What kind of tripod/support do you folk use in the vehicle at night? Have you any tips to offer, if you have tried it on your drives, for night Astro photography? Shaun, on our last evening drive, allowed the night to swallow us and as our eyes adjusted to the dark, the view of the Milky Way was humbling and breathtaking. It was a very special moment.

Denise Vouri

Well stated Fin! Night photography is daunting enough without having to worry about all the settings and your tips for basic shooting are spot on. For those with DSLRs, shooting in manual can be challenging so practicing before a monumental trip is essential, otherwise Aperture priority can generally get you through the day. Thank you.

Al Kaiser

Really nice post, Fin. Thanks!

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