Shooting at Night

(Shout out to my friend, South African ranger Neil Whyte for these great nighttime leopard shots)

Hello folks... It's Jeff, the Photo Ambassador here at Africa Dreams Safaris. First, I'm here for you so be sure to click on the link (at the end of this article) and you'll have a direct line to your own safari photo expert for advice.

In my ongoing attempt to send you home with awesome pictures of Tanzania, I thought I would address a topic several of you have asked about... shooting at night.

Shooting at night? That's crazy! Well... not really. If you choose to do so, Africa Dream Safaris can hook you up with a night game drive during your safari. The Serengeti becomes a different place at night. For starters the cats typically hunt at night. And beyond that there is a whole other world that comes alive after dark. It's worth seeing... and in some cases, photographing.

But photography loves light. Give your camera a brightly lit day and it will give you crisp colorful pictures as a reward. Where it gets tricky is when the light is dimming, or in the case of night... really isn't available. But often, this is where the really cool pictures live. To understand shooting in low light, and to be able to master it, you have to understand your gear and you have to be a little bit technically savvy. But don't stop reading, I'm going to try to break this down and simplify it.

Let's start by thinking about your eyeball. On a bright day if you look at your pupil it will look very small. In the darkness, the pupil will look rather large. This is because your brain constantly opens and closes the pupil to let more or less light in, depending on the conditions. If you think of your retina as being the "film" or the "sensor", your eye works just like a camera lens. Or actually, vice versa since the camera has been fashioned around the human eyeball. Your modern camera acts (or tries to act) just like the brain. When it is bright out it can automatically close down the lens to reduce the amount of light that hits its sensor. When it's dark out it can open up to increase the amount of light that is hitting the sensor.

Within reason.

The human body is an incredible machine and the human eye is amazing. Just check it out. Look at somewhere where you can see something really bright and really dark at the same time... like out a window on sunny day. Your eye can see the outside and still see detail on the inside (which isn't as bright). This is called dynamic range and the eye is very good at it. The human eye has an amazing range when it comes to dynamic range. Your camera? Not so much. Oh, they're getting better... but it's going to be a while until it matches the human eye. So that means it has to make a decision. Does this shooter want me to expose for the dark part of this scene, or the bright part? Understanding this concept, is understanding photography. There's some person right now in their garage trying to create a camera and lens that does this for you (like the human eye), but until someone successfully does that... we're on our own.

Your camera needs light to capture an image. And there are really two (OK maybe three) things that it can do to make that happen. The first thing it can do is let a lot of light into the camera through the lens... much like your eye does by opening and closing the pupil. But your lens can only let so much light in. It can't "manufacture" light that isn't present. The other thing it can do is control how long the light hits your sensor. If you have any experience at all in photography you have surely heard your camera "click" very quickly to snap the shot in some cases... and sort of lag slowly in other cases. This is your camera's brain controlling your camera's shutter... the little door it opens and closes to allow light to hit your sensor so the picture is captured. If it determines the lens is not letting enough light into your camera to capture the image, it leaves the door open a little longer to increase the time that light has to hit the sensor. It's a little mathematical but you get my gist. The "third" thing your camera can do is increase the sensitivity of your camera's sensor to make it more sensitive to light. This is called its ISO. In the old days your had to buy special film when you were going to shoot in dark situations. Now all this happens in camera and it is adjustable. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your sensor is to light. This sounds like a no brainer... if there isn't enough light, just increase your cameras ISO and everyone is happy. But increasing the ISO degrades the image quality. We used to call this "grain" in the film days. Your pictures can tend to get grainy if the ISO is too high even today. And even though we don't use much film these days it's still present with electronic sensors. So the real trick here, especially shooting at night, is finding the sweet spot... a nice mix between letting light in, the time you allow the light to hit the sensor and how high you set your cameras ISO.

Ok... let's march on.

Your Lens. Your gear.

There are a lot of lenses on the market. And you can't take much weight on safari. Chances are, your go-to lens is going to be some type of zoom lens over there, unless you are a pro who doesn't need to read this article anyway. Zoom lenses are very convenient. My go-to lens over there is a 100-400. But zoom lenses have a lot of glass in them and each piece of glass steals a little light. Some really versatile zoom lenses have a real problem shooting in dark circumstances. You have aperture numbers on your lens. Some people refer to these as F-stops. Typically, the most common F-stops are 2.8 ,4.0, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22 ...with 2.8 being the widest opening and 22 being just a pinpoint opening.

I know, I know.... Who picked these numbers? There is a backstory and you can find that on the net but it's more confusing that anyone needs to know. If I were making the lenses I would just use 1,2,3,4.... and so on. But that was before my time. We also confuse things more by referring to lenses as "fast" and "slow". The ones that let the most light in we call "fast". The ones that let less light in we call "slow". So a lens that has a 2.8 on it we would call fast. But if a lens only goes down to a 4.0 or a 5.6... we would call that "slow". I know, I think it's a little backwards too... but that's the way it is.

So if you are going on safari and know you are going to be shooting in some low light situations... take the fastest lens you can. Problem is, making "fast" lenses is tough... so they are the more expensive ones. If you have bought a lens you have probably seen that sometimes the same focal length lens can be had from different manufacturers (or sometimes the same manufacturer) at different apertures. Canon, for example, makes a 70-200 zoom that opens up to a 4.0. They also make a 70-200 zoom that opens up to a 2.8. The faster one is quite a bit more expensive. But that's what the pros use (yes... maybe the glass is a little sharper, etc... but you're mostly paying for that added F-stop). To make things even more confusing (as if they are not already) some cheaper zoom lenses have a number on it that says something like 3.5-4.5. What that means is that when you are at the widest part of the zoom (shooting a wide shot for example) it can let more light in than it can at the tighter end of the zoom (shooting a closeup for example). In short, these lenses have a "floating" aperture depending on what focal length you are shooting at. They do this because it's easier for them to manufacturer lenses that do not have a "fixed" aperture.

Moral of the story... if you are going to shoot at night or in low light situations make sure you take at least one lens that is "fast, even if it's not a zoom (non zoom lenses are typically faster than zoom lenses because they contain less glass in them). You'll use that one at night and you will thank yourself.

Everything in photography is a compromise.

OK... now that we have the lens tech out of the way, let's move on.

So you are out in the bush at night on a night game drive and they come across a leopard in a tree. Yes, you could use a flash and capture this shot... providing the flash is powerful enough. But flash photography in the wild never looks great and it may do two things. First, it will most likely scare off the animal. Second, it could damage the animal's retina. So don't do that. Some animals can actually be blinded by flash photography. Fastest way to sign a frog's death sentence, for example, is to take a nighttime flash photograph of it.

So now what?

First, crank the ISO in your camera up as high as you are comfortable with. Today's cameras can go way high... some up to the 60,000 range. But again, remember, a super high ISO can degrade your picture so run a few tests at home before you go to Africa. Typically you want to shoot with the ISO as low as you can and still freeze the action. But you're shooting in near darkness. How big will you blow the pictures up when you get home? Or will you just want to show them to people via email or on your ipad? Shoot some pictures at various HIGH ISO's and look at them the way you will ultimately display them. You'll find your sweet spot. Then use that one over there for your night shots.

Shutter speed.

OK, pay attention here. Remember, your camera is like a little computer. When you point at a subject it starts making calculations. It says to itself... "OK, he wants to shoot this scene. His lens will open up or close down within this range.... His ISO is set at such and such.... Let me figure out how long to leave the shutter open". Seems easy enough. But it's tricky. Yes, your camera can leave the shutter open long enough to capture the picture but you have to be careful here. For the length of time that shutter is open, anything that moves can blur. Now this isn't a problem if you are shooting a mountain with nothing moving in the shot and you are set up on a tripod with an electronic cable release. In this situation who cares if the shutter stays open for 2 seconds? But that is not the situation you are in. You are shooting out of a safari vehicle and you don't even have a tripod with you because you can't get out of the vehicle (you are not at the top of the food chain in Africa... don't get out). And your subject is alive. It's breathing. It can move. So now what?

If your subject is hunting and moving around a lot you are in a really tough photographic situation and you may not be able to get that shot. But if it is relatively still you have a chance.

The human hand, even with today's built in camera and lens stabilization systems, can not hold a camera still enough to pop off a shot (IN FOCUS) when the camera shoots at less than 1/20th of a second. Just the pressure you put on the button to fire the camera can move the camera enough to slightly blur the shot. We call this motion blur. So recognize this. Learn to see what shutter speed your camera is shooting at. It typically shows up in the bottom of your viewfinder on a decent camera. You are going to be resting you camera on a beanbag from inside the safari vehicle most likely. Crank up your ISO, focus your lens, make sure it is open to the widest aperture it can open to, tell everyone not to move, hold your breath and CLICK.

Fortunately, your guide is going to have a big Q-beam spotlight with him and he is going to be able to illuminate your subject somewhat. That will help. Make sure he holds it still so the light is not dancing all over the place. Hopefully the moon will be out... that also helps. Shoot the same shot a dozen times, we call it the shotgun approach. You'll get one that you will be happy with... if it's possible. And don't be afraid to just put the camera down and watch. Sometimes it's not shootable... but still amazing. And don't try to make it look like it's not night? Go with the environment. I'm jealous.

Good luck... and send me some pictures!

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