Capture the Essence of Darkness

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 2 Comments

Flocks of sandgrouse arrive at the edge of the waterhole, and in the distance a choir of jackals seem to be intently involved in a vivid conversation. The heat of the day is swiftly replaced by an uncomfortable chill as warmth is lost to the infinite sky above. Dusk sets in and a change of characters on the playing field that is the African bush is imminent.

This is a special time of day in Africa. Soaring midday temperatures keep many animals such a lion & rhino from drinking. They will happily enjoy the cool of shade, waiting for the heat to dissipate as the sun is drawn closer by the horizon.

Some creatures are most active during the hours before and after sunrise, and some will only ever venture out in to the open once darkness has gripped the land.

The question is, how do you capture these special moments when all around you is cloaked in black?

How do you tell this story?

marlon du toit, wild eye, photo safari, madikwe, south africa,

1. Know your equipment and what it’s capable of.

The reality is, that some camera bodies and lenses simply perform better in low light than others. There’s no point in beating yourself up when your gear’s not capable. Technological advances in camera bodies has improved dramatically over the last 5 years, and professional cameras have the ability to capture fantastic, noise-free images in the very least amount of light.

This does not mean photographing after dark is impossible, but you need to have a clear understanding of how far you can push you equipment.

2. Understand your settings.

I can’t emphasize this enough.

You need a clear understanding of how ISO, aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation works and results in a exposure. When you can seamlessly change these settings in order to obtain the correct exposure, you will have most of the battle won.

I do most of my night photography in manual mode, and knowing the relationship between the above-mentioned settings is vital for success.

3. Be sensitive towards the animal.

First foremost you should show the utmost respect towards whatever it is that you are photographing. I can’t stress this enough!

Most nocturnal animals are extremely shy by nature. For them to step out in to the open in order to quench their thirst is a bold step. The will be aware of your presence and bad behavior from your side can cause the animals to stress and run, and perhaps avoid a drink entirely.

Always remember, when an animal decided to approach an area you are occupying, they have made the decision to “trust” you. They have watched you for long enough have feel that you pose no threat. Excessive movement, loud voices and firing shutters can very easily disrupt this special connection.

marlon du toit, wild eye, photo safari, madikwe, south africa,

1/200, f2.8, ISO2000

Leopard are a special treat on any safari. They are often seen under the cover of darkness, and have a energy about them enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine.

The leopard pictured above was very skittish during daytime hours. His mother never liked the vehicles and as a 10-month old cub he too took a disliking towards us during the daytime. At night he seemed more tolerable of our presence.
I took great care in approaching him whilst he ate from an impala carcass. The presence of the kill made him more approachable and he allowed us to within ten meters.

Notice my shutter speed is 1/200th of a second. That is low, considering I shot with a Canon 400 f2.8 lens. Do I need a faster shutter speed here? No, I don’t. The leopard was not moving and a faster shutter speed would have required a higher ISO, and in so doing would have added excessive noise to my image.

marlon du toit, wild eye, photo safari, madikwe, south africa,

1/60, f4.0, ISO 3200

Hyena are often active just after the sun had set. They are active after dark in search of feeding opportunities and establish territorial boundaries and their bold and confident characters make for great photo subjects after dark.

The hyena above was illuminated by a spotlight from another vehicle. The result is striking and spectacular.

Careful not to over-expose that sliver of light rimming the outline of your subject. This is very easy to do if you don’t pay special attention to it.


marlon du toit, wild eye, photo safari, madikwe, south africa,

1/125, F2.8, ISO 5000

Sightings of rhino are common during daylight hours, but few people realize that rhino are often equally as active after dark. During the warmest part of the day rhino much prefer the cool shade of a large tree, than a long walk to the closest waterhole. This journey typically begins after sunset, when the cool of evening starts to set in.

Rhino by nature can be nervous and jumpy. They have extremely poor eye-sight, but their hearing and sense of smell far beyond that of ours. This can result in them spooking or being rather nervous in your presence.

Once again, the rhino pictured above was illuminated by an artificial light source. I shot hand-held on my Canon 1Dx and Canon 400 f2.8, as there was no time to look for suitable support. It is not always ideal but if great care is taken with a steady hand, you can often shoot at surprisingly low shutter speeds.

I purposefully chose not to photograph from a  position behind the light. By moving further away from the light, depth is given to my rhino as light falls on different features of him. As the rhino took a step forward, a little dust kicked up was also captured in an impressive stance.

marlon du toit, wild eye, photo safari, madikwe, south africa,

1/40, f2.8, ISO 5000

Lions are undoubtedly rulers of the night. Many other nocturnal creatures make sure they avoid contact with lions. When on safari you’ll often encounter sleepy lions basking in the late afternoon sun. Well, that changes as soon as that sun disappears.

Lions own the night. They are confident and fear nothing. They are often encountered on night safaris and by taking the first 3 mentioned points into consideration, great photographic opportunities are on offer here.

The lioness pictured above came down to drink at a lodge’s waterhole, and I could not resist the opportunity to capture her beauty. Once again, I moved away from the position of the artificial light, and positioned myself in such a position as to capture a side-lit lion. The results are jaw-dropping!

marlon du toit, wild eye, photo safari, madikwe, south africa,

1/640, f2.8, ISO 5000

African Wild Dog are undoubtedly a favourite for many a safari enthusiast. They are difficult to find and even once found, are tough to follow. Their mobile nature means they are constantly on the move, most often on the trot.

What many people do not know, is that dogs are very often active after dark. They are most often on the move during the hours before sunrise and after sunset. When the moon is bright and high up in the night sky, they won’t hesitate to move around and even hunt!

Great care needs to be taken though when photographing dogs during these hours. As mentioned before, lions dominate the dark hours and represents the greatest threat to dogs.

The image above was captured when dogs killed an impala right next to our dinner table in camp. We could not believe our eyes as seven adult wild dogs ripped into the impala. I positioned my guest and myself behind the dogs, and used the incredible affect the artificial light source had on the scene in front of us.

It was spell binding, one of the greatest sight I have ever laid eyes on!

The challenge was that the dogs kept moving. A faster shutter speed was required in order to avoid a blurry image. Notice I pushed my ISO rather high and managed great sharpness to the edges of the dogs. This is so important, always keep this in mind!

When it comes to ISO, it should be as low as possible but as high as necessary.

Photographing after dark can yield powerful, thought provoking images. It presents several challenges, many not easily explained in writing. The best is to keep going, keep practicing and keep learning. You will no doubt make mistakes and end up highly frustrated at times. That said, there’s always a golden lining and soon you will start seeing the fruits of your hard work.

In closing, never forget that the animal comes first! No photograph is worth injury to an animal!

Till next time,


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About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

Comments 2

  1. Susanne Krüger

    Awe, super interesting, Marlon. I don’t have that kind of equipment, but it is an eye-opener on how you get your great night images!!

  2. Carol Bell

    Marlon I really think your photos are great….. and especially like the hyena and wild dog. Am so glad you did a blog on this as I kept on wanting to ask Gerry to do something on his Q & A about night photography and asking him about using “torches” to illuminate the subject and disturbing the animal in question. I have been trying to take shots of bushbabies which come into my trees at night which are illuminated by my “very soft” outdoor lights as I do not want to shine a torch on them…. as I feel its not “good” for them or their eyesight. Have you anything to say on this?

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