Wildlife Photography - Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye

How to Photograph Animals on Safari Using a Spotlight

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 1 Comment

Night drives on safari can make for an amazing experience and will give you a glimpse into what happens under the cover of darkness in the African bush.  On top of that you will have some amazing opportunities of photographing nocturnal animals – like lions and leopard – with the use of spotlights where the play of light and shadows will you help you to create amazing African wildlife visuals.

Wildlife Photography - Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye

ISO 2,500, 1/160, f/2.8

I know what some of you are thinking as it’s something a lot of people on safari mention as well. You don’t think you can create images like this because:

  1. It’s something only ‘professional’ photographers can do.
  2. You’re nervous to shoot in manual mode.
  3. You don’t really understand the relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
  4. You’re not sure how to manage the intensity of light when using a spotlight and your images are always too dark or too light.

Right, so let me respond the first three points first and then we can go from there.

  1. You shouldn’t worry about what people think.  Just don’t.  And if someone insists on call themselves a ‘professional’ you should worry even less.
  2. Don’t be.  If you are comfortable to shoot in Av or Tv mode you have enough knowledge to shoot in M.  Learn.
  3. Learn.

With  that said let’s get to the last point of how you can manage the intensity of light when photographing nocturnal animals with a spotlight on safari.

Before we look at how you can use shutter speed to manage the intensity of light on a subject let’s confirm the base settings for shooting spotlit animals on safari.   First thing you’re going to have to do is go to Manual mode.  The reason for this is you’re going to have to use all the technical variables at your disposal to squeeze as much light as possible from a dark scene.  As a rough average I normally recommend the following to my guests in the field:

  • ISO: 2,500
  • SS:  250
  • Aperture: f/2.8

If you have a lens that can shoot wide open at f/2.8 it’s easy to remember to just go with 2’s – 2,500, 250, 2.8.   If your lens cannot get down to f/2.8 you could use the following manual settings as a starting point:

  • ISO: 3,200
  • SS:  200
  • Aperture: f/4 (or then as low as you can go)

The above settings, in Manual mode, will give you a pretty solid place from which to start and a small tweak here or there will then give you the opportunity to manage the exposure of your spotlit images.  The idea is to lock down two of the variables – in this case Aperture and ISO – and then only play with one to manage exposure and with this kind of shooing this is easiest done by using shutter speed as your main technical weapon.

Now with the above settings dialed in you’re ready to go and photograph spotlit animals and then only change shutter speed to increase or decrease the exposure of your frame.

On a static sighting, where the distance between you and the subject stays constant, it’s pretty simple.  Take a sketch shot, look at it and then make the changes as necessary:

  • Slower shutter speed – brighter image as more light enters the frame.
  • Faster shutter speed – darker images as less light enters the frame.

By playing around with your shutter speed on a static subject you will then quickly find a happy shooting speed to create solid spotlight images.

Wildlife Photography - Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye

ISO 2,500, 1/200, f/5.6

The interesting challenge now starts when you are trying to photography animals at night.  With a spotlight.  Shooting in manual.  And they’re moving around.

The important thing to remember is that the only thing that changes is that the distance from you to the subject will be changing all the time which means that the intensity of light – the brightness – of your subject will be changing all the time.  The important thing to do here is to stay calm and just think about how much light you are seeing through your viewfinder and then change your shutter speed accordingly.

The images below shows a pride of lions walking towards us and how the intensity of light – your exposure – changes as they come closer.

All four images were shot at 1/160.

Wildlife Photography - Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye

Can you see how the lioness gets brighter as she walks closer to the light source?

Can you see how, should you want to make the image brighter when the cats are further away from the light, you would dial in a slower shutter speed to let more light into you camera?

Can you see how, should you want to make the image darker when the cat comes closer to the light, you would dial in a faster shutter speed to let less light into your camera?

If you you can wrap your head around that you understand the technical side of photography and will be able to create some killer images when we next head on safari.

If not, here is a quick reminder of the basics when the same light source is illumination your subject at different distances:

  • Subject far away
    • Your heart rate is low
    • Your shutter speed should be low
  • Subject close by
    • Your heart rate is faster
    • Your shutter speed should be faster

Yes, there are many more variable and situations we can discuss around spotlight and low light shooting –  and we will do so in due course – but if you work on understanding and implanting the above I guarantee that you will not only start getting some striking images but also a better understanding of light and your camera.

Wildlife Photography - Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye

ISO 2,500, 1/100, f/4

Good luck and happy shooting!

If you have any cool spotlight images or if you have any questions tag me on Instagram.  I’d love to see your images and assist where I can.

Until next time,


About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at www.gerryvanderwalt.com or follow my journey on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter a look forward to changing the way you see the world.  I also host a Wildlife Photography Podcast and I Vlog!

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Comments 1

  1. Kobus Boshoff

    Gerry has an amazing gift to teach the principles of photography in a way that anybody can understand it. I was privileged to attend one session presented by Gerry and Marlon at Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium in Cape Town in 2015, which has had an immense influence on my photography. Both of them are hugely talented and it is a joy to follow them on social media.

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