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Photographing Wildlife at Night in Liuwa Plain

Posted by Will on

The low-light capabilities of modern cameras allow us to photograph wildlife in ways that would previously have been impossible. Over the last year or so, I have pushed my cameras to the limits in order to take striking images of nocturnal African animals.

To this end, I teamed up with African Parks and Norman Carr Safaris to undertake two expeditions to Liuwa Plain, a remote national park in the west of Zambia.

I planned to use a variety of techniques to photograph animals at night but not all of my set-ups were complicated. Simply by pushing the ISO up on my Canon 1DX and using a fast 400mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to photograph a pair of striped polecats (also known as zorillas) by the light of a dim spotlight and a group of reedbuck as they were backlit by flames of a bushfire.

Striped polecats (zorillas) are rarely seen.
Reedbuck pushed by a bushfire at night.

Capturing the Stars

My first aim was to take images showings animals under the beautiful, starry sky — the night sky in Africa is simply spectacular! To achieve these shots, I would need a wide-angle lens and a ground-level perspective so that I could look up at the subject and have the sky as a backdrop. BeetleCam, my remote control camera buggy, would be the perfect tool for this.

BeetleCam photographing a group of hyenas in Liuwa Plain.

I was going to achieve these shots in a single exposure, in-camera. To expose the stars, I would need to use a high ISO and a shutter speed of around 10 to 15 seconds. The animal would be exposed by a flash at the beginning of the exposure. No animal would stay still for the duration of the exposure but, as long as there was no moonlight, it wouldn’t matter; if the animal moved after the flash the animal would just block out light from the stars but it wouldn’t otherwise show up. I had to use manual focus and judge the distance between the camera and subject by eye as there wasn’t enough light to rely on autofocus.

On my first night in Liuwa I had the opportunity to use this technique to photograph the resident pride of lions. The resulting picture is one of my favourite from the entire project!

Lions photographed under the Milky Way.

Later, I used this same technique to photographs lions at twilight. The only difference here is that I reduced the exposure time to balance the brightness of the sky with the flash.

Lioness photographed with BeetleCam at dusk.
Lion photographed with BeetleCam in twilight.

Hyenas greatly outnumber the lions and are the dominant predators in Liuwa Plain. They are mainly nocturnal so they made ideal subjects for this project.

Hyena under the stars.

The shot below is another of my favourites. The “ghosts” appeared because the moon was up and it brightened the sky. Some of the hyenas moved after the flash and shadows formed when they paused to look at the camera.

Hyenas photographed under the stars.

I think these shots capture the spirit of these nocturnal animals in a way that isn’t possible when photographing them during the day.

Camera Traps

I also wanted to photograph some of the shyer nocturnal species. My Camtraptions camera traps were a perfect tool for this. I set one up at a waterhole and captured the image below of a porcupine drinking. To my surprise, it also snapped a zebra drinking in the middle of the night!

Porcupines captured on a Camtraptions camera trap.
Zebra drinking captured on a Camtraptions camera trap.

The Rains

I was in Liuwa for the end of the long dry season and the start of the rains. With the rain came large herds of wildebeest (Liuwa Plain is home to the second-largest wildebeest migration after the Serengeti).

Wildebeest under impressive storm clouds. This image is a 3-shot panoramic stitch.

Photographing animals in the rain at night gave me the opportunity to use another technique. I positioned an off-camera flash behind my subject and pointed it back towards the camera to backlight the raindrops. These shots were challenging because I had to place the flash and line up the shot without spooking the animals. I also had to compose and focus in complete darkness, while trying to keep the driving rain off my gear! Needless to say, I got very very wet!

Wildebeest migration in the rain. The rain was backlit by an off-camera flash.
Hyena in the rain. The rain was backlit by an off-camera flash.

The rains were accompanied by some epic lightning storms so I set myself the challenge of photographing an animal in front of a bolt of lightning. One evening I noticed a huge storm approaching so I went in search of a suitable subject.

I found a hyena and lined it up with the storm. I then took back-to-back long exposures hoping that a lightning bolt would eventually strike in the right spot and silhouette the animal. The hyena was moving so keeping it lined-up with the storm (again in the pitch darkness) was challenging but my perseverance was rewarded with the shot below.

Hyena in front of a spectacular lightning storm.

So what next? Well there are many other creative ways that remote cameras and camera traps can be used to photograph wildlife at night! I will be exploring some of these in future projects.

If you are interested in learning more about these techniques then you can download my free guide to remote and camera trap photography at Camtraptions.

You can see more of my wildlife at night shots in this collection. You may also be interested in reading my WWF camera trap post and my supermoon eclipse post.

17 Comments

  1. Buddy Eleazer said: June 27, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    Burrard, Great work. It appears you used off camera flash from the side. Could you share some details on Flash?

  2. Will said: June 27, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    Any flash would have worked. I used Camtraptions wireless triggers to fire them. I was using very high ISOs so I didn’t need much light from the flashes.

  3. Karl L Zimmermann said: June 28, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    Fantastic pics, we’ve been to Africa three times, can’t wait to get back. Thanks for sharing these outstanding photographs !

  4. Heath Holden said: June 29, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Beautiful work, Will! Keep it up, Heath.

  5. Anna said: July 25, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Awesome photos! Thank you

  6. Gayle said: July 25, 2016 at 11:05 pm

    LOVE the hyena “ghosts”!!!

  7. Judy Churchill said: July 26, 2016 at 10:43 am

    Am humbled by your talent. Oh so wish I could visit Liuwa – on my bucket list!!

  8. Ed Aylmer said: July 26, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    These images are unbelievable!!. They just capture the essence of what animals have to survive in their world’s.
    It is always refreshing to see something so different.
    thanks for sharing.

  9. Cambarrot Francoise said: August 4, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    Good job and wonderful pics

  10. Merel said: August 25, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Amazing! How did you get both the animals ánd the stars sharp? If I try this technique, the subject in the foreground is blurry because I focus on infinity while shooting the stars.

  11. Calum Lewis said: September 21, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Awesome photos, I wish i could capture shots like this!

  12. Ionut Ignat said: September 26, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    Thank you, Will!
    The rain photos are my favorites.

  13. Carolina said: September 26, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    Amazing photo! Great job!

  14. Arun said: September 27, 2016 at 4:44 am

    Awesome night images and great technique, love all

    if i may ask, what ISO levels did you use?

  15. Roberto Anil said: December 20, 2016 at 4:32 am

    Amazed by these great shot and your talent. I’d love to get the pictures of the pride of lions under the milky way. I bought one picture from you already.
    Let me know, I am fan !

    R

  16. PeteA said: September 7, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    Will, you have some truly fantastic photographs there!

    We all see so many photographs on the internet these days that I for one am a little ‘desensitised’ when I see good ones to say the least.

    However, many of these have made myself and my partner go ‘WOW!!!’
    A rare treat for us, and one I thank you for.

    For the first time ever, I am seriously considering a purchase of a print, or two!!!

    The Hyena and Lions images are truly ‘top of the world’ class!

    I hope you are ‘at least’ as pleased with them as we were looking at them.

    P & K

  17. Sheila Castelino said: September 20, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Brilliant and mind boggling images. Each a creative masterpiece. Loved them all. Thanks so much for sharing.

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