Photographing Wildlife in the Dark

As you will see Bruce has been taking nighttime images of wildlife for a long time and has worked out many of the problems and associated issues. Many of Bruce’s workshop participants have shown an interest in this type of photography but, as you can imagine, it is very difficult to give a workshop and guarantee great nighttime images of deer, coyote, kangaroo rats, and the like. What Bruce can do is teach participants all of the material and methods they can use in their own nighttime efforts. He can cut your learning curve to almost nothing and advise and assist in the purchase or making of all of the necessary equipment. If you are interested in learning the skills that will allow you to take the type of images that Bruce presents in this article, please contact the Arizona Highways Photo Workshops office at, 1-888-790-7042 or email to info@ahpw.org and let us know if you would be interested in a workshop such as this!

 

By Bruce Taubert

I love photographing wildlife at night.  The light is mine to make, there is practically no competition with other photographers for time or space, and the degree of difficulty is relatively high!

My first nighttime photography endeavors began about 25 years ago with attempts to catch bats in flight.  Of course, this was before I had a digital camera so I was using Fuji slide film.  I remember leaving home at 3PM for a small water hole in the desert, arriving at the bat photography site at 5PM, setting up for a couple of hours, and then “attempting” to take photos of flying bats until dawn.  Then the long drive home, sending my slide film off, waiting for three days to see the rewards of my work, only to be disappointed at the results.  If I took one or two decent bat images each trip I was lucky.  There were not, and still are not, any training manuals for photographing flying bats.

Pallid bat drinking from a pond. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ

A few years later I bought my first digital camera.  I still left home early and got home late but I was able to immediately see my images and make corrections IN THE FIELD.  That first night I took home several excellent flying bat images.  Maybe my images, that night, did not rival the great Merlin Tuttle but I was on my way.

Lesser Long-nosed Bat feeding of Agave Blossom (Leptonycteris curasoae). SE, AZ

I can repeat almost the same story for flying elf owls, except my sites were closer to home and I did not have to leave home so early and I got home earlier.  I spent many years in the field locating owls, learning their habits so I could photograph their behaviors, and finding the appropriate gear to get the best results.  I cannot even begin to tell you how many bad butt shots I took of elf owls flying into their nest hole!  Once I had a digital camera in hand the learning curve for my nighttime endeavors became less steep.  I was able to make corrections in the field and my success rate soared.

Elf Owl bringing banded gecko into nest. North Phoenix, AZ

Pair of adult screech owls. Canon EOS 5D-Mark III, 70-200 mm with 2x teleconverter, ISO 500, f/ 10 @ 1/200 sec., flash

For the next several years I fought with equipment development, locating my specimens, and dealing with the many challenges of nighttime wildlife photography.  Luckily a few small companies were beginning to make equipment that was either geared towards nighttime photography or that could be adapted for its use.

I concentrated on fast moving subjects, such as flying owls, running kangaroo rats, striking Rattlesnakes, and the like.  The biggest challenge was to train myself to do a majority of my scouting during the day so that when I went out for the nighttime shooting I was familiar with the location and had a good idea about how I could/would set up my equipment.

Spinx Moth feeding from Datura Flower. Phoenix, AZ

Although I am still very interested in photographing fast moving subjects at night I am shifting a little to more sedentary beings.  I became very excited when looking at National Geographic Magazine images of African beasts going about their nocturnal lives and had hopes that, someday, I could take similar photographs.  Coyotes, deer, javalina, elk, fox, and many other species are either primarily nocturnal or become nocturnal for certain times of the years.  Given that I live in the Arizona desert almost all the mammals become nocturnal during the oppressive summer heat.

The challenges are a little different for slow moving subjects but the story is basically the same-scout during the day, find out from locals were the critters are, and have the right equipment.  Like most “interesting” photography, the most difficult part of photographing wildlife at night is getting over the idea that it is too difficult.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Given the right equipment, much of my nighttime imaging of these slower moving subjects is accomplished with remote cameras when I am happily sleeping (either in the back of my truck or at home).

Fortunately, there are a few blogs and You Tube videos that present some much-needed basics for the budding nighttime photographer but no one has yet to put together a training manual.  Unfortunately, there is insufficient information for those of you that want to “”hit the road running”.  The vagaries of lighting, equipment brands, battery life, finding the right location, field set-up, and the many other small tidbits of information that separate success from failure have not been adequately recorded.

During my attempts at nighttime wildlife photography I have purchased and tried almost every type of equipment there is.  I have frustrated myself experimenting with nonproductive implements and had the pleasure of finding the right tool that allows me to take an image that I can be proud of.  Today most of my old equipment lies fallow and dusty in the recesses of my camera room and by the process of elimination I now have lightweight and easy to use tools.

Over the next few months I plan on concentrating on my nighttime wildlife photography efforts and expand my species list.  I hope to improve my abilities to dramatically light my quarry and increase my success rates. Like most photography I enjoy the process of learning and improving and continue to strive for the “best” images I can take.

Bruce Taubert is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

One “Golden Hour” You’ll Want to Skip

by Madeline Pado

You may know of the “Golden Hour” as it refers to the hour of golden light, just before the sun sets. It is a magical time of the day for photographers to capture images bathed in a soft warm glow. It is also the window of time someone has to get to medical attention after a venomous bite from some of Arizona’s desert dwellers.

Our trip leaders got a little lesson on the undesirable golden hour during a CPR/First Aid class last weekend, led by members of the Phoenix Fire Department. The instructor reminded us that rattlesnake bites and scorpion stings can be fatal if medical attention isn’t received within an hour. And once a Gila Monster clamps down, you’re locked into a painful grip. With the arrival of spring, these critters are out of winter hiding and on the move.

So the next time you are photographing in Arizona’s amazing desert landscape, be on the lookout for dangerous critters so you can avoid this golden hour. Don’t stick your hands in dark places—such as cracks in rocks or underbrush—and remember to always watch your step. If you come upon a rattlesnake, you will likely hear it’s rattle first. Stop and back up slowly. A rattlesnake can typically strike as high and far as half of its length.

If you want to get a good look at these critters, check them out in a captured environment. We offer two different photography workshops where you can photograph these critters in natural environments. Trip Leader Jeff Insel took the below photograph of a rattlesnake in an aquarium at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on our Desert Experience workshop earlier this month. After submitting a handful of photos to The Arizona Republic, this one was selected for publishing. Even though the snake was not in the open outdoors, Jeff managed to get this great photo by hand holding his Sony A65 with an 18-200mm lens against the aquarium glass.

40mm, f5.0, 1/60 sec and ISO 100, no flash

40mm, f5.0, 1/60 sec and ISO 100, no flash

We also offer a Creepy Crawly Critters workshop where our sole focus is photographing Arizona’s venomous and nonvenomous critters. With licensed Arizona Game and Fish Animal Wrangler Randy Babb and wildlife photographer Bruce Taubert as our guides, we get up close and personal with the “scary” Gila Monsters, scorpions, rattlesnakes and more in a controlled environment. We take these critters into their natural desert environments to capture realistic photos of them. In these workshops you won’t have to worry about risking the medical golden hour and you’ll have a chance to get amazing photographs of otherwise hard-to-photograph critters.