Ultraviolet light (UV) is invisible to the human eye but when certain substances are exposed to it, they emit visible light which we can see. This phenomenon is called fluorescence. I became interested in photographing fluorescence when a friend told me that scorpions appear bright blue under UV. People rarely see scorpions because they are brown and well camouflaged but they are quite common where I live on the outskirts of Sydney and are easy to find at night by searching the leaf litter with a UV lamp.
My initial photos were disappointing because the backgrounds looked artificially coloured. I discovered that most ultraviolet sources, in addition to producing UV also emit coloured visible light and cameras often render reflected UV as unwanted colour. I built the equipment below to prevent false colours and a selection of images are shown below.
The essential components of my UV lamp, were purchased in 2018 from ebay for around AU$50 and include:
- 10 watt 365nm UV LED. High output power of the LED reduces photographic exposure times and LEDs having wavelengths up to approximately 400 nanometres also work well.
- Filter to block visible light emitted from the LED. This filter appears black but is transparent to UV. I used a "ZWB2" filter. This filter and a good UV led are the most important components needed to obtain good photos.
- Resistor and heatsink to limit the maximum current and stop the LED from overheating
- 3.6 volt rechargeable lithium cell, charger and switch
- Condenser lens on the front of the lamp concentrates the UV into a brighter more intense beam which makes the fluorescence look more vibrant and reduces exposure times
- To prevent unwanted ultraviolet light from reaching the camera sensor you can use a UV blocking filter on the camera lens. Many cameras record UV as colour and UV filters sold as "lens protectors" often do not block the longest ultraviolet wavelengths. A "UV(0)" or "L39" filter stops nearly all reflected UV appearing as false colour in the image
Lens filter - Aluminium foil, UV exposure for 20 seconds, f16, Nikon D750 with and without a suitable filter
Marbled scorpion - UV exposure for 6 seconds at f16 and fill flash. Nikon D750, 180mm lens with extension tube and tripod
Fledgling Powerful owl feather (left) and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo feather (right)
Diamonds and Rubies
Australian $5 note
Lichen growing on sandstone
I have enjoyed photographing night creatures for over 35 years. With the rapid advancement in camera technology and LED illumination it is now possible to photograph birds flying at night and my techniques and equipment have evolved during those years. For this type of photography, the additional equipment can be as simple as a decent spotlight plus assistant or as complex as you wish. These are my thoughts and techniques as of October 2021.
Photography in darkness requires either a continuous light source or electronic flash. There are several important differences between daylight and light sources which a night photographer needs to understand.
A fundamental of light is that the brightness of an illuminated subject, decreases in proportion to the square of the distance from the light source. For daylight photography, this fundamental can be ignored because the distance of the photographer does not change the brightness of the subject. When illuminated with artificial light, however, this is not the case as the diagram below illustrates. The diagram shows an object located at distance "d" is four times brighter than an object located twice as far away at distance "2d". Consequently, if the subject distance from the light source is doubled, the exposure needs to be increased by the equivalent of two f-stops and if it is halved, the exposure needs to be reduced by the equivalent of two f-stops.
Continuous lighting - such as a spotlight is great for photographing stationary animals. Filament lamps and Xenon arc lamps produce light of excellent colour quality but are heavy and power hungry. LED spotlights and flashlights are portable, bright and energy efficient but most products produce light having poor colour quality. High colour quality LED lights with high colour rendering index (CRI) are now available and produce excellent results at comparable prices.
Exposure is determined using the camera metering system by adjusting shutter speed, aperture and ISO. The Tawny frogmouth below, was illuminated using the car high beam with camera settings of 1/15s, f5.3 and 9,000 ISO.
Electronic flash - is the ideal portable light source because it emits an extremely intense burst of light that can freeze movement. Flash units contain complex electronics that produce a short electrical discharge inside a transparent tube and when sufficient light has been emitted, the discharge is terminated by the clever electronics. The flash-tube contains xenon gas which produces intense white light of very high colour quality. Most models have auto and manual modes which can be configured to produce the correct exposure.
To illustrate the advantage of manual flash over continuous light sources in freezing motion, I photographed an operating ceiling fan, with black lines painted on one blade, at different shutter speeds and with different flash power settings. Images in the top row were taken using a spotlight and camera shutter speeds from 1/500s to 1/4000s. The bottom row was taken using a fixed shutter speed of 1/200s on power settings from full power to 1/32 power. Comparison of the images reveals that 1/4,000s shutter speed is equivalent to a flash power setting of 1/4 and the 1/32 power setting is estimated to be equivalent to a shutter speed of 1/20,000s.
Flash extender - Combined with a telephoto lens at night, a fresnel lens located in front of the flash concentrates the light output.To illustrate this, the images below were taken with a 50mm lens with identical conditions and processing.The the beam angle is reduced to produce a small 'hotspot' with a 3 f-stop gain in brightness.
Focusing at night
The focus sensors in DSLR and mirrorless cameras essentially measure subject contrast and adjust the focus distance to achieve maximum contrast. Illumination intensity, subject contrast and movement, each effect the camera's ability to focus accurately and quickly at night. High intensity illumination is required to obtain fast and accurate focus.
LED flashlights provide sufficient light output to focus well on stationary subjects at night, however flying birds require lights of much higher brightness. The human eye is a poor judge of intensity and what may appear bright to the photographer may in fact be photographically dim!
With continuous light sources, obtaining the correct exposure is identical to daylight photography.
Using flash, the task is more difficult and is dependant upon equipment and settings. With my Nikon D750 camera, good results are obtained using a Nikon SB-800 flash on a manual power setting. With my Nikon Z6ii and SB-800 in 'TTL' mode well exposed images can be obtained with stationary subjects at distances from 5m to 50m.
At the commencement of a night outing, I "calibrate" my setup by taking a few test shots of an object such as a tree trunk so I know it will work when the critical moment arises.
Gear for night
When working from a car or with an assistant, photography in the dark is straightforward. When alone, simple tasks including, changing settings, and adjusting gear are difficult and error prone. It is a great help to pre-configure as many settings as possible and get your gear ready before nightfall. A summary of the cameras and lenses I have used and my current flash bracket are shown below. The carbon fibre brackets including rechargeable spotlight and TTL cable weighs approximately 750g and the spotlight can produce 700 lux at 10m distance, which makes it possible to focus on birds flying at night at distances of at least 20m.
1974-2004 Nikon F2/FM2, Nikkor 300mm f4.5
2004-2010 Nikon D70 Nikkor 70-300 f4.5-5.6 AF
2010-2012 Nikon D90 Nikkor 70-300 VR AFS & 80-400 VR
2012-2015 Nikon D7000 Nikkor 70-300 VR AFS & 80-400 AFS VR
2015-2021 Nikon D750 Nikkor 180mm f2.8 & 80-400 AFS VR
Current Nikon Z6ii Nikkor 70-300 f4.5-5.6 AFP & 500 f5.6 PF
Tripod - A tripod is a useful adjunct for photography at fixed locations such as perches, roosts or nests. A small lightweight carbon-fibre tripod can support the camera or be used as a stand for an off-camera flash is useful.
Off camera flash - Occasionally, I use sync. cables or Pocket Wizzard Plus-X radio triggers to fire flashes located away from the camera. Previously, I used Nikon's 'CLS' system but found it time consuming and unreliable due to unseen beam path obstructions from unseen foliage in the bush.
Settings Banks - Many cameras allow you to save your favourite settings for quick recall. I have pre-configured settings for night photography which I can select by simply rotating a knob.
Image format - RAW file format has high dynamic range and a high capacity for setting white balance and salvaging shots which would have been spoilt by over or under exposure had they been taken in jpeg format.
LCD Monitor/viewfinder - At night display screens appears much brighter than during the day and images which appear adequately exposed are often significantly underexposed. To counteract this, I turn the monitor brightness right down and where possible check the image histogram.
Shooting Mode - I always set the camera to manual mode for outdoor night photography.
Focus - For stationary birds I use the centre autofocus point with the camera set for 'backbutton continuous autofocus'. Backbutton focus makes it easy to reframe the subject without refocusing. For flying birds, I use continuous autofocus and multiple focus points. Different brands and models have a multitude of focus modes so you need to experiment to find which combinations work best.
ISO - Producing sufficient light to properly expose the image or to obtain a 'motion-free' image can sometimes be difficult. Using higher ISO is equivalent to using a more powerful flash, however the downside is that image noise increases . On my cameras ISO 800 produces an acceptable level of noise and I use that as my preferred setting.
Aperture - A wide aperture is desirable to isolate the subject from the background and increase the maximum working range of the flash. I usually stop my lens down by at least one f-stop from maximum aperture because accurate focus is easier to achieve and lenses generally perform better when stopped down one or two f-stops.
Shutter - The maximum shutter speed should be set no higher than the maximum flash sync speed of the camera. At night, the surrounds are dark and it is the short duration of the flash output which stops motion, not the shutter speed. I normally use a shutter speed of 1/60s when it is dark.
Very low shutter speed can be useful for stationary subjects to record ambient light as shown for the Barking owl below, which was taken at 1/15s. The owl remained sharp because it was exposed by the short pulse of light from the flash, whilst the background shows some blur from hand-held camera movement during the 1/15s exposure.
Illusion of speed - Flash combined with low shutter speed can be used to give the illusion of speed. For the Nightjar below, a sharp image of the bird was produced by the the flash which is superimposed on a longer exposed image produced by the 1/30s shutter speed and focus light. By setting the camera flash mode to 'rear-curtain sync', the blurred image trails the bird giving the impression of speed.
This technique is a bit of a gamble as a potentially good image of a difficult to photograph subject, such as Grass owl with prey below, is ruined.
Pupils - A continuous light source always produces contracted pupils when the bird is looking toward it and there is no way to prevent that. This is especially noticeable for a bird having a light coloured iris such as the young Boobook owl on the left below. Large eyes are a prominent feature of nocturnal birds and if we were able see in the dark we would see that their pupils are always wide open. To me, dilated pupils look natural and can be captured by pre-focusing then turning the focus light off before releasing the shutter, as shown for the image on the right. Electronic viewfinders in mirrorless cameras can see in almost complete darkness and after focus is achieved, the subject can be observed with extremely dim light ( 'moon-glow' intensity) before the shutter is activated.
Red-eye occurs when the light source is located 'close' to the camera and light reflected from the retina enters the camera lens. By moving the light source away from the camera or moving closer to the subject, red-eye can be reduced and often avoided. This is illustrated in the diagram and images of a Tasmanian Boobook owl below, which were taken at different distances and head angles. Increasing the lens/flash angle can be achieved via a camera bracket or 'off-camera' flash.
Sometimes you cannot avoid red-eye as seen in the left and centre images above, however it can often be 'fixed' by photo-editing. Pupils almost always have some light and colour, so I prefer to darken them by 'burning' the shadows and mid-tones, then desaturating the colour until they are almost but not quite black. You can also 'dodge' the catchlights and eye reflections to enhance their appearance as shown for the same images below. A single light source often produces multiple catchlights due to reflections from the cornea and eye lens.
Flying birds present the ultimate challenge. Sharp images can be obtained by shooting a bird leaving or arriving at a pre-focused destination or by achieving focus in flight. The Tawny frogmouth below, was taken by pre-focusing on a perch it was hunting from and watching with a dim red light until it flew. The Grass owl was focused in flight using one of the camera brackets above.
My thoughts and ideas are intended as a guide for those interested in night photography. They should not be considered binding, rather as ideas and techniques that have worked for me and are constantly being modified. I hope this article can assist you in developing yours night photography skills and encourage you to give it a go.
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 animals have acute senses compared to us and they are usually aware of our presence long before we are aware of them. Often I find an animal by its call or the noise it makes as it moves, then I locate it by eye-shine.
Many birds and mammals can be attracted by playing their calls and sometimes the call of another species. Recording of calls are often used for owl surveys, by photographers and I use them when looking for owls at new locations. Call playback can be highly disruptive if not used judiciously and I do not encourage its general use. Playback should be avoided near nest sites during the breeding season. You should resist the temptation of divulging owl locations to photographers and twitchers as owls are strongly territorial and may be subject to excessive disturbance.
Vision is a complex sense which involves the brain interpreting signals received from the light sensitive rod and cone cells in the eye. Cones are fully active in bright light and rods only work in very dim light. Diurnal animals including humans have cone dominated vision which enables excellent colour perception in daylight with high visual acuity . Most nocturnal species have eyes with relatively few cones and an abundance of rods, which makes for excellent vision at night.
Daylight vision (Photopic vision)
The eye contains several cone types, each having a peak sensitivity to a different light wavelength. The brain 'sees' colour; not the eyes and it does so by interpreting the signal from each cone type, analogous to mixing the primary colours to achieve all the colours of the rainbow. In bright light it is generally believed that the more cone types a species has, the better is its ability to distinguish colours. Mammals have either two or three cone types whilst birds, reptiles and fish have at least four, which probably enables superior colour perception and the ability to see ultraviolet light.
The graph below shows the spectral colour sensitivity of the rods and cones in the human eye. The cones types are referred to as 'L', 'M, and 'S' , referring long, medium, and short wavelengths, or to red, green and blue, respectively.
Night-time vision (Scotopic vision)
In very dim light cone cells don't function and the brain processes the signals it receives from the rod cells. Rods in the human eye enable low light vision with poor visual acuity and no perception of colour. The images below are of a bioluminescent fungus. The upper view illustrates how I perceived the fungus in the dark and the lower view shows the true colour as seen by the camera.
In the majority of vertebrates rod cells have a peak spectral sensitivity at approximately 500 nm (see graph above) and are completely insensitive to red light. Consequently at night you can observe nocturnal species using a dim red light without causing them excessive disturbance. Different species see red light to varying degrees and nearly all can see a red light if they look directly at it, because their retinas contain low concentrations of red sensitive L-cones as well as rods.
Twilight vision (Mesopic vision)
Twilight is the period between night and day and during this time both the rods and cones are active. The colours appear muted compared to the colours during the day and if you sit in your garden after sunset you will notice the birds stop calling as they get ready to roost and the colours around you slowly disappear as it becomes dark and the cones slowly switch off.
Intense white light torches and spotlights are great for finding animals but are not well suited to studying nocturnal behaviour or watching nesting owls. White light has the advantage that we can see the true colour of an animal's eye-shine, which can be useful for identification at distance. During a holiday in Sabah, Borneo, I heard a creature on the forest floor in the grounds of my hotel. With the aid of a LED torch, I located it by its beautiful blue eye-shine (below) and it was a Mouse deer, not much larger than a rabbit. Bright white light directed into the eyes of an animal will cause temporary night blindness lasting at least 10 minutes, during which time the animal may become susceptible to predation.
Rods don't see red, and cones have poor sensitivity to the longer red wavelengths. For observing animals at night, headlamps that use red LED's are ideal because dim red light does not disrupt night vision or cause alarm. My favourite headlamp below, comprises a lens, a 3 watt red LED, a resistor to limit the current, a switch and a 3.7 volt rechargeable battery. It can be attached to a tripod and the beam can be focused or spread to control the brightness. The main disadvantage of using red light is that everything appears red.
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 using 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 a bright white light was used, it may not have returned whilst I was watching or it may have abandoned its nest.
Walking at night
Long-sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy boots are essential to protect yourself from cuts, scratches and bites when walking in the bush at night. I prefer to walk along tracks rather than through bush because you can move quietly and are likely to see more animals. Depending on the weather and where I am, I may also take extra clothing, food, water, insect repellent, first aid kit and something to sit on. Unnecessary gear can turn a casual walk into a hard slog so I try to carry only the essentials.
Being in the bush by yourself can be very rewarding and you usually locate more animals when you are alone because your senses are heightened, however you need to be better prepared. In the dark your vision and sense of direction is poor and it is easy to become disoriented or fall on something you didn't see. 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 it out
· Stay on the intended route unless I am familiar with the area or am carrying navigation aids
· When I venture off-track I always watch where I place my footsteps to avoid falling.
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 page. 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 SLR 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 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 to a dead limb, close enough for me to photograph.
After overcoming my fear of the dark I quickly started enjoying 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 SLR 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 forum who have taught me so much about bird photography.
You are welcome to use any of my images for your personal not-for-profit use such as projects etc, but please reference me as the photographer. My images are copyright so if you would like to use an image for any other purpose please contact me before doing so. My e-mail address is prsj56[at]optusnet.com.au