Photographing mammals at night

Hi all

I have swapped a flash for a torch for night photography of mammals as I think it works better over distance and is less likely to cause the mammal to run off. I was wondering what others do. Flash or torch?

Any thoughts much appreciated.



  • Lee

    Flash for close up, torch for farther away. For close photos, you may have to turn your torch off (and ask others to turn their torches off) and enable your flash system to fire a beam (usually infra-red) before the shutter so your autofocus lens can focus. Use a good torch: I use a 950 lumen torch (Maker: Fenix) that has 4 lumen settings and will change from wide angle to spot light. Its batter is charged with a USB connector (you can use the same transformer as for your mobile phone).

  • SteveFirth

    Hi Steve,

    I’m lucky because my girlfriend/partner is always with me on mammal watching trips, so we always have two pairs of hands.

    Generally we use a Fenix HL60R to spot mammals (or to look at them when found with the thermal scope), which has the advantage that when the mammal has been located we can reduce the intensity of the light & focus the beam a little way off the mammal, in an attempt to allow us to still folow the mammal without frightening it too much. We have had success using flash with the the lower intensity torch beam trained just off the mammal as it provides enough light for the camera to autofocus. It does sometimes cause the mammal to make off, but quite regualrly it doesn’t.

    I have also improvised a way to attach a red filter to the Fenix. In practice this means that we need to have the torch on one of the higher lumens, which eats up battery life. However, we’ve found that mammals on the whole are not fazed by the red light at all. The red light is still good enough to allow the camera to autofocus and we still use the camera flash. Our Canon Speedlite 430EXII has a good range for distance photography.

    On a recent trip to Cuba we were watching Nightjars at night using the red filter on the Fenix and were getting excellent views and not disturbing the nightjars. A group of American birdwatchers arrived on the scene and shone bright white lights on the nightjars, which immediately flew off. This happened on numerous occasions, while we watched on a bit bemused. They gave up and I used the red filter again to locate a nightjar, but all the Americans shouted at me telling me that I would frighten it away, despite the bird sitting happily bathed in red light. The Americans then proceeded to shine their bright white lights on it and off it flew.

    This was for a bird of course, but it seemed an odd response to my using a red filter, which I had thought was accepted as causing less disturbance to mammals and birds, though I may be wrong and there is a good reason not use a red filter. Maybe it is because it will make photographs of the animal not to look as photographers would like them to?



  • Chris Daniels

    I use a torch. The setup is what’s important – I have secured a torch to my zoom lens’ tripod mount which I turn upside down so that it is on top of the lens rather than below. This means that I can use camera/torch with one set of hands and whatever my torch is pointed at is always in the frame. The best way I’ve found to do the mounting is with a Picatinny rail secured to the lens’ tripod mount (see first link below, $6) with a hex bolt, then a torch mount that secures to the Picatinny rail (second link below, ~$10). Then any 1” flashlight (a standard size, like the Acebeam L19 that I use for example…but I’ve used many others along the way) will mount directly to your lens and point at the same spot as your camera. The setup weighs very little, is quite secure, and has produced great results for me.

    Pecawen Picatinny Rail Section Polymer 5,7,9,11 Slot Picatinny/Weaver Rail Single Picatinny Rail Ultralight Rail

    Monstrum Tactical 1″ Offset…

  • Greg Greer

    Hi Steve,
    I have done a lot of nocturnal photography over many years of wildlife observing. I switch around depending on the subject, background and how much habitat I want in my image. I do insects and herps as well as mammals. In the macrophotography world, I almost exclusively use strobes. This is easy with small creatures that can be manipulated for photographic purposes. In regard to mammals, I have used a strobe with a flat card magnifier attached well in front of the strobe. It gives a greater distance in using fill flash. This typically requires using a torch so the camera can focus accurately. I also carry a high lumen torch and I will use it on mammals that tend to on the move as it is quicker to capture the moment. Those images tend to be a little on the yellow side, but they can be color corrected in various photoshop editing software. I also know a lot of people that use highly variable methods in nocturnal photography and experimenting is the only way for a photographer to develop the method that works best for them.

  • Vivek menon

    As much as possible go for torch. Much more friendly for the animal. If using flash use diffuser.

  • JanEbr

    This is really weird concept to me. First of all we most often photograph animals over distances where I barely even see them in the torch – often I see only eyeshine, focus on it and then only the flash reveals the animal. If I would like to photograph the animals in a torch it would have to be absurdly strong and probably close to to setting anything near me on fire. I have also found that many animals don’t really care about a single flash, probably because they are used to lighting storms, but constant light scares them away. I have some pictures of voles that would absolutely refuse to be shone on even for a split second, so the only way to photograph them was wait in darkness, look through IR and flash when the animal emerges.

    I don’t know what y’all are actually doing, but it seems to me that if you are getting images using a torch, you are way too close to the animals and the concern of it being “friendlier” to the animal is focusing on the wrong problem.

  • JanEbr

    Obviously, some small animals are an exception – I have night-time close ups of small rodents done with a torch, because some of them let you walk up to them or are present in environments where there is only limited range of visibility (bushes) but this is really an exception than the common situation.

  • Lennartv

    I have been using my torch until now, but I’m now starting to experiment with flash. I think it highly depends on the output of the torch whether or not it is friendly for the animal. With my Fenix TK75 on the highest output I can create the same or a higher intensity dan a flash would be capable of. A constant beam seems like it would be more intrusive than a flash. I also notice a clear difference in behaviour depending on which setting I use. With a low light output the animals are more inclined to stay than with a higher. Some don’t seem to care much though.

    With red light I am not yet sure if it is really the red light that makes the difference in behaviour or just the low light output. I haven’t really been able to find a torch with a red light capability that even comes close to the output of my TK-75 even on the lowest setting.

    I would be very interested to try to work with an approach in which I use red light for focus and then a flash to fill in. I suspect this might make it possible for the animal to stick around for a longer time and have good photo’s at the same time.

    In any case I find that the main challenge with photographing nocturnal mammals is to get a picture where their eyes are not completely blown-out. This is can be avoided by holding the light as far away from the camera as you can (ideally with someone else holding it). So with flash it would also be in the photographers best interested to try to use it only when the animal is not looking directly towards it.

  • stevebabbs

    The event that really got me thinking about this was in the Western Sahara when we were watching an Ethiopian Wolf. There were no issues with torches but as soon as someone started using a flash it ran off. I have generally found mammals to not be that worried by torches. The classic was in Malaysia when a Leopard Cat totally ignored the beam and sat down and had a little doze while I was watching it.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    You can never know how an unfamiliar animal would react. As JanEbr noted, in many areas wildlife is used to lightning so mostly ignores flashes. But, for example, on desert roadsides animals are used to lights of passing traffic but not to flashes. Bats in caves hate both lights and flashes, and some don’t tolerate red light but are OK with green. In my experience, “flash good, light bad” situation is much more common than the other way around. Many cats, however, seem to hate flashes. Tigers sometimes abandon trails after just one flash from a trail camera. Understandably, some animals heavily hunted with firearms also freak out from camera flashes. I’ve heard stories of elephants charging photographers in response to a camera flash, so be careful.
    There’s been lengthy discussions on birding forums on the effects of flashes vs. strong lights on night animals’ vision; they led nowhere because there’s no good data. In Japan flash photography of Blakiston’s owls at supplementary feeding sites is banned but ultra-fast strobe lights are allowed; the animals seem to ignore them completely so it might be the optimal technology once it becomes more practical.

  • JanEbr

    If the best method differs in differs idea, it would be perhaps nice if this info could be added to the country pages here in the world atlas 🙂 I had no idea that it’s actually the other way around on Sahara, which is already good intel because we are definitely planing to revisit Western Sahara soon enough.

    Regarding the effects of flashes on birds, I have seen some research that it’s potentially dangerous for owls in flight – they could crash when disoriented, so that should definitely never be done.

  • Alan Dahl

    There is some great advice already listed by others and I thought I would add my 2 cents with some examples.
    I never want to disturb the wildlife I am photographing so regardless of techniques used I seldom take more than a few photos. If I didn’t get a good shot from those few photos then it’s my fault. With that said, I have never had a subject leave or seem disturbed from a flash or flashlight while taking photos. This is true for mammals, birds, and amphibians.

    I have used a combination of built in flash, stand alone speedlight flash, speedlight flash with flash extender, and flashlight/spotlight and no flash. I think you can get decent photos with all these techniques but one technique is not right for every situation.

    Using a built in flash or combo built-in and separate speedlight are really only effective for close subjects that are still. So, that is my go to set up for herps like this Marine toad. The speed light was held by my wife off to the left to create the additional shadow:

    My preferred mammal set up would be an attached speedlight with a flash extender (I use a Magmod). This allows me to freeze the action much better and at a longer distance. Without this combination, photos like these would not have been possible or would be too blurry (all hand held).

    Marbled cat sequence:


    However, there are a lot of places that don’t allow flash so when that happens my technique is have a companion shine a flashlight next to the subject to allow auto focus to lock and then take a photo using high ISO like these (all hand held). I try to avoid shining a light right at the subjects eyes.

    Amber mountain mouse lemur (ISO 2000):

    Webb’s tufted tailed rat (ISO 3200)

    Bandicoot (iso 8000)

    You can even bump ISO up to insane levels with a decent camera (Nikon D500 in my case). Hyena chase and kill (ISO 25600):

    As you can see, some decent enough photos are possible with all these techniques. One key to hand holding though is to have a companion holding the light. While I have tried to use a slim flashlight under my lens (200-500mm zoom) I just can’t hold the camera as steady that way.


  • Jurek2

    Just an obvious observation. Many mammals and birds run away if light is switched directly at them, but stay in place if a torch is switched on to the side, preferably at lower intensity, and gently moved to shine on them.

    Mammals, except monkeys, humans and possibly marsupials (unsure about the latter) are believed not to recognize red light, so this is the most favorable light for observations. Unfortunately, as others pointed, it requires torch to be switched at maximum intensity to obtain moderate illumination.

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