There are few things as exciting as heading into the night on the back of an open vehicle looking for leopards, porcupines and owls in the beam of a spotlight.

Photographing these nocturnal creatures, however, can be very frustrating and to many it may seem borderline impossible. Give yourself a sporting chance when you next go on a night drive by using these top tips…




After you’ve packed away the gin and tonic, switch to Manual Mode (M) and choose the following default settings:

  • The lowest possible f-stop It will ensure the camera lets in as much light as possible.
  • A shutter speed of 1/125 sec It is fast enough to get a sharp photo if you support your camera properly, but still slow enough to let in a sufficient amount of light.
  • The highest ISO value you’re willing to shoot at It could be as low as 800 for an old entry level camera like a Canon 450D or a Nikon D90, or as high as 6400 for a new pro-level camera like a Canon 5D Mark IV or a Nikon D850. The key is to make the camera’s sensor as light-sensitive as possible without making the image too grainy.


Before you start the engine, remind everyone on the vehicle not to move around when you’re taking photos and make sure to support your camera with a bean bag, monopod or bracket and gimbal. If you don’t manage to keep your camera dead still, you will end up with blurry photos.


As soon as you spot an animal, take a couple of test shots and then look at the results. If it’s too dark (which usually happens when it’s far away), decrease your shutter speed slightly and take extra care to keep your camera still. It it’s too bright (which will happen when it’s very close), increase your shutter speed until the animal is nicely exposed.


If you’re lucky enough to photograph a backlit animal at night, you might have trouble focussing on it. With so much darkness in the frame it’s not surprising! Choose a single focus point and move it to the brightest part of the animal’s outline. If you’re still struggling, choose a small cluster of focus points and point it to the same bright part of the rim.


The chances of every single night-time shot being sharp and perfectly exposed is zero. In fact, even pros like me often have a hit rate of 10% or lower. Switch from Single Shooting to High Continuous on your camera’s Drive Mode and take as many shots as you can. This way you’re bound to end up with one or two keepers.


You’ll probably be tempted to use a flash in order to light up the areas that the spotlight can’t, but beware! The front light created by a flash usually causes images to look very flat and tends to reflect off twigs and grass stalks in the foreground that were otherwise invisible. Not to mention the fact that it could cause an ugly green reflection in the animal’s eyes.


Always make sure that whoever handles the spotlight only lights up nocturnal animals and doesn’t shine directly in their eyes.




Villiers leads photographic safaris to some of the best game reserves and parks in the world, where he helps his clients to capture big cats in their natural habitat. This includes leopards and lions in the world-famous Sabi Sands, cheetahs in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve and tigers in India’s Ranthambhore National Park.

At Close Quarters

If you really want to up your wildlife photography game, join Villiers on an At Close Quarters photographic safari.

Instagram: @villierssteyn





WORDS & IMAGES Villiers Steyn