How to photograph wildlife just after sunset

Words and photos by Villiers Steyn

One of the most challenging things on safari is getting good photographs in low light conditions. This is why we take extra special care that all our Tusk Photo (previously known as ODP Safaris) clients know exactly which settings to use during the twilight hours…

Using a spotlight

Leopard walking towards game drive vehicle

One of the most common ways to light up an animal just after sunset is by means of a spotlight. If it’s still relatively early and the background is still clearly visible, a spotlight actually imitates the sun, creating beautiful golden colours on your subject. In cases like these I usually stay in Aperture Priority (A/Av), choose an ISO that ensures a shutter speed of at least 1/320 sec (just in case the leopard or lion yawns) and I use exposure compensation to make the image slightly lighter or darker.

Leopard yawning in grass

As soon as it becomes completely dark, the spotlight will allow you to get very dramatic side lit and back lit photos, but remember, you’ll have to monitor your settings very closely to ensure sharp, well-exposed photos. I usually switch over to Manual Mode (M) and choose a low f-value (f/4 or f/5.6 if you can’t go lower), the highest ISO you’re comfortable shooting in (2000 on my Nikon D750), and a shutter speed of 1/125 sec to start with. If the photo looks too bright, increase your shutter speed and if it looks too dark, decrease it. Back lit shots are often taken at 1/60 sec or even slower, so do whatever you can to keep your equipment dead still. Taking a series of shots in short succession in high continuous also increases your chances of getting at least one sharp image.

Leopard in tree lit with spotlight
Backlit Leopard Silhouette

Using a flash

In low light conditions you can of course use a flash instead of a spotlight. This works very well when you want to capture striking colours in the background when, for instance, a leopard is lying in a tree. The first step is to expose for the background. Switch to Manual Mode (M) and choose an f-value that will ensure that your whole subject is in focus. If it’s just a leopard, f/5.6 may be enough. If, however, it has a kill with it in the tree, you may want to consider going up to f/8. Now choose an ISO of approximately 800 and then play around with your shutter speed value. The faster you make it, the darker the background will look and the slower you make it, the brighter it will look. As you change the shutter speed, the colour of the background will also change.

Once the background looks good, activate the flash to light up the subject in the foreground. If the animal looks too bright, underexpose the flash. If it looks too dark, overexpose the flash.

Leopard in tree at Twilight

Remember, if you use the camera’s build-in flash, or even a hot-shoe flash on top of the camera, there’s a great chance that you’ll see the flash’s reflection in the animal’s eyes.

Leopard cub in tree at twilight

Ideally you should use a flash bracket that moves the flash to the side of the camera. The further away the flash is from the camera, the less chance there is of capturing green eyes.

Leopard lying in Savannah
Photographer on Safari with gear

Using natural light

Just because you don’t have a spotlight or a flash, doesn’t mean you can’t take photos of wildlife during twilight. If you choose good settings, you’ll still end up with respectable photos.

Twilight photos that aren’t lit with an external light source usually come out underexposed (very dark). To capture detail in the shadows, you have to let more light in when you take your shots. In Aperture Priority (A/Av), choose a low f-value (f/4 or f/5.6), increase your ISO value slightly (if you were on 400, go to 800), and then overexpose the photo with the help of the exposure compensation function. Do it in small increments – one third at a time – until you capture enough detail.

Remember, if the animal is in a tree you may end up with a washed out background, but in this case it doesn’t bother me – I’d rather see the leopards clearly than have them silhouetted against a dull sky.

Leopard and cub climbing tree

Next time you come across a great photo opportunity just after sunset, think carefully about the lighting options available to you and make sure you choose settings that will give you a sporting chance of getting cracking images.