When darkness falls: photographing wildlife at night

You don't have to travel far to capture bold pictures of wildlife after dark – learn how to shoot striking low-light images on your doorstep with these top tips from 2014's Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner, Marc Albiac.
The silhouettes of two horned goats, one rearing up at the other, in front of a bold blue sky at dusk.

Photographing wildlife at night is an amazing opportunity to capture the hidden lives of animals not typically seen when the sun is up – and you don't need a trip to the Amazon rainforest or the Serengeti to get involved. In fact, taking a more local approach can produce incredible imagery, opening this field up to anyone with the time, kit and patience.

Here, Canon Ambassador and the 2014 winner of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, Marc Albiac, shares his top tips for shooting wildlife in low light on your doorstep.

1. Staying local can produce amazing shots – if you put in the effort

A fox looking into a rocky cave area at night.

Finding wildlife to photograph can be tricky, so some photographers use certain scents to attract animals. Wildlife specialist Marc Albiac prefers to watch and wait, but has advice for anyone looking to try this approach. "For foxes or other mammals, for instance, you can use something like fish oil," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 15mm, 1/30 sec, f/7.1 and ISO1600. © Marc Albiac

Marc believes that shooting in your local area should be seen as an opportunity to fully immerse yourself. It's no secret that the best work in this field often comes from pros who spend months on location, so treat your local area this way. Take it seriously and you will get results.

For Marc, it's all about getting the most out of your area. "You are probably going to have more time and awareness with these animals, than if you spent one week in Africa shooting elephants."

Marc explains that those eager for the challenge can learn how their local wildlife behaves, where certain breeds hang out, and what their route through the city or woodland looks like. "Researching the animals you are going to shoot is just as important as any ability with the kit," he says.

Marc says that it was his fascination with mammals as a teenager that made him gravitate to night photography. "I started shooting wildlife at the age of seven. But it wasn't until I was 14 or 15 that I started photographing wildlife at night. I was very interested in mammals – you need to catch them at night because that is when they are out of hiding!"

2. Location and the right lighting are key factors

A badger standing on a log above a pond, its face reflected in the dark water.

If there's one thing Marc has learnt during his years in the field, it's that animals can be found everywhere. "There is always wildlife when the night comes – especially in cities where they are searching for something to eat," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 28mm, 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Marc Albiac

The silhouette of a wild boar running next to a bench with people sat on it, in front of a city skyline at dusk.

To succeed at night photography, you need a good understanding of the workings of your camera. "When the light is getting lower, it's more important than ever to know where to find your settings, particularly your ISO and aperture," says Marc. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 168mm, 1/25 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Marc Albiac

Marc often looks to other celebrated photographers to get ideas and build concepts. "I get a lot of inspiration from contests and awards, diving into the profiles of all the artists involved," he says, "particularly the Wildlife Photographer of the Year in London, England."

The next step is to find the right location. Use your local knowledge to seek out likely spots for your animal of choice and keep going back. "Go day after day, because the first time you might not get any sign that the animals are there," explains Marc. "But usually if you go three days in a row, you can spot something."

Once you've found your location, you need to consider lighting. "If you only want to light the animal then you are going to shoot at shutter speeds of about 1/100," says Marc. "But if you want to take in some of the habitat as well, then you need to set the camera to a long exposure."

Experimenting with longer shutter speeds doesn't just have to be a practical choice. If you find yourself in a city with traffic, or even just have a torch handy – this could be a great opportunity to experiment with light trails.

"If you use natural light, or a continuous torch, then you need to use longer shutter speeds and work in the widest aperture you can manage while maintaining quality," Marc says. "If you use an artificial light, you will set the camera to maybe 1/100. At the very least it has to be lower than 1/250 to work in synchronisation with the flash."

A lens like the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM has a wide aperture ideal for this kind of shooting.

One bit of kit that Marc loves using is a diffuser, particularly when it comes to macro work. "When I'm shooting frogs or toads or salamanders, their skin can be wet from the environment," he explains. "It can create an unnatural reflection, it's good to carry a diffuser to soften the light."

"The bigger the better when it comes to diffusers, but as this was macro photography and the animals we talked about are small things, you don't need a very big diffuser," he says.

If you don't own one you could even improvise and use another object to act as a diffuser, or make one at home out of paper. "I got one years ago online but in some occasions where I didn’t have it, I used this thing you put in the windscreen of the car in order to avoid the sunlight in summer. The important thing is you need to make the flash light softer, so you need something that expands the light," explains Marc.

3. Start by photographing smaller animals

A bat flying through a wooden doorway in an abandoned house, with a large fireplace visible in the background.

Nighttime wildlife moments, especially those in inner cities, can often happen in unexpected and unlikely situations – so be prepared. "Always carry a camera!" urges Marc. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 15mm, 1/5 sec, f/9 and ISO800. © Marc Albiac

Marc says that photographing smaller animals is easier than larger mammals. "I think this is an easy introduction to wildlife photography, because you can do it with only a macro lens, a camera and one flash," he says.

This low-key setup is beneficial to both the budding wildlife shooter and the animals themselves. For this kind of work, Marc uses a simple flash and the Canon EOS R6, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM and Mount Adapter EF-EOS R.

"When I do macro photography, I keep to the minimum kit needed," he says. "I want to spend as little time in the animals' space as possible – it's better for them and to get a natural shot."

For those really wanting to push their creative boundaries, Marc suggests shooting smaller creatures with a wide-angle lens. He opts for the Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8 III USM, due to the wide aperture for low-light conditions, but you could also try the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM. With its lightweight build, f/1.8 wide aperture and macro magnification of up to 1:2, it's the perfect tool for close-up photography.

"You have to bear in mind all the things that appear in the scene," explains Marc. "It's more of a challenge, but I think it's nice to show the habitat."

One thing a wide-angle approach requires is more lighting. "If you illuminate only the frog as you would do in a macro style, then the rest of the scene is going to be dark," Marc says. "You have to light more areas, such as a tree for example, or you need a long exposure to take in more natural light."

Once you get used to dealing with smaller, more manageable critters, it might be time to move on to larger nighttime prowlers. "The first thing you have to know is the location – where is the animal going to appear? How can you light the scene to catch that movement? What do you think the animal is going to do?" proposes Marc. Once you have an idea of how the animal might operate in that space, all you can do is stay prepared, have the right kit and get your settings sorted.

4. Choose the right camera and settings

The silhouette of a rocky landscape with a horned animal visible in the distance on the right.

Arriving at a location early gives you time to get your shot ready, but be prepared to tweak settings as the light changes. "If you started a hike at 5pm, you are going to be constantly changing your exposure settings as the sun goes down," says Marc. "So be patient with yourself and the camera!" Taken on Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens and Mount Adapter EF-EOS R at 200mm, 1/3200 sec, f/4 and ISO800. © Marc Albiac

For Marc, choosing the right camera is vital, and the Canon EOS R6 makes the perfect partner as an all-round, low-light option. Thanks to its groundbreaking Eye Detection Autofocus (AF), the EOS R6 can recognise and track subjects with new levels of accuracy, meaning even if your subject is moving, such as a bird in flight, you can still get a sharp image. Its In-body Image Stabilizer (IBIS) also largely removes the need for a tripod, enabling Marc to have a nimble, streamlined set-up.

"The IBIS in the EOS R6 makes this camera ideal for shooting wildlife at night, as it allows you to shoot in low light at low shutter speeds," he says. "For example, when you go hiking for a shoot, you can see how breathing affects how you hold the camera. If you are not steady and you are shooting in darkness with a very low shutter speed, then IBIS in invaluable ."

Beyond stability, the ability to shoot at a high ISO and still get clean images also makes the EOS R6 the obvious camera choice for Marc. "It's crazy – I don't use ISOs of less than 6400 and I always get perfect results! If I need to, I can even pump it to 8000," he concludes.

But what are the best lenses for wildlife photography? Lenses like the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM – which performs well in low-light – pairs well with the Canon EOS R6 for capturing nature shots.

Low-light wildlife photography opens up a whole new world of animal behaviour, and can create bold and exciting images. Use Marc's tips to see what you can capture in your local area.

Written by Jack Fittes

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