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Photography Tips For Night Drives

23/10/2019

We are thrilled to welcome our resident photographer, Alex Roldan, to the blog today to talk a little bit about night drives and photography. Specifically, photography tips for those venturing out for night game drives. All photography in this post was captured by Alex during his drives here at Finch Hattons!

Safari game drives are always fun and can open your eyes to all sorts of magnificent wildlife. But when the sun goes down, life in the bush doesn’t stop and all manner of animals come out from their shelters to take advantage of darkness.

Setting off just before the sun begins to set allows you to experience the transition from day to night, as some animals settle down quietly and in within the relative safety of groups and herds, other species begin their nocturnal habits. The bush becomes alive with the sounds of insects, amphibians and all manner of other creatures. 

Night drives are usually a little slower paced than day drives, as your guide will be searching for wildlife with the power of a spotlight, looking out for the telltale reflective eye-shine of the animals roaming in the darkness.

Some of the larger predators are usually more active at night; lions, leopards and hyenas all like to take advantage of their powerful eyesight and look for their next meal under the cover of darkness. However, there is more, much more to be seen and experienced. 

Hippos emerge from the waters which kept them cool during the heat of the day to forage and graze on fresh grasses. Genets and various species of mongoose weave through thickets and over rocks in search of their next meal. A plethora of nocturnal birds go about their nightly activities. And if you’re lucky enough to have a clear night, the sky is awash with an ocean of stars and with minimal light pollution, it’s a fantastic opportunity to do a little star gazing.

When it comes to photographing some of the nocturnal species, it’s best to get your camera settings dialed in before heading out on safari. Obviously you can tinker and tweak them whilst you’re out in the field, but it’s always good to go out prepared.

As mentioned, the guides will be using spotlight to look for the wildlife and if you are fortunate enough to find an animal which is very relaxed in the light, the guide will fit a red filter over the spotlight in order to minimize damage to the animal’s eyes. Don’t worry too much that your images will be coming out very red, you can always fix this later on when you do your post-processing.

Camera Tips For Night Drives

Because you’re taking images at night and there’s minimal light (even from the spotlight), you’ll need to trying to get as much light as possible in to your camera, so it’s a good idea to start with settings something along these lines…

Shooting mode: 

Manual. It’s best to try shooting in full manual which will give you the maximum control over your settings as the camera might try to do things which you might not want it to, or it may not even allow you to take the image t all.

Shutter speed. You’ll need to be shooting very slow, so setting your shutter speed to begin with somewhere between 1/40 to 1/80 of a second is a fairly solid place to start. And because you’re shooting so slowly, you will need to turn on any optical stabilization functions your lens might have. You’ll also need to make use of a bean bag or monopod to give you the stabilization you’ll need to try to capture a sharp image.

ISO. You can set your ISO to automatic (so the camera will decide the best level), or you can set this manually. You’ll need to start pretty high and then work from that. Cameras are becoming more adept at handling high ISO levels with the reduction of camera ‘noise’ (the grainy effect you will have seen on images taken in low levels of light). Setting your ISO at around 3200 is a good place to start. And don’t forget, you can always reduce the amount of noise to a certain degree when you edit the photos in whichever platform you use.

Aperture. Again, you will be looking to get as much light in to your camera as possible, so using a lens with a large aperture is going to potentially give you better results. If you have a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 then start with there, you can always tweak it in the field.

Focus mode. Personally, I shoot on continuous mode when capturing images of wildlife at night. You may only have a brief few seconds to capture your subject so shooting on single shot may cause you to miss your opportunity as the camera will want to refocus after each press of the shutter button. Where as if you shoot in continuous mode, the camera’s autofocusing capabilities will track your subject.

Exposure compensation. Now this can be a little tricky… you’ll want to increase your exposure compensation to at least +1.5 or even +2.0 to begin with. What you’re basically doing is telling the camera that you want to capture as much detail as possible from the darker areas of the image.

Whilst you’re on a night drive, please don’t forget to simply enjoy the privilege of being being out in the wilderness. You’ll be doing a great job if you can somewhere between 25%-40% of your images, in focus and exposed correctly so don’t be dismayed or get too frustrated if everything is not coming out as you want.