Photography Tips - Wildlife shots at night - capturing a lion

As I reviewed the photos of my recent Namibian safari I noticed that there were quite few images taken at night, at the floodlit waterholes in Etosha. Here I explore some of the photographic challenges faced in these conditions and how to overcome them to successfully capture a shot such as the one below.

  • Level - Intermediate to advanced
  • Subject - Technique
  • Camera type - Digital SLR
1/25 sec a f 4.0, ISO 6400 374mm (Canon 1Dx and EF200-400, f/4L IS USM)

1/25 sec a f 4.0, ISO 6400 374mm (Canon 1Dx and EF200-400, f/4L IS USM)

The Challenge

Essentially there is but one challenge - a lack of available light. Although the waterholes are floodlit, do not imagine some brightly lit football stadium, they are lit just enough to see with the naked eye.  In order to capture as much light as possible it is necessary to use longer shutter speeds so the stability of the camera becomes critical. Also the low contrast causes mayhem with the autofocus so manual focus is often required, which is tricky in low light. 

Stability of the Camera

Our subject, the lion, is essentially static, calmly drinking at the waterhole. Therefore the only source of potential motion blur is the movement of the camera itself, exacerbated by the long lens.

So here are Martin's top tips to stabilise the camera:

  1. Place the camera on a tripod! Honestly, even if you do nothing else, this will massively improve the chances of getting sharp photos....Got it? PLACE THE CAMERA ON A TRIPOD!
  2. Tighten any clasps - spend 20 seconds ensuring the tripod will not collapse!
  3. Weigh the tripod down - you will find with a heavy camera and/ or a small amount of wind that even on a tripod there is still some unwanted movement.
  4. Remove any straps from the camera or lens -  this minimises any movement from the wind and removes the chance of accidently snagging the strap at just the wrong moment.
  5. Use "mirror lock up" - even the movement of the mirror causes camera shake.  
  6. Use a cable release, remote trigger or self timer to trigger the shutter - otherwise every time you press the shutter you are just moving the camera!

And that is it! Easy as that :)


To maximise the chance of success with autofocus, use spot focusing and select the centre spot. Typically the centre spot is more sensitive that any other and therefore offers the best chance of achieving focus.

However, once it has got too dark for autofocus to work and you have finished verbally abusing your camera, it is time to go pro! MANUAL FOCUS to the rescue!

So here are Martin's top tips for manually focusing in the dark:

  1. Temporarily set the camera to its highest ISO setting - we are going to use live view to check focus and this brightens the image on the screen.
  2. Obtain initial rough focus with the naked eye - this can be done through the view finder or with live view but you are going to need live view next.
  3. Fine tune the focus using the magnification available in live view - the ability to magnify the image allows you to see the fine detail required to get the photo not only sharp but focused where you want it.
  4. Reduce your ISO back to an acceptable level - you probably do not want to be taking the image as ISO 25,600+ if you can help it!

At this point I normally turn live view off and use my binoculars to view the subject to then trigger the cable release at the right moment.


Martin Sean




Martin Sean

London, UK