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Night Manoeuvres

An Introduction to Filming in the Dark

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  • © 2011 Ammonite Ltd. N.Turner H.Bourne M.Dorhn
  • © 2011 BBC NHU M.Dorhn
  • © 2011 Tshed Ltd.
  • © 2011 Tshed Ltd.
  • © 2011 J.Evans

Night-time filming is a relatively unexplored area of wildlife documentary film-making, perhaps because it presents the wildlife filmmaker with so many obstacles: trying to find your way about in the dark, finding your subject, and of course the hardest one of all... staying awake.

As a species we aren't very well equipped for seeing in the dark and, for a very long time, neither were our cameras. So its no surprise that before the 1990's very few attempts were made to film genuine/wild nocturnal behaviour, despite so many animal species being active primarily at night.

Back then, filming wild animals at night invariably involved a big white light, a generator and consequently, startled animals. The advent of new technology however has changed the game: it's now possible to approach a night film or sequence with an arsenal of more sensitive and less obtrusive filming techniques (developed and enhanced by Bristol based companies TShed and Ammonite) – they're also a great deal more evocative.

A move towards non-intrusive (and thus more ethical) night filming methods was facilitated by the use of infrared CCTV security cameras. Initially the quality was pretty ropey but these cameras captured action we hadn't filmed before. IR cameras revolutionised our approach to wildlife filming in the dark. Technically, infrared cameras are sensitive to the part of the light spectrum that is upwards of 750 nanometres, which is invisible to us and most other mammals. Infrared lights are used as the light source for the camera and as they emit IR light only, neither we nor (for example) the lion we are filming can see it. The problem with filming in this way however is that the camera can only ever see what's being lit, and not whatever is outside the pool of Infrared light. This is a particular problem if you are trying to film fast moving action at night, as a light-handler has to try and follow the action (which they can't see) in tandem with the camera movement – no easy trick.

Another problem with IR cameras in the wild is that as well as the camera kit you have to cart around a load of lights, and hefty car batteries to power them. On the BBC's Planet Earth we used IR lighting extensively for the filming of lions hunting elephants at night in Botswana. This was a kit-intensive set up with 6 large IR LED light panels (2400 watts of IR light) on one car along with at least a dozen car batteries to power it all – you can imagine the charging required every day for all of that, not to mention the hefting of car batteries on and off 4WD's.

Image Intensifiers
An alternative to IR lights is to use image intensification, an innovation from military technology, better known as “night-vision”. This technology is already familiar to us as the grainy green footage we see on the news from warzones. Image intensification is the process whereby light particles (photons) are converted to electrons, multiplied several thousand times and then converted back to photons before hitting the camera sensor. “Starlight” cameras, as they are now popularly known, use the same basic process but it has been refined and improved to make the images more watchable. The advantages of using starlight cameras are both practical and aesthetic. On a practical level it's possible to film at night with natural light (the moon and stars). This means you are also able to see to the horizon, so the scene is opened out from the claustrophobic pool of light associated with IR filming. For me this as an altogether better situation, as you are unencumbered by bulky lights or the need to have someone else lighting for you. Secondly and more importantly, because filming with starlight cameras is less obtrusive and can be carried out with minimal noise and fuss, wildlife can be captured as it goes about its normal business - lit gently by moonlight, which is far more atmospheric. If you take a moment to watch some clips from Mara Nights over on the Wildfilm archive you'll see what I mean.

Of course there are pros and cons to all camera systems. The limiting factor when filming with an intensifier is the ambient light level. To get the very best looking images it's critical to use fast prime lenses from the wide to the telephoto – the faster the better. The basic principal here being that the more light hitting the face of the intensifier the cleaner (less noisy) the images are that you'll get. Inherent to image intensifiers is image noise generated by the intensifier itself, so its always a good idea to try and film in brighter and better lit conditions (half-moon or brighter); more moonlight = less noise. But what if you need to film in darker conditions? If your subject's behaviour favours very dark conditions you can then opt to add some IR light as these cameras are sensitive to both IR light and white light. Potentially you could then see your lion hunting lit with a little IR light (far less than would be required for a conventional IR camera) and also expose for a starry sky.

But what if I want to film in pitch darkness all of the time without any moonlight or IR lights? That's where the newest development comes in – thermal. These have come a long way in the last few years and can now produce some really stunning images of otherwise unfilmable behaviour. Thermal cameras are sensitive to Long Wave Infrared (LWIR) rather than Near Infrared so the cameras are sensitive to heat emitted rather than light reflected; this is called the “thermal region”. The sensors in such cameras can record a picture based on the thermal emissions detected and require no external light source such as the sun, moon or IR lights. Once again there are pros and cons. The most remarkable thing about filming wildlife with a thermal camera is that a hot-blooded animal is impossible to miss, glowing near white against a darker (cool) background. It looks a bit like a black and white film negative to begin with but is entirely watchable, though sometimes it feel's a bit like watching a computer game. The unnatural appearance of the thermal image may take a little getting used to, but this must be the easiest way to spot and film wildlife at night. These cameras have really been designed for industrial and scientific imaging and so they aren't particularly cameraman-friendly (recording onto computers and often lacking a viewfinder or zoom lens, etc), but if these difficulties can be managed the images and behaviour that can be obtained are spectacular.

Practically speaking
Having filmed lions at night many times myself, I know how easy it is to be lulled into a false sense of security when you can't actually see an animal that's just 5 feet away from you. Climbing a tree, navigating your way through a rainforest, tracking an animal on the move… it all becomes harder in the dark. A good set of night-vision goggles, or even better a thermal scope, is an invaluable tool for quickly monitoring subjects or assessing a scene at night. Likewise, IR spotlights are really handy for spotting your wildlife at long range on a dark night as most nocturnal mammals will reflect eyeshine back at you if they turn your way. Utilising the combination of an image intensifier and an IR lamp, its possible to spot an animal on the move at several hundred meters in the dark.

Choosing the technique that's right for your subject can be tricky. The kits described here each have there own distinct pros and cons, such as portability, light levels required, the ability to zoom, reliance on good moonlight and so on. Night filming also adds an extra layer of technical complexity to a shoot – much like underwater work – with extra equipment, logistical and safety considerations. Yet with so much virgin territory to be explored in the realm of nocturnal wildlife filmmaking, the possibilities far outweigh the problems, and the scope for new insights and new adventures in the dark is tantalising.

Author: Nick Turner