Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

After-dark magic

Most photographers will agree that shooting at night or in extreme low light is the most challenging part of any photographic journey. Marette Bennett of Refined Edges Wildlife Photography and Training gives us some ideas on how to keep shooting when it gets dark.

Playing with fire

Whatever the question, braai is the answer for most South Africans. Even when you are not camping and just visiting friends, we celebrate the occasion by having a braai or at least build a fire in the boma area. To capture these moments, you need to stabilise your camera on a beanbag or tripod, and then adjust your settings. I use the live view option to get the exact light I want in the image. To freeze the strange curls and twists and loose tongues of flames licking the air, you need a fast shutter speed of around 1/1000s. A wide-open aperture around F/4 and a high ISO (around 2000) will compensate for the fast shutter speed. For this I set my camera on high continuous shooting, and capture bursts of ten photos at a time, with each photo looking different. If you want the flames in surreal motion, the shutter speed will need to be slow, at around 4 seconds. This will let in a lot of light so you can decide whether you want the background dark or want to include people around the fire. To get the background dark and just capture the spray of flames a slow shutter speed will produce, you should close the lens completely to F/22 to let in very little light and use a low ISO of 400. To prevent camera shake from pushing the shutter button on this slow shutter speed, I set a two-second timer. If I want to tell a story which includes my friends around the fire, I open the lens to let in more light, depending on how much detail I want. For something in-between, adjust the shutter speed to get the effect you desire and then adjust the lens opening to the light you want in your image. Remember to use the live view function, which makes it a whole lot easier to choose the correct ISO.

Scorpions under an ultraviolet light

There are quite a few scientific theories as to why scorpions glow bright blue-green when exposed to ultraviolet light, but the phenomenon gives great excitement to little ones and to photographers wanting to capture this kind of night life. This is however a tricky photographic situation since you can’t shine a light or use a flash.

Only in one out of a 100 times you will have time to stabilise your camera with a tripod, so you will have to act fast and shoot out of hand. I set my shutter speed to 1/125s and know that if I keep steady, I should not get a blurred image. You can go as low as 1/60s, but you need to keep the camera super-steady. As there is little available light from the ultraviolet and the scorpion’s fluorescence, you will need a wide-open lens opening of F/4 or lower and a very high ISO of 10000 and higher. A high ISO makes these shots possible. Because of the low light, the image will not capture all of the detail, but usually enough to show off the beautiful fluorescence the scorpion emits. Don’t try to take all the noise out of the image in post processing, as it will leave the image flat and without impact. This is the one time you can (and should) accept noise in your image.

Insect light trails

Insects buzzing around lights at night can be a great discomfort, until you realise it can be a great photo opportunity! I always position myself at an angle behind the light, in order to capture just the insects swarming in front of the light. You can capture reflections of the light on the insects in motion, or freeze them with a fast shutter speed so they look like little lights hanging in the sky.

My favourite is to capture the long criss-crossing lines they make in flight, using a slow shutter speed to produce the effect of fairies flying. I set the shutter speed depending on the number of insects at the light. If there are only a few, I choose a 4-second exposure, but when the insects are plentiful, I use 2 seconds. The reason is that if you capture too many lines, the images lose impact and the viewer can’t make sense of it. A wide-open aperture of F/16 to F/22 will ensure most of the criss-crossing lines are in focus and it will compensate for the slow shutter speed, since the background needs to be dark. Set the ISO according to the amount of light you have and want. Here auto ISO will not work, as it will overexpose the shot in an attempt to bring everything into balance.

The moon

Why do we always want to photograph the moon? Who knows! I just find it a fascinating object, always stretching the ability of us photographers. The best time to capture images of the moon is when it is closest to the horizon, and not directly overhead. Exposure is critical, as overexposure will result in just a white light with no detail, while underexposure will produce an image with no detail or clarity. I want to capture the moon as I see it. There are many ways and setting combinations to achieve this. Firstly, I use my longest telephoto lens and stabilise on a tripod. My go-to settings when the sky is pitch black are 1/100s, F/6.3, ISO-100. When I shoot the moon early evening when the sky is still grey-blue, I choose 1/320s, aperture F/9 to F/11, ISO- 100 – to end up with a black sky and correctly exposed moon. For moon shots I use manual focus rather than auto focus as this seems to result in sharper and clearer images.

Lighting

When lighting or a thunderstorm is on the horizon, and not on your doorstep, it’s the perfect opportunity to capture something spectacular. As with most night photography, stabilise your camera on a tripod or beanbag on a table. I choose the lens I’m going to use based on how far away the storm is. A wide-angle lens gives you better chance to capture the strike, but will be disappointing when the storm is miles away.

Set your camera to the Bulb setting, usually marked with a ‘B’. In this mode, the shutter stays open for as long as you hold down the shutter button. The best way to do this is with a remote trigger or timer to avoid camera shake. Set your lens to manual focus and on infinity (at the end of your focus range). Auto ISO will overexpose your shot, so set the ISO manually to between 400 and 1000. The aperture is a bit trickier, and you will have to take test shots to see what works. Now you must anticipate when the lighting will strike and be ready to fire the trigger. If you don’t have a remote trigger, this is what I did when I couldn’t find my trigger in the dark. I set the shutter speed to 5 to 10 seconds, plus used a 2-second timer to avoid camera shake on the long exposure. Use this technique when there is plenty of lightning and you can anticipate the strikes. I pressed the shutter at random and got some great shots along with some ‘’nothing’’ shots. Lastly, remember safety first. Don’t put yourself at risk!

Stars and the milky way

When out in the bush, us city slickers all look up and say, ‘’Wow, look at all the stars’’. With less light pollution, the night skies appear to be dotted with diamonds. To capture this, stabilise your camera on a tripod. Set a wide aperture of around F/2.8 to F/4 to let in light, and choose a long exposure of 8 to 10 seconds. Any longer than that and the stars will become short lines due to the earth’s rotation. You will need to set a high ISO to make the shot possible, so take a few test shots to figure out what works best – usually between 2500 and 6000.

To add interest to your subject, you can light up (or paint) a foreground subject using a torch with a wide beam. Simply shine it across the subject once, side to side, during the exposure. However, too much ‘’light painting’’ will overexpose the subject. Night sky shots work best with a wide focal length to include as many stars as you can and a wide lens opening to collect all the available light. Also, it’s best to be far away from your subject and horizon to get the real ‘big picture’. When you simply can’t get away from obstacles, such as trees or buildings, then you shoot what you have. Set the focus on the subjects you want to include in the image, since they are close, as they will be a distraction when out of focus.

To capture star trails, it’s best to set up pointing exactly south on a cloudless, moonless night. I use Bulb mode via a remote trigger that can lock. The longer the shutter stays open, the longer the trails will be. For me, 20 to 30 minutes is perfect. Again, to add drama to the image, you can paint a subject in the foreground. Set a wide-open aperture of F/2.8 to F/4 and an ISO of 2000 to 4000.

Owls and animals

I don’t recommend using a flash when shooting owls or animals at night. I use a torch or spotlight and bounce the light off the ground or a tree. Blinding birds or animals at night makes them vulnerable to predators. Don’t give away the positions of prey animals’ positions either. The rule is to always be considerate to the animals first, then take your picture.

As with any night photography, slow shutter speeds need to be stabilised on a tripod or whatever will do the same job. Since you don’t know what you are going to see on a night drive, I set a shutter speed that’s suitable for shooting out of hand – along with a wide-open aperture and ISO on auto. If you are unsure, go to Programme Mode, which lets the camera choose the shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the light available. Keep in mind that this mode could give you a very slow shutter speed, so be sure to stabilise!

*Marette offers a wide range of photography workshops and individual training sessions. Contact her on +27 82 553 4719 or refinededgesphoto@gmail.com for more information and bookings.

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