Basics Behind Spotlight Photography

This is a topic that always has plenty of discussions around it. On my recent safari my guests and I discussed it, how to use the spotlight to your advantage, what the camera settings should be and how to manipulate your camera in different situations while using a spotlight to get the best results.

For many photographers, when the light starts to fall and the sun begins to set, they put their cameras down and head back towards camp. This is not the way to look at it. For many of us photographs, we fall into our comfort zone, we enjoy photography and are reasonably happy with our results, but why settle for reasonably happy? When you can be thrilled with your results?

I have mentioned this on many occasions before and I will say it again – The beauty of photography is that there are no rules and each one of us has a unique eye and approach to photography. This uniqueness should be cultivated and constantly pushed to better your photographic ability and become a better photographer.

When it comes to spotlight photography, it is no different. I know the thought of photographing subjects at night can be a challenging one, but it is not one that should intimidate you. As mentioned above, it is all about learning and pushing yourself to be a better photographer.

I don’t want to confuse you all with a bunch of numbers and explanations, but I believe in wildlife photography, that we should always control the elements that we can as there are so many external elements that are out of our control. Sounds silly doesn’t it? But, it is all about getting the basics right.

I always try and prep my guests as to what settings they should be using at different times of the day/night and why those settings are necessary. Its not to say that these settings are 100% correct, but it gives you a good starting point and if there are any manipulations, they will be minimal and the photographer saves valuable seconds that can make all the difference.

Settings for Spotlight Photography:

There are 2 different ways to achieve good results at night.

The first is by using Av/A – Aperture Priority mode. This is the mode which I use for 80% of my photography. It allows me to manipulate my camera and make changes according to the shutter speed my camera is giving me. When I hold the camera up to my eye, the first thing I look at is the shutter speed. The understanding behind the exposure triangle(Iso – Light sensitivity, Aperture – Depth of field and Shutter speed – amount of light entering the camera) is crucial in getting the most out of your photography.

So here is a great starting point and two examples for you to try next time you find yourself out in the field…

AV/A Mode

ISO – 1600 – 2000

F-Stop(aperture value) – F4 The lower the better.

Exposure compensation – negative 2 full stops – 2 full stops UNDER EXPOSED.

Metering mode – Spot metering(utilizing all the light possible to best effect)

This is the safer method to be using as the shutter speed will automatically adjust to the correct exposure whether the animal is stationary or on the move, which means it is one less thing for you to worry about.

Manual mode

ISO – 1600 – 2000

F-Stop(aperture value) – F4 The lower the better.

Shutter Speed – 1/160

It is a bit more tricky to get the correct exposure as there are a few different variables that come in to play such as:

The brightness of the spotlight, how far your subject is away from you & is your subject moving?

The best way to get the right exposure is to play around with your shutter speed. If the animal is on the move towards you, have a shot in mind and a distance halfway between your subject and yourself. Set the shutter to 1/320 of a second and fire away. You will find that the first few and the last few will be to dark and to light respectively, don’t be despondent, the shot you were after are the 2/3 in-between shots where the subject is perfectly exposed. Why did I recommend 1/320? It is a fast enough shutter to freeze your entire subject and eliminate the blur factor.

With both these methods, shooting in low light requires you to be as stable as possible. Either using a gimbal mount to the vehicle or use a bean bag to maintain stability for best results.

It is very much trial and error, but once you understand how each of your settings effect one another, you are well on your way to bettering not only your spotlight photography but your photography as a whole.

Try it! don’t be afraid – Results just may surprise you…

If you have any questions on the above or would like me to elaborate more on something specific, drop me a comment below and I will gladly assist you where I can.

Until next time,


2 thoughts on “Basics Behind Spotlight Photography

  1. Mandeep Mistry


    Hey Trev, very useful article! A couple of questions:
    1) Does the under-exposing by 2 stops lead to a dark black background, whilst the subject’s face is lit through the flashlight?
    2) Why not use a matrix-metering (the average tonality of the scene would be dark so under-exposing by a couple of stops would give proper exposure)?

  2. Karina Robin


    Thank you, Trevor! I always used method 2 up to now, but will definitely give the first method a go on the next safari (maybe in India in 3 weeks ?)

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