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 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.

 

 

Lenses

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.

 

Flash settings

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

 

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 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.

 

 

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 my friends at Feathers and Photos forum who have taught me so much about photography.

 

I hope you enjoy my photos.