Wildlife Photography at night


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Jan 4, 2015
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I'm going on vacation in a few months to a remote pare of Australia. One of the things we are doing is a private 4x4 nocturnal tour of our island and see the wildlife that we don't see during the day. I would love to get some pictures, but I think this is going to be a challenge for me, and I'm looking for tips.

The situation: It will be a private 4x4 tour, just my wife and I (and the guide).
These is a good chance I won't he allowed to exit the vehicle
They are animal lovers so I'm assuming they're not going to want me to use a flash, to avoid disturbing the animals.
Again, being animal lovers, we can't (and wouldn't) disturb the animal in any way, meaning we won't follow it back to its home, etc. It will be whatever comes to us or doesn't run away.
This will be from 8:00pm to 11:00pm in the Southern Hemisphere in August, sunset is at 5:05pm there.
The only light we will have will be our car headlights and any natural light that exists, mainly the stars. There won't be any moonlight that night. I'm still trying to find out what the normal cloud cover is on the island at that time of year at night.
Part of our excursion could be along the shoreline, so there could be some reflection from that.

So, some thoughts that came to me:

1. Of course a lens with a very low f stop. I have a Canon 50mm fixed with f1.8, and I see Tamron makes a 35mm fixed f1.4 model F045 that I might pick up.
2. I might get one of those gooseneck leg small tripods that I could mount on the door of the Jeep.
3. While I understand that they wouldn't want me using a flash, I'd like to bring along some kind of spotlight. I'm considering just getting a cheapie LED flashlight from Dollar-Tree. Either that or a small incandescent mag light that won't be quite as bright.

Can anyone provide me with some other tips please? I'd like to get my equipment and practice a little before we go away. Remember weight is an issue.
My first thought is that using any light that's near your camera, whether flash or a floodlight of some kind, will get you glowing eyes and not much else.

Low f-stop really means nothing if there's really no light available. Find a place outside at home that's dark, and practice shooting. Also, flash, floodlight, whatever, is going to have a surprisingly limited useful range.
Yeah, you won't have enough light. Technically you can shoot at night, but that tends to be wide angle and long exposure times.

You'd be better off shooting some infrared video if you want to capture that!
That late at night there's really hardly any light around in most places so even with the aperture wide open (smallest f number) and with a very high ISO you still likely won't have much light to work with. Many of the camera traps used for night photography switch to Infra Red and use IR lighting (eg LEDs on many of the camera traps) to provide light.

Now with your digital camera this won't work as it has a filter in front of the sensor to filter out the IR light. You can have the camera modified to have the IR filter removed. Many people do this purely for artistic purposes, but wildlife would be another option. However this is getting into the realm of spending money and then you'd still need an IR light source.

I should also note that whilst many people do use IR light so as not to disturb wildlife at night, its important to realise that this can actually be quite a false assumption. We can't see the light, but many animals have a different range of the light spectrum that they can see. So you could still be offering some disturbance to specific species.

You might talk to those organising the trip as its likely something which has come up before. It might be that within a car and with spotlights there's enough like and the animals are used to it enough that its not a bother to them. So you might well have enough for some grainy shots with your current camera.

Also don't forget what ever system you have you'd still need enough light illuminating the subject to be able to focus on them in the first place. So a flash in otherwise dark conditions wouldn't help much. You'd still need light you can see (or if you had IR a camera with a digital viewfinder/LCD on the back to view through before taking the shot since your own eyes can't see IR).
There's 5 things to consider for 'remote' nighttime photography: ISO speed, lens speed (f2.0 or faster), shutter speed, light, and auto focusing.

1. ISO speed...I've successfully taken extremely low light images, as in one candle only. The first step is having a camera that can do ISO 12,800 or faster with minimal noise. Having the post processing ability to deal with more noise than usual is paramount. Note, too, that if your camera can perform in-camera noise cleanup, that may require some time to perform until you can click the next exposure.

2. Lens speed - fast, fast, fast lens...probably wide open. Don't forget that at wide open, depth of field becomes surprisingly thin and lenses are not at their sharpest wide open...not even the priciest lenses.

3. Shutter speed - Unless one literally has a 'deer in the headlights', you'll need a fast shutter speed to prevent blurring.

4. Light, light, light...it's all about light. One cannot escape the exposure triangle!

5. Auto focusing will likely not work due to the low light conditions, unless the camera settings are such that an exposure can be made without focusing. If that is how your camera has been set, expect a lot of blurry pictures. So, it will be necessary to 'focus bracket' (as I call it) manually shooting the same image multiple times while manually (blindly, essentially) adjusting the focus +/- 1 or 2 positions (quarter twist/half twist each way).

Unless your adept at making manual camera exposure settings, low light photography, and lastly, being able to change those settings in near total darkness, I think it'll be a struggle to get sharp, hand held images. Also, getting a new camera just before your trip is the worst thing you can do as unfamiliarity will make everything more difficult to accomplish.

One more thing...check with your guide on their suggestions for night time photography. They've likely had numerous others doing night time shooting and can relay what they've learned.

1 candle power
2 candle power
moving train
wide open f2.0
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I'm not trying to rain on your parade, really I'm not. But.

I'm trying to think of what kind of "wild" animals are not going to be disturbed by people riding around in a 4x4 with headlights and spotlights.

The only ones I can think of are those that are used to them. Most likely ones that are not only used to these tours, but probably fed by the operators to ensure the customers have something to see.

I can't imagine with only 3 hours you are going to see much more than what will let you drive right up to them expecting a hand out or at least adapted to it and ignore you.

The only way you'd get a good shot with a 50 or 35 is if the animal literally came right up to the jeep to get a hand out.

Having said all that, I'd use a zoom, say 80 to 200 or 70 to 300, as high a ISO as your camera will shoot. Shutter speed at just fast enough to stop hand shake, mirror flop, etc., manual focus.

And hope to get enough in raw file format to pull something out in post. Shoot in raw only to save the in camera processing time before the next shot, etc.
I don't really have anything to add but I was in Sidney, Melbourne and Tasmania in 2000 for three weeks in August and as much as I wanted to, never saw the Southern Cross because it was clouded the entire time, at least it was at night!
Of course your timing may vary greatly in the age of drought.
None-the-less with no moon it could be tough.
Maybe just soak it all in rather than peering though your camera for 3 hrs and still not see much. Good luck.
I read most of what others had to say and forgive me if anyone has already said this but even in the daytime a small lens usually isn't good for animals, you need a decent zoom lens so there goes your large f/1.8 aper. Plus, if you're shooting from the vehicle, you might not be as stabilized as say a tripod would have you. You almost have to be using a tripod and long exposures and good luck with the animal holding perfectly still. I tried alligators at night once with a tripod and a super bright spotlight, the kind alligator hunters use, and I could only get high ISO shots, still. GL!

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