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 through years of tinkering and if you come up with any improvements please contact me as I would love to hear about them.
Brackets & Lights
I make light-weight carbon fibre brackets, to increase the distance of the flash from the camera and reduce red-eye in photos taken at close to moderate distances. My brackets shown below, incorporate 'push-button' lights to enable the camera to autofocus fast and accurately in darkness. For flying birds I use the setup on the left and for stationary birds, the one on the right. A very bright light source is needed for the camera to focus on a flying bird, one that is many times brighter than required to focus on a stationary bird the same distance away. With spotlights and flash units, it is important to understand that the brightness of the light reaching the subject decreases rapidly with the distance away from the light source. For the same brightness, a subject at twice the distance requires a light that is four times brighter and at 3 times the distance a light 9 times brighter! The left bracket incorporates a 30 watt white LED to produce an intense spot beam with considerable spill light to locate the bird. The bracket on the right incorporates variable brightness red lights which enables focusing on static subjects up to 50m away.
I use a 80-400mm f4.5-f5.6 lens for most subjects and for birds flying I use a 180mm f2.8 telephoto. For the reasons listed below, I prefer using my 180mm f2.8 lens for flying birds.
- A short telephoto is smaller, lighter and more manouverable
- It is easier to locate the bird in the viewfinder of a short tele because it covers a wider angle of view
- Shorter focal length means you photograph the bird when it is closer to the camera and the camera will autofocus faster because there is more light on the bird
- At closer range the flash can expose the bird using a shorter pulse of light, resulting in sharper images with little motion blur
- With a close subject you avoid red-eye and get better detail and feather texture
- A fast short telephoto is a fraction of the price of a long lele having the same maximum aperture
Camera and settings
Currently I use a Nikon D750 DSLR which is a full-frame camera with excellent autofocus and low-light performance.
for night photography these are my preferred camera settings:
- Back-button focus which has several benefits in addition to allowing me to isolate shutter release and focusing
- Use the central auto focus point for static subjects
- For flying birds I use group area autofocus, which is one of Nikon's multi focus point dynamic area modes
- Shutter speed set to the maximum sync. speed for the camera. The ability to freeze movement at night depends on the flash duration and NOT shutter speed
- ISO set to 800 which I feel is the optimum value for the D750. High ISO enables the camera to expose the subject using a shorter burst of light from the flash
- Camera set to rear-curtain sync. This produce trails behind a moving subject rather than in front of it.
I use Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 speedlights often in conjunction with a fresnel lens (better beamer), which focuses the light into a narrow beam giving the equivalent of at least 2 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 because I find it produces overexposed and blurred images for flying birds. 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 Pocket Wizzard Plus-X radio triggers. Sync cables and radio triggers are reliable. I have previously used Nikon's inbuilt 'CLS' system with 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.