Taking photos of small critters in the dark
If photography is the capture of light then what do you if there isn’t any light? Using a camera at night doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are some tricks I use.
This photo of a freshwater turtle was taken in the dark. In fact it was seriously dark, because it was a wet night with no stars or moon visible. Yeah I know, most sensible people would be indoors watching the fifteenth repeat of episodes of The Big Bang Theory but I was finding all sorts of cool things to photograph outside.
There’s a whole different world out there at night. For example, lots of wildlife only comes out at night and it just seems wrong to miss out on the fun of photographing it. I’ve been stumbling around in the dark with my camera countless times and have fallen into some reliable routines.
Focusing in the dark
Easier said than done. A camera’s autofocus needs light to function, and so do us humans when we focus our cameras manually. It can be frustrating to watch your camera’s autofocus hunting backwards and forwards without ever locking onto your subject due to insufficient light.
Some creatures, like this Cane Toad, only come out at night.
So you add light
Ideally your flash, if it’s a good one, will have a lamp in it for just that purpose. Providing your subject is close enough, like with macro, you can turn on that lamp and then your autofocus can do its job. That’s always my first choice. But if your flash doesn’t have that feature or if the subject is too far away, then I’m guessing you have a torch with you, right?
So my technique when I’m using a torch is simply to:
1 – Shine the torch at the subject while focusing the camera.
2 – Then lock the focus by turning off the autofocus.
3 – Then turn off the torch.
4 – And take the picture in the dark with the flash.
Why turn off the torch?
Because chances are that the beam of light from your torch will be of a different colour temperature to the illumination from your flash. Your eyes might not notice that but your camera will, and it will record the torch beam as coloured light. That can cause part of your image to be stained in the wrong tone.
Leaving a torch light on while taking this shot has left an ugly yellow stain across the lower part of this image, affecting the colour of this freshwater turtle’s neck.
I’ll give you an example. See that picture of the freshwater turtle at right? Notice how its neck has been stained bright orange. That’s the very same turtle as the one in the photo at the top of this page and so I know those guys don’t have orange necks. Nope, that orange was caused by the light of the torch shining in from the side. In fact, you can see that the torch is affecting the colour of the foreground grass too. In photography that kind of thing is called bad technique.
Okay, maybe you want to get that kind of colour into a shot for arty reasons. Well that’s fine, but only if it’s happening because you want it to.
Oh yeah, and that yellow-looking Cane Toad higher up in the page? That shot was taken with the torch turned off. Yep, the male Cane Toads really are a yellowish colour.
Both photos of this spider above were taken at night with a flash, but the one on the left was taken while my LED torch was still on. You can see how the bluish LED light has affected the colour of the spider. The photo on the right was taken with the LED turned off.
This Huntsman Spider provided some attractive close-up detail, even when working outside in the middle of the night. When I took another photo just after this one though, I discovered that the spider had moved somewhere else while my torch was off. Yep, thankfully I’ve been able to get over my fear of Huntsmans.
Yes, I’m sure you’ve already figured out the little problem with this method. That’s right — during the brief moment when your torch is turned off and you can’t see a damned thing, your subject can move.
On a few occasions I’ve been lying on the ground in the dark with my camera and my nose inches from a giant spider. I turn off my torch, take the shot and when I look at the preview of the image on my camera I realise I’ve photographed a patch of empty ground. That leads to some interesting speculation about where the spider moved to while the torch was off, and I can tell you right now: the bigger the spider the more interesting the speculation. So I would definitely not recommend this method for photographing creatures that are actually dangerous!