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Tips for Taking Great Night Hunting Photos

The rise of thermal technologies coupled with the increase in coyotes and wild (feral) hogs has led to a growth in night hunting! Night hunting is a very different experience from the hunting many of us grew up with and it is addictive. If you night hunt long enough you realize that taking pics of coyotes, hogs, or whatever else you may be hunting at night… well, it’s not easy. Early last year we shot some big hogs, but the photos never did them justice. We struggled with dark, blurry, grainy and pixelated pics for a while before I decided to try and learn more about taking night pics. In this blog, I’m going to share some tips I’ve learned after a year of failing, learning, and making some progress with night pics.

Why Take the Time to Take Good Pics?
One may wonder, why should I invest time and likely money in taking quality pics (for both day and night that is). Taking good pics helps to capture the moment. These high-end pics can be printed, framed, and they help make memories last longer. Quality pics also help give hunting a good perception among non-hunters. The small details that are considered when taking quality pics go a long way to shape the view of hunters in the public, which can ultimately help to recruit more outdoorsmen.

In today’s social-media-driven-world everybody wants content. Tech professionals say “Content is king” and great night hunting pics definitely provide quality content that helps increase your reach online and shapes your personal brand. My advice is to take the time to do it right. You may be in a hurry to get to the next hunting location, but you won’t regret it in the long run when your pics come out looking awesome!

Example Night Hunting Pics
So, what do I mean by “high-end night hunting photos” … here are a few samples of some of my better ones from this past year. There are definitely better night hunting pics than these out there, but these examples are simply to help get you thinking about what I’m describing.

Now that you’ve seen a few sample images, let’s get to the point already and discuss what you need and how you can take pics like this too!

What You Need
If you’re going to do it right then you’ll need some gear. Without trying to tell you exactly what specific models to buy, here’s a general list of items you will need:

  • Any camera that gives you control of ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed
  • A lens with a low aperture… 2.8 is typically what I use
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Lights
  • Photoshop, Lightroom, or some type of image editing software
  • Last but not least… patience!

Before You Even Turn the Camera On
Before we get to the details of the camera and lights, let's think about a hunting scenario. Let's say you've got some fur on the ground. The next thing to do is to look at your surroundings and the sky. Consider the landscape, horizon, moon, stars, and any ambient light in the scene that may affect a photo. Visualize the scene you want and look for what would make a good setting for your pic. Even before we see hogs or coyotes I’m usually looking up at the sky and my surroundings and thinking of where and how I would set up for a pic should we get lucky and get something. Sometimes I tell the guys, “We really need to get something tonight because we’ve got an awesome sky for a pic.”

Tip: Use elements of the location. That is, if you’re on a farm, then consider getting the tractor in the pic or using hay bales to convey your location to the viewer. Below are two example pics where we used elements of the location to convey that we were hunting on a farm.

Light the Scene
Let’s say that you’ve got some fur on the ground, you’ve mentally visualized the pic you want to take and now it’s time to actually do it. Once you’ve got your game and scene framed how you want the next step is to light the scene. Since we’ve got to illuminate the scene so will need some lights.

I use litra torches because they are very bright, small (easy to carry), and rugged. There are other options out there as well, just do some Googling if you want. You could even use a flashlight and light paint with it as well. Ultimately, the more light you have the better chances of your pic turning out well.

I have 3 litra torches and I wear one on my head and hand the other 2 to my fellow hunters. I’m in the middle and I position the other hunters on each side about 5 yards away. I want light coming in from every direction possible.

When we start the exposure, we all “light paint” which means that we move the lights around waving them up and down, side to side, back and forth with the goal being to eliminate shadows in the background of the pictures. These shadows will come from the gun(s), tripod(s), trees, animals, or anything else that could block the light.

Camera Setup & Settings

The Tripod
Make sure the tripod is seated firmly in the ground because we must take multiple pics from the exact same location. You don’t want the tripod or camera to move AT ALL between pics. One time I took pics in a wet, muddy environment and the tripod sunk about an inch between shots and it made post-production a lot more difficult. So be sure to get the tripod on solid ground and that all your knobs are tightened down as much as they can be. I’m currently using a Manfrotto 190 Go, but any good tripod will suffice.

Level the Scene
Nothing is worse than taking a pic that is crooked. Most modern cameras will show you if they are level or not. Move the camera and ball head until it is level. This is a step that’s easy to forget so be sure to include it in your mental checklist.

Shutter Speed, ISO, Aperture
I’m not a camera guru by any means so I’m not trying to explain all of these settings to you. If you want to learn more about those check out any tutorial about this subject on the internet. Ultimately, we want our settings to allow for a well exposed photo and depending on several variables the settings will be different.

  • ISO – I usually go with the lowest ISO possible that my camera offers. ISO has to do with the camera’s sensitivity to light. I go with the lowest ISO so that there is not much “noise” in the photo. On the camera I’m currently using that is an ISO of 100. You will want low ISO (low noise) so that your pics aren’t grainy or come across as pixelated.
  • Aperture – This is how much light your lens is letting in. You can think of it like the human eye – the opening in your eye is small when it’s bright out and it’s wide when it’s dark out. In that same way, aperture lets various amounts of light into your camera. It also affects the depth of field or the distance of focus your camera can capture. Given that we are taking pics at night I typically lower the aperture to 2.8 to let as much light in as possible. This creates a shallow depth of field which we must account for when pulling focus. Though, sometimes if we have a bright moon, I may dial it up to get more depth of field which will make editing in post a lot easier since the moon is giving us more light.
  • Shutter Speed - The shutter speed will vary depending how much light is available, the sensor in your camera, and your ISO settings. I usually dial the shutter speed to whatever is going to give me the proper exposure. This usually ends up being somewhere around a 20-30 second exposure.

Shoot in Delay
The pushing of the camera button can cause the camera to slightly move, bounce, shake, or vibrate. For long exposure photography this is not good as that slight movement can cause your image to be blurry. Most cameras have a 2, 5, or 10 second delay that you can enable. I use a 2 second delay so that I can push the button and 2 seconds later the exposure starts. This removes vibration or movement of the camera caused by me pushing the button.

Pulling Focus in Manual Focus Mode (in the dark)
Pulling focus is not easy to do in the daytime, much less at night. However, this is a critical step for having a good pic. Once I’ve got the scene set, I’ve given the lights to my fellow hunters, and I’ve got my settings how I want, I then pull focus. My crew has hunted with me so long they know the drill. They start asking “You ready to pull focus?”.

You need to flip the camera into manual focus because auto-focus will constantly move around which is problematic at night. Once you’re in manual focus mode and your friends have your scene lit for you, then spin your focus ring to get your focus just right. I always take the first pic focusing on the animals that we’ve just harvested. I take 1 to 2 pics and I may adjust my camera settings in between.

One thing I’m always sure to do is to review the photo as soon as you take it. Zoom in and look around making sure the pic is focused. And you must do this without moving the camera. Once I’m sure the focus is good, we move on to the next pics.

Focus Stacking - It’s Multiple Pics Combined into One
Viewers may not realize it, but the final pic is actually 2 to 3 pics that are composited together in post-production. This technique is referred to as “Focus Stacking” and it can yield some awesome results, but it can be easily overdone. Generally speaking, I take 2 or 3 pictures depending on available light:

  • One with the focus on the hogs or coyotes faces
  • One with the focus on the guns and tripods (if they are on a different focal plane)
  • One with the focus on the horizon line in the distance

In the end I’m taking the pics and using image editing software (Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) to merge the pics, each with different focus points, into one. This final image will ensure that the areas the viewer’s eyes go to will be in focus and produce a quality image.

Here is an example of 2 images I took with different focal points and the final pic which is both images combined into one.

Focus Plane on the coyote’s face & gun

Focus on the background horizon

The Final Edited, Composite Image

Here’s an example of 3 images I took that I edited into one

Focus on the Humans in the Pic

Focus on the Hog, Tractor, & Guns

Focus on the Horizon Line

The Final Composite Image

Shoot in Raw
Modern cameras can shoot in RAW. I always shoot in RAW as this gives me more ability to edit in post-production. Pixels can be better manipulated in the RAW format.

Note: If you have an iPhone you know that the recent phones have strong image editing capabilities. You can go in and edit all kinds of things before saving the image. This is the same principle as shooting in RAW.

Edit in a Photo-Editing Software
Once you’ve gotten the pics taken you’ve got the hard part done! Now the only thing that remains is to edit the pics in whatever image editing solution you choose. And editing these pics is a whole different conversation because there are so many options. Any image editing program will provide you with the fine grain controls that you want/need to get you to a final picture similar (and hopefully better) than the ones I’ve shared above.

I hope you’ve found this information and some of the tips we’ve learned over time useful. It’s definitely an art and I’m still learning. Taking these types of night hunting pics does require one to slow down and focus, but it is worth it in the end. If you venture into night hunting photography, be sure to share your pics we’d love to see them.

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