Photography Tips for Night Game-Drives on Safari

By Sarah Gold June 24, 2020

If you’re planning a night game drive as part of your African safari itinerary (and there are many reasons why you should), you may have concerns about how to document the experience with photography. It’s true that taking wildlife photos at night can present some unique challenges. But by following the recommendations below—and maintaining a sense of adventure and openness to possibility—you’ll maximize your chances of returning from your night drive with memorable images.

cheetah at night
Micato Safari Director Sid Hayes snapped this photo of a leopard drinking on a night game drive in South Africa.

Night Photography Expectations and Ethics

First, it’s a good idea to make sure you adjust your expectations about the sort of pictures you’ll likely take on a night drive. Not only will the conditions be a far cry from those you’ll enjoy on a daytime trek—you’ll be surrounded by darkness, only penetrated by your guides’ sweeping spotlight and your vehicle’s headlights—but the animals you’ll photograph will be different, too.

Many African wildlife species—including thrilling predators like leopards, lions, and hyenas, and rarely seen creatures like honey badgers and bush babies—are nocturnal and unbothered by being illuminated and photographed at night. But others, like elephants, rhinos, and antelopes, are mainly diurnal, with eyes that are too sensitive for the bright night-drive spotlights. You should trust the expertise of your Micato Safari Directors and Driver-Guides; they will know best which animals can be safely approached, and which should be left alone.

You should also do your part to behave ethically toward any nighttime wildlife you train your camera on. If an animal is pivoted away from you, resist the temptation to make noises in an attempt to turn it your way. You should also avoid using the flash on your camera when photographing animals, except when your guides tell you it’s all right. The blazing bursts of light can frighten and disorient many creatures, or even cause temporary blindness, which can put them in danger.

Setting and Using Your Camera for Night Photography

The extremely limited light sources on a night drive are what typically give photographers the most trouble. But using the right shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings, and positioning your camera correctly, will allow you to make the most of the tricky light conditions—and nab some potentially striking shots. Here are some basic rules of thumb.

  • Use a fairly low a shutter speed—and stabilize. You’ll want to let as much light as possible into your lens, which means setting your shutter speed as slow as you can. If you’ve got a tripod or window mount to stabilize your camera, you can go as low as 1/150th of a second; if you’re doing handheld photography, try starting at 1/100th of a second, enough to let in a good amount of light without risking camera shake.
  • Use a wide-open aperture. Again, since letting in light is key, you’ll want to set your aperture to the lowest f-stop possible. For some higher-end cameras, that might mean as low as f2.8; midrange cameras may only go down to around f5.6. Either way, since photos taken with a wide aperture will have a shallow depth of field—meaning some parts of an animal may be in focus while others aren’t—take extra care to home in on its face.
  • High ISO is the way to go. Though a high ISO setting can make photos “noisy” (grainy or mottled in appearance), it also allows for more brightness in low-light settings. So, if you can, test out your camera before your night drive to see how high a setting you can tolerate. (Pro-grade cameras can have ISO capacity above 5000, but lower-priced models usually max out around 1600.)
  • If the animal moves, so should your camera. Though some of the creatures you’ll encounter on your night drive may be standing or lying still, others will likely be in motion—and possibly even engaged in high-speed chase. That’s when you’ll want to use panning—tracking your camera along with the movement of the animal—for the best photographic results. Though it takes some practice (and is easiest if you have a tripod or window mount with a swivelling head), this technique yields dynamic photos where the sharply in-focus subject is juxtaposed against a blurred background.
  • Put the camera down once in a while. The magic of a night drive—all the sounds, smells, and sometimes-unphotographable sights—goes far beyond what you may or may not capture with your camera. Make sure to get out from behind your viewfinder from time to time, and really savour the splendour of the African night.

A Micato safari gives you access to the most exquisite African experiences—including night drives with some of the continent’s most experienced local guides. Contact one of our safari experts and start planning your journey.

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