Photographing Nocturnal Animals


I have enjoyed photographing night creatures for over 30 years and my ideas and equipment have continually evolved. With the rapid advancement in camera technology and the advent of LED illumination it is now possible to photograph birds flying at night. This trend will continue and the techniques and equipment I use today will quickly become outdated. For those interested in this type of photography the additional equipment that is needed can be as simple as a decent spotlight and an assistant or as complex as you wish. These are my thoughts and techniques as of February 2018, which I hope will provide insight and tempt you to venture out at night and enjoy your photography in a different light.


Photography in darkness requires the use of artificial light in the form of either a continuous light source or electronic flash. There are several important differences between daylight and light sources which the experienced night photographer understands and is familiar with.

A fundamental characteristic of light is that the intensity (brightness) of light reaching an object, decreases in proportion to the square of the distance from the light source. The diagram below shows that if an object is located at "d" it would be four times brighter than if it was located at "2d" which is twice as far from the light. Each time the distance from the light source is doubled, to obtain the same exposure the photographer must increase the exposure by the the equivalent of two f-stops. Likewise, if the distance is halved the exposure needs to be reduced by the equivalent of two f-stops.

For outdoor photography during daylight, the sun is so far away from Earth that the brightness of an object does not vary with distance and this characteristic of light can be conveniently ignored. However, a photographer on Mars which is 1.5 times further away from the sun, would need to increase the exposure by the equivalent of one f-stop.

Continuous lights - are great for photographing animals that are stationary. Filament and Xenon arc lamps produce light of good colour quality but they are not very portable. LED lights are portable and bright but they produce poor colour because most models use LED's with low colour rendering index. LEDS's with high colour rendering index are available and will soon appear in higher quality LED lights. With continuous light, exposure is determined using the camera metering system by adjusting shutter speed, aperture or ISO. The Tawny Frogmouth below was sitting on a fence post by the roadside and I used the car headlights for illumination and the camera to determine an exposure of 1/15s at f 5.3 and 9,000 ISO.

Electronic flash - the ideal portable light source. Flash units contain complex electronics that produce an electrical discharge inside a transparent tube and terminate the discharge when sufficient light has been emitted. The flash-tube is filled with xenon gas which produces intense light having a colour comparable with midday sunlight. Most models have an auto mode, however I recommend using one that also has manual power settings which control the light output in f-stop increments.

The composite image below shows a series of photos of an operating ceiling fan. One blade was painted on the edge with white paint and black lines. Images in the top row were taken using continuous light and show the effect of camera shutter speed in stopping motion. The bottom row, taken using an electronic flash on different power settings at a camera shutter speed of 1/200s, illustrates the superior motion stopping ability of electronic flash. Comparison of these images also reveals that the maximum 1/4,000s shutter speed of my camera is equivalent to a power setting of 1/4 and the motion stopping ability of the 1/32 power setting is equivalent to a staggering shutter speed of around 1/20,000s.

Flash extender - a Fresnel lens placed in front of the flash is a useful aid to a telephoto lens at night. It concentrates the light into a narrow beam, typically providing a 2-3 f-stop increase in light intensity at the expense of reduced illumination angle. The images below illustrate the benefit of a flash extender and were taken using a 50mm lens with identical camera/flash settings and image processing.



The various types of focus sensors used in DSLR cameras essentially measure subject contrast. The camera continually adjusts the lens focus until maximum contrast is obtained at the focus point indicated in the viewfinder. Illumination, subject contrast and movement, independently affect the cameras ability to focus accurately and quickly. At night, additional illumination is required for the system to work efficiently.

LED flashlights and spotlights provide sufficient light output to focus on stationary subjects, however flying birds require very intense illumination to enable the camera to rapidly achieve focus. A fast telephoto lens is also helpful as it increases the amount of light received by the autofocus sensor. I am of the belief that deep red light is ideal for watching and focusing on stationary animals because nocturnal eyes have very poor sensitivity to red light, which therefore causes minimal disturbance.


Obtaining correct exposure with a continuous light source is achieved using the camera metering system. Auto-flash (TTL) relies on the camera in conjunction with the flash unit to determine when to terminate the light output. Auto-flash, like a camera in full auto mode, does not compensate for variation in subject contrast or background brightness and outside at night often produces disappointing results. For this reason I prefer using flash on manual power settings.

Prior to a night outing, I "calibrate" my camera/flash set-up by taking test shots at night of an object of average shade and contrast such as a tree trunk, at a known distance. My flash on the 1/4 power setting and camera on ISO 800 gives good shooting range and motion stopping ability. I then calculate a working guide number for those settings which I record on a piece of white tape on my flash extender for quick reference. For example, if the best test shot of a tree trunk 5m away was f16, the working guide number, is obtained by multiplying 5 x 16 to get 80 metres. This working guide number is correct only for the setup which it was calibrated!

To photograph a bird 10 meters away, I can simply divide the working guide number by the distance ie 80/10 to get f8. If I decided to use f5.6 instead of f8, I would need to either reduce the light output from the flash by one f-stop, by reducing either the power or the ISO. Providing I estimated the subject distance correctly, the first exposure is usually close to the mark.

Many modern flash units such as the Nikon SB-800 have an illuminated LCD display where you can set the f-stop, ISO, zoom head position and then simply adjust the power setting to match the subject distance. This is a very simple and fast way to get a near-correct exposure first time.

Gear and handling

When working from a car or with an assistant, photographing an animal in the dark is pretty straightforward. When you are alone and in darkness, simple tasks such as changing camera and flash settings and trying to manage lights and other gear is difficult and error prone. If you work alone as I usually do, it is a great help to simplify your setup and pre-configure as many equipment settings as possible to minimise lost opportunities. My general setup is shown below on the left and incorporates an 80-400mm zoom lens, camera bracket, flash with flash extender, and focusing lights. It is simple and robust and makes working in the dark easy. For flying birds I use the set-up on the right which includes camera bracket, very intense focus lights and a fast 180mm f2.8 lens.

Tripod - A tripod is useful for photographing subjects at fixed locations such as roosts or nests. I have used a small lightweight carbon fibre tripod to support my camera or as a stand for an off-camera flash.

Slaves and triggers - Occasionally I use off-camera flash triggered by sync. cables or  Pocket Wizzard Plus-X radio triggers which are usually reliable. Previously  I have used Nikon's clever inbuilt 'CLS' system which employs line-of-sight infrared signals between flash and camera, however it is time consuming to set up and very unreliable in the bush due beam path obstructions from leaves, branches and unseen objects.




Camera settings

Settings Banks - Many cameras allow you to save your favourite settings for quick recall. My camera has two banks which I have configured for night use, one for flying birds and one for stationary subjects. It saves enormous time and frustration when working in the dark to be able to select your settings simply by rotating a knob.

Image format - RAW file format has a much higher capacity for correcting white balance and for salvaging great shots which would have be spoilt by over or under exposure if they were created as JPG files.

LCD Monitor - At night the monitor screen appears very much brighter than it does during the day and often images which look adequately exposed are considerably underexposed. For night work I turn the monitor brightness right down and for important shots I also check the image histogram to make sure the exposure is OK.

Shooting Mode - My camera is always set to manual mode because I always use flash at night.

Focus - I use the camera back-button to autofocus and the shutter button to shoot. For stationary birds I prefer using a single central focus point with continuous autofocus and for flying birds I use Group area autofocus. I apologise to the non-Nikon users whose settings go by different names. Camera brands and models have a multitude of focus modes and I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to expound on which ones are the best.

ISO - Producing sufficient light to properly expose and obtain a 'motion-free' image at night can be difficult. High ISO has the equivalent effect of using a more powerful flash unit, however the downside is that it also produces more image noise. ISO 800 produces an acceptable level of image noise on my camera (Nikon D750) and I use it as my go-to night setting.

Aperture - Using a wide aperture is desirable to isolate the subject from the background and increase the maximum working range of the flash. The downside of using the aperture wide open is that accurate focus is more critical and some lenses are soft when used wide open.

Shutter speed - When using flash and a DSLR with focal plane shutter, the maximum shutter speed should be set no higher than the maximum flash sync speed, which is around 1/200s for many models. At night, the surrounds are usually dark and it is the short duration of the pulse of light from the flash which stops motion, not the shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds can be useful to record ambient light detail as shown for the Barking owl below which was taken at 1/15s and the bird remained sharp because it was exposed by flash.


Nocturnal Eyes

Pupils - Unfortunately, a continuous light always produces contracted pupils when the bird is looking toward it and this is especially noticeable with birds having a light coloured iris as apparent for the young Boobook owl below on the left. Large eyes are a prominent feature of nocturnal birds and if we were able see in darkness we would observe that their pupils are always dilated as shown for the adult Boobook on the right. Dilated pupils look natural and can be captured using electronic flash by pre-focusing the camera and turning off the focus light(s) a few seconds before shooting.



Red-eye occurs when the light source is located close to the camera and light is reflected from the eye into the lens. It can be avoided by moving the light away from the camera or moving closer to the bird to increase the 'flash-bird-lens' angle, as shown in the diagrams and images of the White-throated nightjar and Powerful owl below. Increasing the angle can be achieved via a camera bracket or off-camera flash triggered by PC cables, slaves or radio triggers. Often red-eye can be removed by skilful photo editing, however, photos with red-eye also lack feather texture due to the flat shadowless illumination associated with the shallow angle. Consequently where possible, I prefer to avoid red-eye rather than having to fix it.

Sometimes you can't avoid red-eye and when this happens you can often remove it successfully using photo-editing software. Pupils almost always have some light and colour in them, so I prefer to darken them by 'burning' the shadows and mid-tones, then desaturating until they are almost but not quite black. You can also 'dodge' the catchlights and other eye reflections to enhance the appearance of the eyes as shown below.



Flying birds

Flying birds present a greater challenge to photograph especially at night. Images can be obtained by shooting a bird leaving or arriving on a pre-focused perch or by focusing on the bird in flight. The Tawny frogmouth below was taken by pre-focusing on the perch it was using and watching it with a dim red light until it flew. The Grass owl was focused in flight using a camera bracket incorporating high intensity lights.



My thoughts and ideas should be viewed as a guide for those interested in night photography. They should not be considered as binding, rather as ideas and techniques that have worked for me. I hope this article can assist you in developing yours skills in photographing nocturnal creatures at night and encourage you to give it a go.



Observing Nocturnal Animals

Night observation is very different from observation during daylight. At night we rely on our sense of hearing combined with sight and artificial light to locate animals. Nocturnal birds and mammals have very acute senses compared to ours and they are usually aware of us long before we see them. Most often I find an animal by its call or the noise it makes as it moves, then I locate it using eye-shine.


Attraction aids

Many nocturnal animals can be attracted to the calls made by their own species and sometimes by the calls of other species. Recorded calls are often played during owl surveys and by photographers and occasionally I use them when I look for owls at new locations. Playing calls can be highly disruptive and stressful to the animal if not used judiciously and I do not encourage its general use. Playback should be avoided near nest sites during the breeding season. Owls are strongly territorial so you should resist the temptation of divulging their location to other potographers and twitchers, as word will quickly spread and the owl is sure to be harassed ("loose lips sink ships").


Nocturnal vision

Eyes contains two fundamental types of light receptors called cones and rods. Day active creatures (diurnal) including us, have an abundance of cone cells of two to at least four different types depending on the species, each type having a peak sensitivity to a different spectral wavelength (colour). The brain combines the signals from each cone type to enable colour vision, analagous to mixing three primary paint colours to achieve all the colours of the rainbow. Cones in most species don't work at very low light levels and therefore they don't contribute to colour vision at night.

Cone sensitivity

Rods can detect very low light intensity and enable nocturnal animals to see well at night. Rod cells in most species are sensitive to only one wavelength of light. In low light, cone cells don't work and the brain receives a single signal from the rods, which is why we humans and other diurnal animals don't see colour when it is dark. Nocturnal animals such as owls, cats and marsupials have retinas densely packed with rods and relatively few cones. This enables excellent vision in the dark but poor colour perception. The graph below shows that rods are sensitive to light around 500nm wavelength (cyan) and are insensitive to wavelengths longer than 650nm (deep red). Consequently, for watching nocturnal animals, deep red light is ideal because it causes minimum disturbance.

Rod sensitivity


Red lights

For observing animals at night I use home-made LED headlamps that use 630nm-660nm red LED's. As well as not disturbing the animal, red light does not spoil your own night vision. My favourite headlamp shown below, uses a 3 watt 630nm red LED and rechargeable lithium cell. It can be attached to a tripod and the beam can be spread to control the brightness. The main disadvantage of using red light is that you cannot see any other colour.



With red light, you are able to watch and photograph nocturnal animals behaving naturally. The photo below of a nesting Powerful owl was a 1/3 second exposure at f6.3 and ISO 6400 illuminated with the headlamp shown above. I observed this nest for many years with the aid of red light and the owls were always aware of my presence but were unconcerned. I watched this adult leave the hollow on dark and return a short time later with a Ringtail possum to feed its young. If I had used white light it probably would not have returned whilst I was watching or it may have abandoned the nest.



White flashlights

A white light is the second best option for viewing animals at night and has the advantage that you can see true colours and the colour of the animals eyeshine which can be useful for identification at a distance. During a holiday in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) I heard this animal in the forest just outside my hotel and with the aid of a LED torch held close to my own eyes, I located it by its beautiful blue eye-shine. It was a Mouse deer, not much larger than a rabbit.



Clothing and gear

Long-sleeved shirts, long pants and sturdy boots are essential in the bush at night to protect from cuts, scratches and bites. Depending on the weather, where I am going and for how long, I may also take warm clothing, rain jacket, snacks, water, insect repellent, first aid kit and something to sit on.

For a casual walk or scouting a new location, I may take only a headlamp. On other occasions I may take a map, GPS, camera and sound recorder. If I am watching a nesting owl, I may include tripod, binoculars or an Infrared viewer. Carrying all this gear can turn a casual walk into  a hard slog.


Safety at night

Being in the bush can be very rewarding and you usually locate more animals if you are alone because your senses are heightened. When alone you need to be better prepared and more careful. Your vision and sense of travel direction is poor compared to during the day and it is easy to become disoriented, lost or fall on something you didn't see. Each of these experiences has happened to me and now when I venture out alone I always:

·     Tell someone where I am going and when I expect to return

·     Know my exact location at all times and if unsure, stop until I have worked out where I am

·     Stay on the intended route unless I have navigation equipment or am familiar with the area

·     When I venture off-track I always watch where I place each footstep to avoid a fall.


Richard Jackson



As a child I grew up in the northern suburbs of Sydney with Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park as my back yard. After school and on weekends I would spend countless hours with my best friend and school mates exploring the bush, catching tadpoles, yabbies and cicadas, damming creeks and playing hide and seek.


During those years I developed a love for the bush and became interested in the various birds and mammals that lived around me. I was always fascinated by the wonderful wildlife photos in National Geographic magazine and was in awe of the SLR film cameras advertised on the back pages. My passion for nature photography started at age fourteen when my parents bought me my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic. Dreams of magazine images were shattered when my first roll of film was developed and the beautiful Robin I photographed in my mother's rose garden appeared as a scarlet speck.


By age seventeen I had saved enough money for a Nikon F2 camera and 300mm lens which my father purchased for me, duty-free. Without success in achieving the stunning images I dreamed of, my interest in wildlife photography faded until after my first child was born. It was then when free time was so scarce, I decided one night to venture into the Royal National Park, near my home in Engadine, to see if there were any animals about. To my surprise and delight I saw possums and watched a Tawny Frogmouth fly up to a dead limb, close enough for me to photograph.


After overcoming my fear of the dark I quickly started to enjoy the solitude of being alone in a world of nocturnal creatures and the uncertainty and excitement of what I may find. With the advent of affordable digital cameras with fast and accurate autofocus it became much easier to take quality images at night and I now look at my prized photos from the past and keep them as momentos.


My main photographic interest is in owls and nocturnal mammals and therefore I love nothing more than heading into the bush when most people are calling it a day. As the sun sets a world few are aware of awakens, where I observe creatures that most only see in books.


I owe my continued interest in this hobby to Julie my wife for her loving support and ongoing encouragement for over thirty years. Thank you to Gerard Satherly who built this website for me and to the friends I have made at Feathers & Photos Bird forum who have taught me so much about photography.


I hope you enjoy my photos and if you would like to contact me my e-mail address is prsj56[at]