Help me take animal pics in the dark!
January 13, 2020 10:40 AM   Subscribe

What's the simplest, fastest, and cheapest way I can take reasonable outdoor photos of animals in low light?

I often spot awesome animals while biking or walking. I'm fairly sure I saw a juvenile black-crowned night heron on the bike trail on the way home last week, and a few weeks ago there was a fox!

The video camera I often run while biking is not great at capturing these excellent encounters. (And I didn't have the video camera on at all for the fox.) I would like to be able to stop and get a decent picture quickly. What are my options?

I have an old point-and-shoot digital camera that probably doesn't have as good a resolution as my phone. My phone is a Moto G5 Plus and its camera doesn't seem to do this sort of thing very well, either. Also it's kinda slow to respond.

Is there something I could do with my phone to make it easier and faster to take these kinds of pictures, like a different camera app or figuring out what settings to use in advance?

Should I be considering a separate camera? Ideally I would like something that is small and easy to carry and that wouldn't require much fiddling to get it ready. Also I'm not so much into photography as I am hoping to document the exciting wildlife I see every day. Preferably from a distance. I don't want to scare the critters, and also sometimes they are venomous snakes.
posted by asperity to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Taking pictures of dark-coloured, possibly moving, animals in low light is challenging. To get "decent" pictures (where the critter looks vaguely recognizable and not just a grainy grayish blob), the camera needs a very good sensor and a very good lens to capture enough light in a very short time. It's not a resolution problem, it's a light problem: you need a camera/lens that can handle that, and it's not going to be cheap. For instance I have an entry-level DSLR with a nice zoom: it does great in full light, but it's mostly useless when the sun goes down.
posted by elgilito at 1:12 PM on January 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

How much money do you want to apply to this problem, and how interested are you in tinkering? There’s a fair bit of info around about photography with night vision optics, and info about assembling your own from parts sourced on eBay and other resellers of used/surplus bits. Also, even the cheap “blem[ished] tube” approach is going to run you a grand in parts, easy.
posted by Alterscape at 1:19 PM on January 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

New cell phone cameras like the Google Pixel 4 and the iPhone 11 have excellent low light modes. They won't work in real nighttime (without a bright moon) but they are great for photos at dusk. They rely on short video bursts, so are not awesome for moving subjects.
posted by Nelson at 4:40 PM on January 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Unfortunately, you have picked the magic trifecta of expensive camera gear. 1)Low light, 2)Long zoom 3)Moving subjects. Zooming in from far away means a long focal length, which is costly because you've got bigger elements in a larger lens. Low light means you need to capture more light per unit time, which means you need a fast (lower f-stop number, which means the aperture the light goes through is larger relative to the focal length of the lens). This compounds with the long zoom. Moving subjects means you want a faster shutter speed, but a faster shutter speed means less light, so... you need to capture more light to get the shot. There's a reason those lenses professional wildlife photographers use are many thousands of dollars.

The last thing here is ISO, which is the speed at which the sensor exposes - a high ISO rating will let you use either a faster shutter speed or a higher f-stop to get the correct exposure, but the high ISO will add a lot of noise in your photo. Some of this can be corrected for in post-processing, but there's always tradeoffs.

I'd say you definitely want a dedicated camera, but I don't see you getting out of this for much under $500 and seeing enough improvement to justify your investment.

If you're not willing to cart $2000 (minimum) worth of camera around in the form of a DSLR and a 4.5lb lens, I would focus more on having something that you can take with you anywhere that still manages decent performance.

I use an Olympus TG-5 when I don't want to bring the DSLR, but mostly for durability and waterproofness. Built like a tank and I'm never worried about breaking it on a trail or in the ocean.

If you don't need that kind of durability, Sony and Cannon both make some point and shoots with better image quality that would fit the bill. Image stabilization would be a big win. Maybe one of the Sony RX100 models or something similar? Seems to have good reviews for low-light capability.
posted by mrgoat at 6:58 PM on January 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for helping to define my problem, and for the good explanation of why this plan is probably not going anywhere, and what I should look for if I want to try regardless. I could probably manage the ones that aren't moving—those black-crowned night herons just tend to kinda stand there.

Probably not quite interested enough to invest serious money or tinkering time to get something better than a grainy grayish blob, but this is all something to think about if I decide to buy a new camera of some sort (the old one's a Nikon COOLPIX S220!) or to look into getting a phone with a better camera someday.
posted by asperity at 10:15 PM on January 13, 2020

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