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Images after dark

For many animal species, when the sun disappears below the horizon their activity continues on into the dark. Photographing wildlife after dark opens a new world for the nature photographer. Technical challenges and persistence is key to successful night photography – but is worth all the fuss?

YOUR VISION

Whatever you plan on photographing, having a VISION is essential. Ask yourself; what is it that I want to achieve? What do I want to create? Nature can be unpredictable at the best of times. That said; don’t be perturbed when your plan doesn’t work out 100% as you had in mind. The key is having a goal to work towards.

WHAT EQUIPMENT DO I NEED?

Night photography means low light or no light. To best work with low light situations it helps to have equipment that is well suited for these situations.

Lens Lens with low aperture value (eg. f/4, f/2.8, f/1.8, f/1.4)
Camera body Cameras that can handle high ISO values
Spotlight Strong torch with an even spread
Flash Off-camera speedlite with a hotshoe cord or wireless trigger
Cable release To reduce camera shake and for long ‘bulb’ exposures
Motion sensor To create a ‘camera trap’

 

NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNIQUES

Photographing at night will ultimately result in slow shutter speeds. Preventing camera shake is essential. Always use a tripod or beanbag to stabilize your gear. Ask the driver to switch off the vehicle’s engine as soon as you are in position. Making use of a cable release can help prevent shake.

Two primary camera settings to work with in low light are APERTURE and ISO. We need to adjust these in order to get a fast enough SHUTTER SPEED to work with. As a first timer attempting to photograph at night, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The guidelines below can serve as a starting point, bearing in mind that situations can differ dramatically.

PRO TIP: use manual mode when shooting after dark.

TECH TIPS FOR SPOTLIGHT

STEP 1

As a rule of thumb try the following settings:

ISO: 3200

Aperture: F2.8 – F4

Shutter speed: 1/80 sec

STEP 2

Experiment with these settings until you are happy with your exposure.

TECH TIPS FOR FLASH

STEP 1

Setup your off-camera flash using an off-camera cord or your wireless trigger. This helps prevent the ‘red-eye’ effect in your subject’s eyes.

STEP 2

Set your flash to manual at 1/16 power.

STEP 3

As a rule of thumb set your camera to the following:

ISO: 1000

Aperture: F4

Shutter speed: 1/160 sec

STEP 4

Remember that this is a starting point. Now experiment with camera and flash settings.

TIPS FOR USING MOTIONS SENSORS

Remote triggering involves setting up a hidden camera and a motion sensor. The camera is left overnight and when an animal passes, a sensor will detect movement and trigger your camera automatically.

Make sure your camera is charged fully and don’t forget to switch your camera’s sleep mode to ‘never’. Keep your camera safe in a makeshift protective container or set it up where a pesky hyena or jackal can’t reach. Camouflaging your equipment will keep it hidden from the more skittish species. Find a location that your subject frequents. Common places to setup a camera trap would include game paths and waterholes. A carcass is the ideal place to capture nocturnal predators and scavengers. Once you have selected your location, focus on the composition. Your creative side will come into play here as you consider the scene and anticipate where your subject might appear. Focus your camera on where you expect your subject. When you are happy, I suggest switching to manual focus to avoid any focus issues. Set the sensor up and test it by walking or crawling into the scene.

PRO TIP: ook for lines that lead the eye into the image and consider the stars.

TECH TIPS FOR INCLUDING STARS

Ideal conditions for photographing stars is when there is no moon present or very little moon present in the night sky. A full moon will result in an over-exposed image. Consult a moon phase calendar to plan your shoot. For a more dramatic sky try include the Milky Way in your composition.

STEP 1

Setup your composition and focus

STEP 2

As a rule of thumb set your camera to:

ISO: 3200

Aperture: F2.8

Shutter speed: ‘Bulb Mode’ at 25 seconds

These settings should expose the starry night sky. In order to light a subject in the foreground you’ll need to use artificial lighting such as your spotlight or flash. During your 25-second exposure, paint the foreground with a spot light (soft light) or fire your flash (hard light). For a static subject (eg. a tree), a spotlight will work just fine. However, for moving subjects like an elephant, a flash works better as it helps freeze motion as seen in the image below. When done correctly, the end result will be a well lit foreground and a starry night sky.

A night photography project is the perfect way to learn better about lighting and how camera settings affect exposure. Follow these rule of thumb techniques to get started with your nocturnal portfolio. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Kirsten Frost

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