What would I need for nocturnal photography?

I start my hikes before sunrise. Right now I am using a D500 with a tamron f5-6.3 150-600MM lens. Holding this setup with a flashlight would seemingly be very difficult and the couple of test shots I did seemed to produce very long exposures. I would like to keep the shutter speeds on the faster side, so I am interested in flash with some kind of extender and I wanted to see if someone could make a recommendation. I am not a photography buff so a lot of the details of what would be needed are a mystery to me. For example would I literally fix the flash onto the hotshoe or would I attach it somewhere else? Additionally, should I still fix some kind of spotlight on as well to add with autofocus and tracking between flashes? Finally, how far out can flash throw light? Ideally I’d have a solution effective to 300-400mm if that is possible.

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  • Antee

    Put up the ISO a bit to have faster Shutter speed?
    Nikon D500 is great with high ISO.

  • wildlife_watcher

    I’ll try setting max iso at 25000. I also found a flash from an older camera yn685 that seems to work, although since the GN on flashes are not in the same format, it’s very difficult for me to compare it to other models. The magbeamer I saw some people recommend for nocturnal mammals is not in production right now, but I think I found one. I found another description on this site of mounting a flashlight with an L bracket. Unfortunately such devices sold inside the US seem to be quite expensive but if this one should https://www.aliexpress.us/item/3256804460344139.html?spm=a2g0o.productlist.main.27.3f93797e0GzOlK&algo_pvid=fb06e50f-705d-4a91-9808-68ac22dab6be&algo_exp_id=fb06e50f-705d-4a91-9808-68ac22dab6be-13&pdp_npi=4%40dis%21USD%2117.46%2110.30%21%21%2117.46%2110.30%21%402103255a17050613048871181e549e%2112000029965292360%21sea%21US%210%21AB&curPageLogUid=mx1kDGeLDIVz&utparam-url=scene%3Asearch%7Cquery_from%3A work it seems reasonably priced. From the picture is would seem one additional screw or maybe an extra mounting plate is needed.

  • Antee

    Hmm. strange. I have been using Nikon D500 with the same lens for years and it works perfectly with just a flashlight and ISO number between 3000 – 12000 depening on distance and light beam.

    • wildlife_watcher

      My testing was with a TK75 which is a very bright flashlight. I don’t know how long the shutter stayed open for (I was just testing in program auto) to get an exposure but I would guess at least half a second How far away are you from the subjects you take photos of?

      • Antee

        Don´t use Auto when photographing at night. It´s not working any good.

        I use semi-auto and let the camera do Aperture (F) automatic and I do the rest.

        Put up the ISO between 3000 – 12 000 depending on light beam and distance and go for around 1/250 shutter speed.

        This has been working very good for me at night with the Nikon D500.

        • wildlife_watcher

          Thanks, can I ask which flashlight you are using and how far away you are able to get images of wildlife? It is raining a lot here now so I wasn’t able to go out at night this AM.

  • Antee

    Wildlife anything between 10-75 m.
    My flashlight is OLIGHT M3XS-UT. But often my photos are from my guides different flashlights.

    Just do some experimental between ISO and shutter speed. If the photos are too dark, go down with shutter speed a bit. You can go down all the way to 1/150 with handheld and still have clear shots with a bit of luck 🙂
    Lower down it´s getting hard to get sharp photos.

  • charleswhood

    Hi, you’re actually asking multiple questions at once, so I will try to address all of them. (1) The flashes are not keyed to be best at (say) “400 mm” — what matters is the size of your subject and how much additional light is around (full moon in desert vs a foggy 5 am forest). Put another way, what is it you’re trying to do that you think is a problem to solve? (2) Every camera made to date won’t give as clean an image at super high ISO as it will in daylight at low ISO. That’s just physics. So while you could shoot your D500 at 25,000 ISO, that image is likely to be so grainy you’ll find it unusable. As other respondents said, you might think more about ISO 6,400, and of course shoot RAW, not JPEG, in order to allow yourself the best visual data to “salvage” as you process shots afterwards. (3) You don’t need to illuminate the full scene, only the animal in question. So the shot may look dark in playback but in post-processing, will turn out to be fine. (4) You asked about holding a flashlight (or “torch” in UK). Do a search of this site with the word “flashlight” and you’ll see a robust conversation. (5) You asked if your flash can move. Yes, but only with a cord, and where will the flash be, if not on the hot shoe? But if you had a large bracket, such as wedding photographers and news reporters used to use, the flash could be mounted up high, and the flash would “talk” to the camera through the regular hot shoe, assuming you had a cord (like an old-fashioned landline phone’s spiral “stretchy” cord). (6) Your lens is a good value but doesn’t “like” dim light. (It is not a “fast” lens in photo speak.) So your handheld torch / flashlight is helpful to give the lens a way to “grab” the subject and help you make the picture. It could create a white hotspot in the center of the picture, so aiming it a bit to the side is better for the photo and the animal. (7) In camera years, the Nikon D500 is aging out of the system. As you know? It was introduced in Jan 2016 and is no longer made. I still have mine, and ace bat wrangler Jose Gabriel still has his, but more recently issued camera bodies work better in dim light. This is not a Nikon thing, but would be true for Canon and Sony, too. A newer camera will have better ISO options and faster, more accurate auto-focus. If you’re not getting what you need with the lens and body you have, then that’s motivation to think about robbing a bank or selling organs in order to afford something newer. On a more serious note, for a big trip, maybe rent a body and lens. Expensive but at least you will have better options in dim light. Sadly, night photography is flat out hard to do. You can’t just change your barnd of flash (or position your flash differently) and leap directly into nocturnal perfection. You can though experiment by shooting a stuffed toy and find out what settings work best for the end result you’re hoping to achieve. Good luck.

  • Yeye

    I have tried a lot of different setups for photographing wildlife during the night, and I would suggest against using a flash as it many times scares off mammals after the first flash. Also there is a debate on whether the flash will harm nocturnal mammals with their large eyes or not. Nowadays I use a torch instead of a flash and I balance the camera on it in my hand or better have someone else pointing the the beam on the body instead of the head. If possibly I just have the light on the head during the short time I photograph or take a video. My settings are manual, auto ISO max 25 000, 1/500s, 6.3, auto white balance or set it on 5600 Kelvin, max frames per second, continuous tracking and small focus area. Or more often on video as that is easier. There are some articles that you also can read: https://www.mammalwatching.com/community-post/mounting-your-torch-on-camera-the-possibly-even-easier-way/ and https://www.mammalwatching.com/community-post/mounting-torch-on-camera-the-easy-way/

  • JanEbr

    I have a light mounted to the tripod bracket that comes with the lens. It’s easy to put on and off and leaves the flash bracket free for an actual flash. I do not see too many animals startled by a flash – I have even seen many animals that don’t give a flying hoot about a flash, but will leave when shone upon by a constant torch. Some very timid animals are impossible without a flash (the strategy is someone watches in IR and tells you “now” when they pop up from the hole and you flash into the darkness); some only stay in red light.

    I am also a bit surprised by all the talk about auto-focusing that I constantly see in topics like this. I think y’all are getting far closer to the animals than I am because I would have to steal the searchlight from the nearest prison to illuminate them enough for autofocusing at the distance where I usually have them. The vast majority of my photos are manually focused on a pair bright eyes in a completely dark viewfinder.

  • wildlife_watcher

    As of right now I would be testing in Eastern US forests, hard to guess what I might use for beyond that. I just picked up the lens and camera body as used items so I am probably stuck with them now. I hope they will at least allow me to figure out what I am doing with a camera as to this point pointing and clicking has been the extent of my knowledge. Distance wise has been all over the map but most commonly I’ve seen what JanEbr describes a pair of eyes and vaugely anything else off in the distance. I have a small torch I will fix to the side of the camera and I have a YN 685 flash for the hotshoe but even though it’s a Nikon iTTL flash, it does not seem to be talking to the D500 as the exif shows flash not fired. I am unsure if manual mode is suitable or if I need to pursue trying to get iTTL working? Unfortuantely I take my walks alone so there is not a helper to shine a separate light and/or assist with IR.

  • charleswhood

    Since that is not a Nikon-made flash, it may be that you have one of the “other” models of YN 685, configured for Canon. According to the forum on B&H, that flash does work on a D500. If it’s not firing, and if the hotshoe contacts are clean, and if the batteries are fresh, that implies either the flash has been dropped or that it’s not the Nikon-compatible sub-model. Possible but unlikely that there is a fault inside the Nikon body itself. If you rent an actual Nikon flash, that would be the way to find out. I also didn’t mention that there are wireless flash options, but you need a unit mounted on the camera and the appropriate flash, and that combo gets expensive fast. For mastering the camera itself — and it still has plenty of life left in it, for all kinds of day and night photography — I recommend the David Busch book on the D500, which shows up as a used copy for $12 and change on Amazon. He explains things clearly and gives good advice. For trying a loaner lens, in case you don’t know it, you’re shooting the “F” mount. More recent Nikon bodies are “Z” mount and those lenses won’t fit on your camera. Lensrentals dot com is the place in the US to look for all rental options, if there is not a major camera store in your hometown. / Charles Hood

  • wildlife_watcher

    Thanks, I will pick up a copy of that book. I did a little testing tonight with a flashlight and the YN 685 on full power. It takes a decent amount of flashlight to get an autofocus, enough that I can see the subject in the viewfinder. The power of the flash is much stronger than I had anticipated. It can light up an object a considerable distance away in dark even without the flash extender. In fact, I am thinking I do need to try to get an iTTL flash that works because it would be easy to overexpose animals I can see now. I tested the flash on a Nikon D3300 and it works on that. I’m going to see if a local camera shop will let me test an openbox or used flash on my camera to see what’s going on. It did come with a 6 month warranty in case of repair is needed.

  • charleswhood

    By all means, feel confident about dialing down the flash output — I think Jon Hall posted the cover of the book “Nocturnalia” a month or two ago when he did his review, and the bats used for that montage were shot with the flash brought down as low as 1/16th power. Those are all photos taken at night and not one had a full-power flash involved. Jose Gabriel and I also use flash diffusers to soften or wrap light; the smallest kinds fold flat and fit in a shirt pocket. Joe McNally has books about using Nikon flashes (eg “the moment it clicks” and “hot shoe diaries”), some of which are as cheap as $5 used. He shoots for Nat Geo and Nike and Nikon and all the other big names. His books explain what he does to get interest results. Experiment and have fun — and then when you get that killer shot, be sure to post it here. / Charles Hood

  • wildlife_watcher

    Ok the YN 685 does work with the D500. After cleaning with a lens wipe, I am getting TTL information not more often than not when I mount the camera. I will try to clean it again and see if I can get consistent contact. It has a red AF beam that looks kind of crazy so I am going to try turning that off and test TTL to see if I can use it perhaps in conjunction with FEC if it’s still overbearing.


    I would draw to your attention a very interesting article in this month’s BBC Wildlife magazine (March 2024) p70-75. ‘A Light Touch’, which addresses some of the broader issues around nighttime wildlife photography.

  • wildlife_watcher

    Thanks John, I will add that to my reading list. I also picked up “Flash for the nature photographer which is really quite good at breaking down things in terms that are simple for a photography novice such as myself to understand.

  • Lennartv

    I have tested many things, but in the end I have found that using a torch is for me the best way to get good pictures. Someone already referred to my setup guide (see it here: https://www.mammalwatching.com/community-post/mounting-torch-on-camera-the-easy-way/). I have used it recently in China and found that it works very well to get record shots, even at large distances. The torch I use for this is the Fenix HT18 torch which I can really recommend to anyone. It is very light and has the most intense focused beam I have ever seen.

    For camera setup I recommend to use the Av-setting (this is what it is called in Canon, but the other brands have similar setups for the ‘A-button’). I underexpose 2 stops, then I use auto ISO. This auto ISO I have set up specifically to keep the speed around 1/250 and limit the ISO to 12.800. This way the camera tries to shoot at a shutter speed which I am comfortable with for getting sharp pictures and if there is more light it will drop the ISO so I get better pictures while still getting enough ‘keepers’. I work with f7.1 at 500mm and this might be different in other lenses. Normally I shoot at much faster shutter speeds, but at night I have found that 1/250 or 1/320 can be enough as long as you can shoot enough frames per second. The added benefit of the mirrorless camera’s is also much better stabilisation, both in the body and in the lens.

    I am not a fan of using flash since it limits the amount of pictures I can take in a row. Also it very often lights up the eyes. I can not control the light as well as I can for a torch. This might still give a useful picture for ID and I can imagine situations where it has added value, but for me it is not ideal.

    As suggested, the only way to really get good pictures at night is by having someone else holding the light source. This can be a torch, but also a flash which you can wireless connect to your camera using a device which you install on the hot shoe of your camera (I forgot the name of this device). However in the case of flash this would mean you find another person willing to carry your flash for you and help you with lighting the subject up. I have found that it is much easier finding another person holding a separate torch than someone carrying your flash for you. Basically they turn into your assistant and most people want to keep their hands free for their binoculars or their own torches.

    If you are on your own you can either install the torch on your camera like I showed or hold the camera in one hand and the torch in the other. This works, but you need to be able to keep your camera stable with one hand. This doesn’t work with every lens. The big expensive ones have the benefit of being more sensitive to the light, but are also not easy to handle while holding a torch. I think a smaller lens is more recommended for night time mammal photography unless you can count on someone else holding the light.

  • jasonbugayreyes

    I usually use the 300mm 2.8 VR II on tripod and rely only with torch light from Nitecore P30 at Turbo mode at 1000 lumen and so far been satisfied with the results at ISO 3200 and above. But with night drive or night cruise, the boatman uses Lightforce spot light but not directly pointed to the animals. Still good for pics and videos.

    Example with this Buffy Fish-Owl from the boat at Kinabatangan River, Sabah https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10159915156972055&set=a.10159532064027055

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