Photographing wildlife at night is a unique experience, but, is a possibility in most Southern African Reserves, where night drives are permitted.
I will be the first to admit however, that I am not a huge fan of night drives. Personally I feel that this should be a time when wildlife should be left alone to do their thing. The only exception to this rule would be if nocturnal predators such as Lion and Leopard are active and showcasing behaviour not often seen during the day, or if you have a sighting of nocturnal species such as Aardvark, Pangolin and Porcupine.
Night drives are conducted by using spotlights to find these nocturnal species, mostly by seeing the reflection of their eyes. Diurnal species such as Antelope and other diurnal predators, should not be viewed, let alone photographed at night, as their eyes are not well adapted to dealing with the harsh, bright light (similar to humans being blinded by a spotlight).
However, when presented with opportunities to photograph nocturnal animals, there are a few tips and tricks that can help you achieve striking images.
In simple terms, if you had to put your camera on Evaluative or Matrix metering, your camera basically assess the entire scene (a lot of which will be dark since you are photographing at night) and will try and expose for those dark areas, which means that your shutter speed will have to be very slow in order to get enough light to get detail.
Spot metering basically just takes the exposure reading from where your focal point is. So if your focal point is on the leopard for example, it will ignore all other parts of the frame and just give you an exposure reading on the leopard. This will mean that you will achieve a faster shutter speed as there is now light (spotlight) on your subject.
If you are shooting in Manual mode, you can simply increase your shutter speed, darkening the entire background to get the right exposure on your subject. It is vital that you are continuously aware of how far your subject is from you. The further your subject moves from you, the less impact the spotlight will have, the slower your shutter speed needs to be. As your subject moves closer to you, the light from the spotlight will be more intense, which means your shutter speed needs to increase to avoid your subject being overexposed.
Probably my personal favourite. If you have more than one vehicle in a sighting, using their spotlight, position yourself behind the subject with the spotlight shining in your direction. Once again, because there is now less light available, using spot metering and focussing on the highlighted areas on your subject, you can create incredible rim lit images. This works best if your subject is stationary.
In summary, night drives certainly have their advantages, provided they're conducted in an ethical way, but it is done properly, it can yield some incredible results.
P.S. Don't be disappointed at your first attempts at spotlight photography, it is a difficult technique to master, and will yield less than ideal results more often than not.. but keep at it!
Till next time...