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Is anyone able to give suggestions on what camera settings would be suitable for night photography of baby turtles? I'm currently using a Canon 1300D with a Tamron 16-300mm lens.

  • Some details would help: 1) can you use flash? 2) can you use continuous light (LED)? 3) are turtles under water or on the surface? 4) what is special about baby turtles compared to adults? 5) how close can you get to the turtles? – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Feb 12 '18 at 23:22
  • @aaaaaa In almost all locations, you cannot use flash. Most sea turtles are endangered or protected. And even if it's not illegal to use flash, it is largely considered unethical. It can disorient the hatchlings (or nesting turtle, at the start of the season), and cause them to not find their way to the water. – scottbb Feb 13 '18 at 0:11
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From a camera standpoint, the best thing you'll need to do is shoot on manual and making sure that you're using the best aperture that is possible for the lens. You should bring a Tripod with you too so that you're able to shoot at a rather low shutter speed, ideally no more than 1/30th of a second. Without a tripod, you'll never get a clear photo. Lastly make sure to crank up your ISO, a lot of people fear to do this due to making a photo more "grainy" or "noisy" however you're somewhat limited here, 1600, 3200 or 6400 if you're struggling - this will help you get some lighting too.

In regards to the tripod, I'm sure you'll be shooting on a beach if that's the case try to bring something like cup mats to put your tripod on. it's possible it'll sink very very slowly into the sand so it's a good way to avoid that and if you decided to try long exposure shots it's pretty much a must.

  • Depending on how much work @Warwick wanted to put in, image averaging and a bit of photoshop could get rid of the background noise. Though to be frank, if this is a shot on the beach, I think the noise would be less noticeable. Wide aperture definitely helps on low light, so not sure how wide that Tamron goes. – Calyth Feb 12 '18 at 18:33
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At the risk of stating the obvious you will want to photograph on a stable tripod and use the highest ISO possible in order to minimize exposure times. Even at 6400 ISO the exposure could be too long to "freeze" the subject. Don't be afraid to underexpose by a stop or two if you are shooting Raw images. It is easier to recover exposure and remove noise than it is to artificially remove motion blur. Consider bracketing your exposure times so that you can later choose the longest exposure with no apparent motion blur. This will allow you to compromise blur and noise effectively. you may also bracket ISO in a similar manner by determining the longest "stop-action" exposure and then varying ISO (and therefore exposure / noise.)

You will likely need to utilize the widest aperture your lens offers. However, if it is possible to "stop down" I recommend you do so. This will help to mitigate any mistakes you've made in focusing.

An often overlooked aspect of nighttime nature photography is lighting. Between a normal new moon and full moon illumination varies from 0.002 to 0.25 or about 7 stops! If you happen to photograph your subject during a super moon illumination could be 0.36, up to and additional 3 stops (note that there is some discrepency in Wikipedia as to whether full moon illuminance is up to 0.25 or up to 0.1 lux.)

Finally, consider color balance. If you are shooting Raw this is not a big issue since it can be determined experimentally later. Color balance will be trickier than with daylight photography since color cast from earthshine and atmospheric glow will be up to three orders of magnitude greater than during the day. Raw or not it is often useful to include a graycard in your test shots and one is especially beneficial in static lighting conditions such as a clear night since you can not only obtain a gray-balance reference point but also calibrate your manual exposure before engaging a tricky target.

Final thoughts: having worked with nighttime nature photography before, I've found it helpful to have an extremely stable platform. I've done so by attaching a tripod head to a 2x4 attached to a plywood plate.

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Note: This answer doesn't address the photographic aspect of shooting sea turtle hatchlings at night. Rather, it addresses how to minimize your impact on turtles while shooting.

In the U.S., marine turtles are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. It is a violation of the act to harass, harm, pursue (in addition to other actions such as hunt, shoot, take, etc.) them. Violations can be severe, and Fish & Wildlife wardens/officers often have broad leeway to cite individuals for harassment of turtles. Additionally, states such as Florida have additional protections for marine turtles, and have more officers able to identify and fine individuals deemed to be harassing turtles.

In order to minimize the impact on both nesting turtles and hatching turtles, and minimize any risk of being deemed to harassing them (and subsequently, fined), make sure to:

  1. Keep your distance from them. From a photography standpoint, this means opting for longer focal length lenses, rather than shorter (wider angle) lens. Of course, this is a tradeoff with the desire to collect as much light as possible with minimal movement in the scene, but... photography is all about tradeoffs.

  2. Minimize artificial lighting. Bright smartphone screens and camera LCD displays can be quite bright, especially if there is little spillover artificial lighting in the area. Nesting turtles can be startled by sudden bright lights, to the point they abandon their attempt to build a nest. Hatchlings can become disoriented and not find their way to the water. Do everything you can to minimize the artificial lighting you bring:

    • Use "night mode" on the devices that support it. Especially if night mode is red-lit.
    • Reduce the brightness of your screens as low as it will go. This is still usually more than bright enough at night, often times too bright to preserve your night vision.
    • Disable automatic preview after taking a picture, if your camera supports it. If not, consider keeping the LCD covered with a cloth or gaffers tape.
    • Try to keep your camera's LCD display (and smartphone) covered or shielded to minimize its ability to be seen by turtles.
  3. Use amber or red lighting, at low power, for lighting. Turtles cannot see longer wavelengths of light, such as red and amber.

  4. Try to minimize your movements. The more you act like a professional wildlife photographer (moving slowly, keeping your distance), the less chance you will startle the turtle. And the less chance a Fish & Wildlife officer will think you're harassing the animals, and give you the benefit of the doubt about your intentions.

  5. Contact your local sea turtle preservation society. They often conduct turtle walks, educating the public about the threat to turtles, showing people how to safely observe them, and informing people about the laws and ordinances protecting the turtles.

And if it wasn't obvious from the previous points, above all: No flash photography.

See also:

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