How to find and photograph nocturnal animals using spotlights and thermal imagers.
FINDING ANIMALS AT NIGHT
There are two tried and tested ways to find animals at night; spotlighting and using thermal imagers.
Spotlighting usually involves driving or walking along a trail with one or more powerful spotlights trained on the surrounding terrain. The idea is to pay attention to movement or the eye-shine of animals that come within range of the spotlight.
Thermal imaging essentially works the same way but rather than relying on light, the photographer either holds or wears a thermal imaging scope that picks up on the heat signature of nearby animals.
Spotlighting is an inexpensive method of finding animals that only come out at night. All you need is a powerful modeling light that can pick up on movements in the bush or the eye-shine of certain nocturnal animals. Not all animals have reflective eyes but most nocturnal mammals do.
The most effective method is to have multiple people spotlighting at the same time. More eyes on the terrain equals more chances to spot animals. More importantly, it means that non-photographers can continue to track an animal while you ready your camera, but of course, its important to be ready anyway because nocturnal animals tend to be shy and reclusive so they often melt back into the undergrowth as soon as they realize they have been discovered.
Even if you are on your own, having a couple of spotlights is helpful so that you mount one on your camera that always points in the direction your camera is pointing, and another that you can point quickly in all directions. If you just have a light attached to your camera, you will have to rotate your heavy telephoto lens and SLR constantly. Unless you’re extremely strong, or you have a very light camera, your arms with get tired very quickly.
CHOOSING A GOOD SPOTLIGHT
There are two important factors to consider when buying a spotlight: power and beam width.
Regarding power, it’s all about the lumens. There are endless flashlights available on the internet that boast thousands of lumens of power but I have found that most companies tend to exaggerate the output of their lights. Read some reviews before you make a purchase. I recommend that you choose a flashlight that has an output of at least 3000 lumens.
A narrow beam is also important. Even if your flashlight is bright, if the beam is not concentrated in one direction, it won’t reach very far into the night. Remember, its not just about finding the subject. You need enough intensity for your telephoto lens to find focus on a dark furry animal that is potentially obscured by branches or tall grass.
Some flashlights have a variable beam. In other words, you can rotate or telescope the front lens slightly to make the beam really narrow. I like this feature because once you’ve found your subject, you can narrow the beam for maximum intensity in one small area. This will allow you to autofocus in that small area from a great distance.
One really annoying feature of many cheaper flashlights is the different modes that they have. Beware of ‘tactical lights’. These usually have five settings: full power, medium power, low power, slow S-O-S mode and fast S-O-S mode. The problem with these is that they switch to the next mode each time you turn them on. So if you were on full power last time you switched it on, this time you’ll be on medium power and you’ll have to scroll through all the different settings to get back to full power. That is a slow process that may result in you missing the shot.
You will likely have your flashlight on full power for a long time so avoid lights with built in rechargeable batteries that force you to plug the light in once it dies. User replaceable rechargeable batteries are the way to go. And, shame on you if you use old-fashioned disposable alkaline batteries. They poison the planet.
HAND HELD FLOODLIGHTS
There are also powerful hand held floodlight that plug into the cigarette lighter of your vehicle. The obvious benefits being that they illuminate a large area and they never run out of juice. Floodlights are fairly inexpensive and some pack a serious punch. Beware that the bulbs can get very warm and they are quite fragile when they’re hot.
ATTACHING A MODELLING LIGHT TO YOUR CAMERA
Once you’ve found your quarry, it is imperative to have a bright light pointing in the same direction as your camera so that you can autofocus. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an animal through your viewfinder while your lens hunts in-and-out in low light. Unless you can hold a heavy camera with one hand and are ambidextrous enough to shine the light in the same direction with the other, the best solution is to mouth the light directly to your camera.
One option is to attach a camera tray with a bracket that the light can fit on. You may find these available for sale but they are fairly easy to build if you have some basic tools and materials.
A simpler option is simply to bind a flashlight on top of your strobe using electrical tape.
WHEN TO DITCH THE TRIPOD OR BEAN BAG
Stabilization tools are only helpful if the ground isn’t moving. If you’re working from a boat or from a vehicle that is being buffeted by the wind, then anchoring your camera to the floor or window will probably be counterproductive. In situations where the entire environment is shifting, it is better to hand-hold your camera so that your body can work as a shock absorber. The human body is the ultimate gimbal. Don’t be afraid to to take matters into your own hands. For example, Shooting eagles from a pitching boat in Alaska is a bad time to use a tripod!
A final thought, engine vibration reverberates through the entire vehicle. Even if you don’t notice it, your camera will constantly tremble if you leave the engine running. No matter how much it may bug the driver, ask them to switch off the engine every time you raise your camera!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andy Murch is a fanatical big animal photographer. His images and shark stories have appeared in hundreds of books and magazines around the world from titles as varied as Canadian Geographic, Scuba Diving, Ocean Geographic, FHM, Digital Photography Magazine, National Geographic, and the Journal of Zoology.