The equipment I use has been chosen primarily for photographing animals at night and is constantly changing as I find ways to improve it. There is nothing set in stone here, it is just what I have developed over many years of tinkering, which I have found works for me.
Brackets & Lights
I use home-made brackets made from light weight carbon fibre, shown below, to increase the distance of the flash from the camera and reduce red-eye in photos taken at close to moderate distances. My brackets incorporate 'push-button' lights to enable the camera to autofocus fast and accurately in darkness. For birds flying, the setup I use is shown on the left and for stationary birds I use the one on the right. For flying birds an EXTREMELY bright light source is needed, one that is many times brighter that the light required to focus on a stationary bird the same distance away. With lights it is essential to understand that the intensity decreases rapidly with the distance away from the light. If you don't like maths, this means that if you double the focusing distance you need a light that is four times brighter to be as effective. The left bracket incorporates a 30 watt white LED and a lens to produce a very tight central beam with considerable spill light so I can locate the bird even when it is outside the centre of the beam. The bracket on the right incorporates a red light which projects a cross-hatch pattern to enable focusing up 50m away.
At night I use a Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-f5.6 to photograph stationary animals. For flying birds I use a Nikkor 180mm f2.8 which I prefer to longer focal length lenses.
For flight photographs at night I believe a short telephoto has the following advantages over a long lens:
- It is smaller, lighter and more manouverable
- Much cheaper for the same maximum lens aperture
- Far easier to locate the bird in the viewfinder because the angle of coverage is wider
- A shorter focal length means you can photograph the bird when it is closer. This enables the camera to autofocus quicker because it is illuminated more brightly than a bird further away
- When close in, the flash can expose the bird using a much shorter flash duration, resulting in sharper images with less motion blur
- With a closer subject you can often completely avoid red-eye and you get better detail and feather texture
Camera and settings
Currently I use a Nikon D750 DSLR which is a full-frame camera with excellent autofocus ability and a large sensor with good noise performance in low light.
The camera settings I prefer to use for birds at night are:
- Back-button focus (Google it!) which has several benefits in addition to allowing me to separate the shutter release from the focusing.
- Single central auto focus point for static subjects
- Group area autofocus, which is one of Nikon's multi focus point dynamic area modes, for flying birds
- Shutter speed set to the maximum sync. speed for my camera, which is 1/200s. The ability to freeze movement at night depends ONLY on the flash duration
- ISO usually set to 800. A high camera ISO enables the camera to expose the subject using a shorter burst of light from the flash
- Camera set to rear-curtain sync (Google it!) which gives light trails behind a moving subject.
I use Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 speedlights sometimes with a fresnel lens (better beamer), which focuses the light into a narrow beam to provide the equivalent of 2-3 f-stops additional light! For flying birds I use manual power setting on the flash, generally in the range 1/4 power to 1/16 power. I avoid TTL mode for flight shots because I find it produces overexposed and blurred images. Below, you can see for these flash units, power settings of 1/4 or less produce very short flash durations.
Power SB-800 SB-600
1/1 1/1050s 1/900s
1/2 1/1100s 1/1600s
1/4 1/2700s 1/3400s
1/8 1/5900s 1/6600s
1/16 1/10900s 1/11100s
1/32 1/17800s 1/20000s
A sturdy tripod is useful for photographing subjects at fixed locations such as roosts or nests. Occasionally I use a small lightweight carbon fibre tripod for the camera or as a stand for a flash unit.
Occasionally I use off-camera flash triggered by sync. cables or radio devices. Sync cables and the Pocket Wizzard Plus-X radio triggers are reliable. Previously I used Nikon's inbuilt 'CLS' system which uses line-of-sight infrared signals, however it is time consuming to set up and is unreliable in the bush due beam path obstructions from leaves, branches and other unseen objects.