Never be afraid of the dark.
There’s plenty of wildlife around after night falls. Not many wildlife photographers, though. That’s because most wildlife shooters rely exclusively on the sun as their main light source. When it drops out of sight, so do the cameras.
Not so for Sean Crane. This 43-year-old advertising creative from Royal Oak, MI, has discovered that, with the right techniques and flash setup, photographing wildlife after dark can be as rewarding — and, in many ways, as easy — as shooting in broad daylight.
But how does he turn up subjects? “To find opossums, owls, or any of the many creatures that come out at night, I use a bright Petzl Tikka XP LED headlamp”($50, street), says Crane. “On quiet night hikes, I scan with its beam, searching for two telltale flashes of light — reflections cast by the eyes of even the most secretive subjects. If the light scares an animal away, I turn it off and stand quietly for a few minutes. Soon, my subject will return to its routine, and I can get my shot.”
The Petzl has several modes. The wide beam is well suited to getting around after dark, while Crane uses its more concentrated Spotlight mode for locating his subjects. The lamp’s 20-second Boost mode is strong enough to pick out even distant “eye shine,” as the telltale reflections are called. The light also tilts for precision aiming.
While the lamp makes a decent fill, Crane’s main light is a Nikon Speedlight SB-800. To obtain the greatest flash range possible for far-off subjects, he shoots at or near maximum aperture and at a high light sensitivity, either ISO 400 or more rarely 800. All of this is preset.
The best thing about shooting after dark: “There’s little or no ambient light to cause ghosting or blur,” explains Crane. “It doesn’t matter if the animal moves, because the flash will freeze it.”
Because most nocturnal mammals and birds are shy and skittish, Crane recommends starting with something easier: amphibians. “Tree frogs, for example, often give you plenty of time to focus, light, and compose.”
The best way to find them is just to listen. In some parts of the world, they peep all night long. The headlamp won’t help much, because their eyes are not reflective, but once you’ve located a frog with your ears, the headlamp can assist with focus, composition, even lighting.
“Red-eyed tree frogs, like the one here I found near Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica, spend their days high up in trees,” Crane says. “At dusk they start croaking, and descend toward the ground, closer to potential mates…and photographers.”
For more of Sean Crane’s nocturnal photography, visit www.seancrane.com.