Observing Animals at Night

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, which is the reflection of light from the retina.

 

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 I occasionally 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 others, as the word will quickly spread and the owl is sure to be harassed ("loose lips sink ships").

 

Nocturnal vision

The eye contains two fundamental types of light receptors called cones and rods. Diurnal (day active) birds and mammals including humans, have high densities of cone cells of two to four different types depending on the animal species, each having a peak sensitivity to a different spectral colour. The brain combines the signals from each cone type to enable colour vision. Unfortunately, cones are insensitive at low light intensity, which is why we cannot see colour outside at night.

Human Cone sensitivity

Rods can detect very low light intensities and enable vision in near darkness, however rods are only sensitive to the one spectral  colour, which is why we only see in shades of grey 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 at night but very poor colour perception. Rod cells are sensitive to light around 500nm wavelength (cyan) and are insensitive to wavelengths longer than 650nm (deep red). From this it follows that for watching nocturnal animals deep red light causes minimum disturbance.

Rod sensitivity

 

 

Red lights

For nocturnal observation red light has several advantages over white light. I have used home-made red headlamps made with 630nm and 660nm LEDS'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 3.6 volt lithium battery . It can be attached to a tripod and the beam can be spread to vary the brightness. The main disadvantage of using red light is that you cannot see other colours.

 

 

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 have observed this nest for many years with the aid of red light and the birds 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 chick. If I had used white light it probably would not have returned whilst I was watching or if this was earlier in the season, 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 the true colour of an animals eyeshine. During a holiday in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) I heard this animal in the forest just outside my hotel and with the aid of a 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 a 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 found during the day, I may take only a headlamp and spare battery. On other occasions I may take a map, GPS, photographic gear and sound recorder. If I am watching an nesting owl, I may include tripod, binoculars, special lighting or an Infrared viewer. With all this gear a casual walk can soon become a 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. Being alone you need to be better prepared and more careful. Your vision and sense of travel direction at night is poor compared to during the day and if you are not prepared and careful it is easy to become disoriented or lost of fall and injure yourself on something you didn't see. Each of these experiences has happened to me and now when I venture 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, I stop until I have worked out where I am

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

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

 

Red eye

 

 

 

Red eyes in an image is the undesirable consequence of reflected light from an artificial light source (usually an electronic flash) that is located too close to the camera. Eye-shine is similar to red-eye but is useful because it helps to locate animals that are so well camouflaged  they would otherwise be invisible.

 

The causes and solutions to avoid red-eye are shown in the diagrams below. Creating a wider angle between the light paths from the flash to the eyes and from the eyes to the camera lens will often prevent red-eye. I prefer getting close to the animal but for obvious reasons often that is not possible!

 

 

 

With very close subjects the required flash separation may only be a matter of a centimetres, however with  distant animals it may be necessary to move the flash up to several meters away. The owl below was at least 20 metres away and the flash had to be moved more than two metres off camera to avoid red eyes.

 

 

When red-eye cannot be avoided by moving closer or moving the light source further away, a bright light can be used to shrink the pupils. The smaller the pupil, the less light it lets in and the less severe the red-eye appears as shown in the two images below. The downside is that the pupils are always contracted, which makes owls look abnormally intense.

 

 

Fixing red eyes

Sometimes you can't avoid red-eye and when this happens you can only remove it using photo-editing software. With very careful editing, the eyes can look quite natural. 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 eye.

 

 

My Gear

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.

 

 

Lenses

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.

 

Flash settings

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

 

Tripod

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.

 

Accessories

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.

 

 

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.