Going ‘flashless’ – night drive photography.

Most game lodges operate on the same basic daily program – a very early wake-up, followed by coffee / tea and a morning safari. After breakfast at the lodge there may be the opportunity for a bush walk, followed by down time, lunch, more down time and an afternoon / evening safari which returns to the lodge after dark for dinner. Many people get really excited about night drives, as this is when some smaller nocturnal creatures may be seen, such as Porcupine, African Wild Cat, Genets, Civets and the like; and it’s also when the chances are good for viewing Lions on the move – these sleep-lovers spend the bulk of a 24-hr period sleeping, so 8 / 10 day-time sightings can honestly be described as rather boring, but after dark they are usually more active.  It’s a gamble – some night drives produce nothing more than numerous hits in the face by flying insects attracted to the spotlights, while others can produce some fantastic sightings.

As a guide, a comment often heard as the drive recommences after sundowners is that ‘it’s time to put the cameras and binoculars away’. Or at least fire up the flash on the DSLR… But not so – binoculars are essential at night (as they are at any time on a safari), and flash is not always needed. Really? Well, yes – you will get shots of animals at night using a flash, and sometimes this may be the only way to get a shot, but when the conditions allow, going ‘flashless’ will lend far more mood and atmosphere to your photographs than the broad cold-white light of a flash will. Basic settings for going ‘flashless’ are: Manual Mode; an ISO of around 2000, depending on your camera; and of course a wide-open aperture, as wide as it will go; and a starting shutter speed of around 1/80. A good tip is to get your camera set-up for night shots before it gets too dark – there’s nothing as frustrating as fumbling with dials and buttons in the dark while the action is taking place in front of you.

With your camera set up for night / spotlight photography, and dead-rested as steadily as possible, start off with a few test shots. Check your image – if it’s too bright you can increase your shutter speed and / or drop your ISO a bit. If it’s too dark you can drop your shutter and / or increase your ISO a bit. The lighting conditions will be changing constantly as the tracker moves the spotlight around and the animals themselves move, so one has to keep reviewing to make sure that you are getting the images. At many lodges the guides and trackers are keyed in to this type of photography and will co-ordinate with the crews on other vehicles to allow for back and side lighting with a single spotlight, which can create some fantastically moody images. Hold your breath and shoot like a special-forces sniper and you’re bound to get a few sharp shots.

Here are a few sample night safari images from the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which is included on our September 2018 ‘Photographing the Predators’ set-departure safari, and one image from Okaukeujo Waterhole in Namibia.

Rockjumpers on the moon.

On March 19 a runaway fire tore through the dry Fynbos vegetation around the village of Rooi Els east of Cape Town. Two homes were destroyed in the blaze, and the area still resembles a moonscape as the scorched earth awaits much needed rain. Into this lunar-like scene we stepped on the afternoon of Saturday 6 May in search of the endemic Cape Rockjumpers – one of the region’s most sought-after birds. The wind was howling, as it often does, and the comments from the two American photographer were understandably negative in terms of the chances of seeing anything, never mind the Cape Rockjumpers.  Still, as their guide I thought it was worth some effort at least, and managed to stretch it into a 45-minute search, which proved to be fruitless, so they returned to Cape Town empty-handed but not quite defeated. The Sunday was taken up by a pelagic birding trip and thus Monday morning was dedicated to giving it another shot – reports from another guide indicated that they were seen on the morning of the 6th, so it was perhaps just a matter of timing. Eventually we spotted a pair moving high up on the slope below the massif known as ‘Hangklip’, or ‘Hanging Rock’, despite the lack of anything resembling a food source. The advantage of the recent burn was that it was easy to move up the slope towards the birds, which we duly did. We managed to move in carefully enough that the birds weren’t disturbed and soon were sitting down with two males and a female jumping around on the rocks within 20 feet of our position. Believe me when I say that Gorges, with his 500mm f4 Mk11 with converter and Canon 1DX, got some absolutely cracking images! As the Rockjumpers moved off a flock of Cape Siskins moved through right past us, followed by other species such as Cape Bunting, Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Rock Thrush. Talk about a high-5 moment!  Back at the car we had a well-needed cup of coffee and some food while photographing sunbirds before heading off to Stony Point for some more Penguin shots. What a great day in the field!

Male Cape Rockjumper, Rooi Els.
Male Cape Rockjumper, Rooi Els.
Female Cape Rockjumper, Rooi Els.
Female Cape Rockjumper, Rooi Els.