The hours of darkness reveal a fascinating cast of characters in the natural world, as many animals are active primarily or exclusively at night. Nocturnal photography presents particular challenges for the photographer, but also offers great rewards.
Many creatures are captured by both still and video photography as they hunt, feed, drink, court and breed at night. Here we explore some of our most intriguing images and clips of creatures of the night, revealing a wealth of fascinating behaviour.
The Safety of Darkness
Many species, such as leopards, are active primarily at night in areas where they live close to humans, as darkness offers protection from persecution. And much urban wildlife, such as rats, foxes and even wild boar and deer, emerges from daytime hiding places to take advantage of the quieter nocturnal hours to find the plentiful food often offered by towns and cities.
Fireflies (actually beetles, not flies!) are just one example of many animals which use bioluminescence to communicate in darkness. The males use the light to attract a mate and each species has a different “flash pattern”. In fact, firefly bioluminescence is an incredibly efficient light, since almost 100% of the energy produced by the chemical reaction is emitted as light.
Bats, Moths and Owls
Certain groups of animals adapted for nocturnal life – such as bats, moths and owls – have attracted undeserved fears and superstitions, due to human fear of darkness and the unknown. Modern photographic techniques reveal the beauty and superb adaptations of these animals…
Looking for a story about nocturnal wildlife?
We have a wealth of features on the creatures of the night, which are available for publication. Click on the links below to explore more stories of nature at night.
Night Gardeners featuring the work of Doug Gimesy reveals the vital role that Australia’s flying foxes play in pollinating trees.
Night Ocean celebrates the unique and bizarre creatures that are rise from the ocean floor to feed in the darkness, with amazing images from Magnus Lundgren.
Eric Médard has spent 25 years developing soundproofed infra-red camera equipment, allowing him to photograph wildlife at night. Working mostly in woodland close to his home, his feature After Hours reveals rare glimpses of creatures too shy to see during the day.
With the aid of light-enhancing, heat-seeking technologies, film production company Ammonite has developed innovative night-vision cameras that reveal the previously unseen Night Life of animals from around the world.
As hippos emerge from the water to graze in the cooler night hours, they become vulnerable to attack by lions. This video clip from Ammonite, using infra-red technology, shows a group of sub-adult lions in Kenya pursuing a mother hippo and her calf.
Opportunities for Creative Techniques
By using slow shutter speeds and interesting lighting (including the natural light of the moon), photographers use mood and atmosphere to enhance images showing the nocturnal behaviour of animals on land, in the air and beneath the waves. Alex Mustard’s amazing, spooky image using a long exposure to reveal the ghostly trails of fish around a sponge in the Cayman Islands won him the main prize in the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2013.
The hours of darkness witness some of nature’s most spectacular events, such as this mass emergence of mayflies in Spain. Night-flying insects are often attracted to artificial light, which disturbs their natural behaviour and also can make them more vulnerable to predators such as geckos and mantids.
Unique Creatures of the Night
The aye-aye from Madagascar is the largest nocturnal primate and has a unique hand structure, with an extended third digit adapted to locate and extract insect grubs. The swallow-tailed gull from the Galapagos archipelago is the only nocturnal gull, with eyes adapted to hunt squid at night. The douroucouli or night monkey is the only truly nocturnal monkey, emerging to forage at night and typically spending the day hiding in the safety of a tree cavity. The night monkey has monochrome vision and is most active when the moon is full.
Camera Traps and the Challenge of Finding Nocturnal Animals
Terry Whittaker tells us about the difficulty of capturing this pine marten shot. “Whether it’s in a Scottish forest or an urban garden, at night a hidden world of nocturnal animals becomes active. Although I enjoy being outdoors at night, it’s almost impossible to photograph wildlife without the help of technology. I prefer to use remote cameras to capture natural behaviour of the shy animals that are out and about in the darkness without disturbing them.
The challenge is knowing where they are likely to be. With forest animals like pine martens it’s particularly difficult. They do make use of trails made by badgers and deer so I set camera traps along these. To film them in the trees I find a place where martens are making use of feeder boxes put out for squirrels and place my cameras on the routes I think they will take to and from these. Of course, the cameras sometimes have to be out for weeks on end to capture anything worthwhile but on the days I check them, it’s quite a buzz to find out I have captured some interesting behaviour.