Night Drive Photography Tips

October 12, 2011  By: Gretchen

Night drives can be an incredibly exciting part of an African safari.  They are only allowed in certain areas and specific parks, but if you’re interested in seeing lions in action rather than napping, a night drive might just be your best chance.

Photography at night comes with an entirely different set of challenges.  Recently, several camps have started using red filters on the spotlights used to find game at night.  This has resulted in some complaints from photographers about the added challenge of capturing wildlife with the camera, however it absoultely better for the animals themselves.  This in depth information on the switch to red filters and a few photography tips to compensate come from our friends at Chiawa Camp in the Lower Zambezi area of Zambia.

Why do we offer night game drives?
Night drives afford an excellent opportunity and perspective in which to view predators but also all the secretive nocturnal animals that one seldom sees in daylight. Not only are these animals out and about at night, but they are usually much easier to find than they would be in daylight, simply by using the reflection from their eyes.

So what’s the problem with the spot lights?
Shining a powerful white spot-light on animals at night is hugely disruptive to the animal’s behaviour and hence, ultimately, its well-being. Additionally, using a white spot-light when animals are hunting will inevitably interfere with the outcome. Either the hunter will be revealed to its prey and the hunt ruined, or its task will be made unnaturally easy.

How do we know – is there any science and/or experience to prove this?
There are two types of light-receptor cells in an eye: rods, which are light-sensitive, and cones, which are color sensitive. Most mammals have many more rods and less cones than humans do, making their eyes more sensitive to light and allowing them to see better in low light conditions. The eye normally protects itself against bright light by automatically reducing the size of the pupil in bright conditions to limit the amount of light coming in, and opening it up when it is dark, just as adjusting a camera aperture prevents over-exposure. Natural light changes gradually so the pupil has plenty of time to adjust to the change, but thoughtless humans with instantaneous artificial lights throw a spanner in the works – with no time for the pupil to adjust it gets hit with a million-candlepower white light and instantly the animal is effectively blind, vulnerable and unable to function properly.

Experiments have shown that cats’ eyes take 35 minutes to recover fully after only 60 seconds exposure to bright light. It is quite common to see a leopard which was walking purposefully along when first spotted stop and lie down when a white spot-light is put on it; this is not because it doesn’t care about the light, it is because it can’t see anything and it is waiting for you to go away so its eyes can recover. Impala are so disorientated by white light that when game capture was in its infancy the standard way to catch impala was to dazzle them with a spotlight and physically tackle them: the expression “like a deer in the headlights” is used internationally to describe someone helpless and unable to protect themselves.

So how does a red light help?
Red lights are standard on the bridges of ships because it has long been known that they do not affect one’s night vision in the way that white light does. Many mammals simply do not see the red spotlight at all. This means we can bathe a leopard in red light and the animals it is stalking cannot see it any better than they can in the natural ambient light, and vice-versa. The animals continue to go about their business as if the light was not there, because as far as they are concerned it isn’t. Hence, at Chiawa Camp & Old Mondoro, we only use filtered spot lights and prohibit the use of camera flashes on our night game drives.

But what about my photographs, won’t the red filter ruin them?
With access to modern digital cameras and image enhancement programs this practice need not compromise the quality of your images (or the behaviour and well being of the wildlife!) and yet will greatly enhance the quality of your nocturnal sightings. See the example photo below of the aardvark which would not even have been possible without using a filter, original “red” image compared to final image, achieved by following the simple steps below. Remember that our camp managers and guides are on hand to assist with any advice too …

Camera – increase the ISO (sensitivity) setting to at least 1600; increase your aperture to maximum setting, preferably 2.8 or 4.0; shutter speed 1/40, switch flash OFF – these settings achieved the original image.

Computer – we added exposure, removed most of the red/tint, added a touch of sepia – 30 secs – DONE!

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