I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, I just happen to work in an environment that offers incredible daily opportunities to take photos. Night photography is one of these opportunities I’ve explored.
My night photography experience
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.
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.
My basic settings suggestions
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.
My night photographs that went wrong, and why
Take a look through the following photos to see where I went wrong:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
A higher shutter speed of 1/320s kept these lionesses sharp.
The original photograph of the Nkoveni female before editing. My white balance was way too warm.
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.
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.
To conclude about night photography
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.
Discover many other Photography Advices
At Londolozi, we witness wilderness with an intensity rarely seen in other parts of the world. But more than being mere spectators, we are also protectors of this voluble nature that is bustling around us. And just like said David Attenborough :”No one will protect what they don’t care about.”. Through photography, we share our love for nature, and our passion for protection. And we share our photography skills for you as well. If ever you want to learn more about wildlife photography, please feel free to consult our 10 Best Tips for Wildlife Photography.
Read more about:
- Photography Challenge: Birds
- Low Light Photography: an Introduction
- The Joys of Summer Photography
- Spotlight Photography Made simple
If you want to know what wildlife photography is at Londolozi, check out our Photographic Safari experience page !