How to Photograph Animals on Safari Using a Spotlight

Night drives on safari can make for an amazing experience and will give you a glimpse into what happens under the cover of darkness in the African bush.  On top of that you will have some amazing opportunities of photographing nocturnal animals - like lions and leopard - with the use of spotlights where the play of light and shadows will you help you to create amazing African wildlife visuals.

How to Photograph Animals on Safari Using a Spotlight

I know what some of you are thinking as it's something a lot of people on safari mention as well. You don't think you can create images like this because:

  1. It's something only 'professional' photographers can do.
  2. You're nervous to shoot in manual mode.
  3. You don't really understand the relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
  4. You're not sure how to manage the intensity of light when using a spotlight and your images are always too dark or too light.

Right, so let me respond the first three points first and then we can go from there.

  1. You shouldn't worry about what people think.  Just don't.  And if someone insists on calling themselves a 'professional' you should worry even less.
  2. Don't be.  If you are comfortable to shoot in Av or Tv mode you have enough knowledge to shoot in M.  Learn.
  3. Learn.

With  that said let's get to the last point of how you can manage the intensity of light when photographing nocturnal animals with a spotlight on safari.

Before we look at how you can use shutter speed to manage the intensity of light on a subject let's confirm the base settings for shooting spotlit animals on safari.   First thing you're going to have to do is go to Manual mode.  The reason for this is you're going to have to use all the technical variables at your disposal to squeeze as much light as possible from a dark scene.  As a rough average I normally recommend the following to my guests in the field:

  • ISO: 2,500
  • SS:  250
  • Aperture: f/2.8

If you have a lens that can shoot wide open at f/2.8 it's easy to remember to just go with 2's - 2,500, 250, 2.8.   If your lens cannot get down to f/2.8 you could use the following manual settings as a starting point:

  • ISO: 3,200
  • SS:  200
  • Aperture: f/4 (or then as low as you can go)

The above settings, in Manual mode, will give you a pretty solid place from which to start and a small tweak here or there will then give you the opportunity to manage the exposure of your spotlit images.  The idea is to lock down two of the variables - in this case Aperture and ISO - and then only play with one to manage exposure and with this kind of shooing this is easiest done by using shutter speed as your main technical weapon.

Now with the above settings dialed in you're ready to go and photograph spotlit animals and then only change shutter speed to increase or decrease the exposure of your frame.

On a static sighting, where the distance between you and the subject stays constant, it's pretty simple.  Take a sketch shot, look at it and then make the changes as necessary:

  • Slower shutter speed - brighter image as more light enters the frame.
  • Faster shutter speed - darker images as less light enters the frame.

By playing around with your shutter speed on a static subject you will then quickly find a happy shooting speed to create solid spotlight images.

I know what some of you are thinking as it's something a lot of people on safari mention as well. You don't think you can create images like this because: It's something only 'professional' photographers can do. You're nervous to shoot in manual mode. You don't really understand the relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture. You're not sure how to manage the intensity of light when using a spotlight and your images are always too dark or too light. Right, so let me respond the first three points first and then we can go from there. You shouldn't worry about what people think.  Just don't.  And if someone insists on call themselves a 'professional' you should worry even less. Don't be.  If you are comfortable to shoot in Av or Tv mode you have enough knowledge to shoot in M.  Learn. Learn. With  that said let's get to the last point of how you can manage the intensity of light when photographing nocturnal animals with a spotlight on safari. Before we look at how you can use shutter speed to manage the intensity of light on a subject let's confirm the base settings for shooting spotlit animals on safari.   First thing you're going to have to do is go to Manual mode.  The reason for this is you're going to have to use all the technical variables at your disposal to squeeze as much light as possible from a dark scene.  As a rough average I normally recommend the following to my guests in the field: ISO: 2,500 SS:  250 Aperture: f/2.8 If you have a lens that can shoot wide open at f/2.8 it's easy to remember to just go with 2's - 2,500, 250, 2.8.   If your lens cannot get down to f/2.8 you could use the following manual settings as a starting point: ISO: 3,200 SS:  200 Aperture: f/4 (or then as low as you can go) The above settings, in Manual mode, will give you a pretty solid place from which to start and a small tweak here or there will then give you the opportunity to manage the exposure of your spotlit images.  The idea is to lock down two of the variables - in this case Aperture and ISO - and then only play with one to manage exposure and with this kind of shooing this is easiest done by using shutter speed as your main technical weapon. Now with the above settings dialed in you're ready to go and photograph spotlit animals and then only change shutter speed to increase or decrease the exposure of your frame. On a static sighting, where the distance between you and the subject stays constant, it's pretty simple.  Take a sketch shot, look at it and then make the changes as necessary: Slower shutter speed - brighter image as more light enters the frame. Faster shutter speed - darker images as less light enters the frame. By playing around with your shutter speed on a static subject you will then quickly find a happy shooting speed to create solid spotlight images.

The interesting challenge now starts when you are trying to photography animals at night.  With a spotlight.  Shooting in manual.  And they're moving around.

The important thing to remember is that the only thing that changes is that the distance from you to the subject will be changing all the time which means that the intensity of light - the brightness - of your subject will be changing all the time.  The important thing to do here is to stay calm and just think about how much light you are seeing through your viewfinder and then change your shutter speed accordingly.

How to Photograph Animals on Safari Using a Spotlight

here is a quick reminder of the basics when the same light source is illumination your subject at different distances:

  • Subject far away
    • Your heart rate is low
    • Your shutter speed should be low
  • Subject close by
    • Your heart rate is faster
    • Your shutter speed should be faster

Yes, there are many more variable and situations we can discuss around spotlight and low light shooting -  and we will do so in due course - but if you work on understanding and implanting the above I guarantee that you will not only start getting some striking images but also a better understanding of light and your camera.

How to Photograph Animals on Safari Using a Spotlight

Good luck and happy shooting!

Until next time,

Trevor

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