Croc Around the Clock – Getting Snappy After Dark

Q: What’s more scary than a two and a half metre predatory crocodile patrolling silently through the water with its great big, grape green eyes on the lookout for dinner?

A: A two and a half metre predatory crocodile patrolling silently through the water with its great big, grape green eyes on the lookout for dinner…IN THE DARK!

Nile crocodile at night
‘Never smile at a crocodile’ – check out those teeth

Jaws. Jurassic Park. That’s what’s running through our heads as we enter the photo hide an hour or so after sunset. The pipe we’ve just walked down, hunched over to fit into this cylindrical echo chamber that forms the entrance while carrying heavy camera bags on our backs, feels tonight like a time tunnel. We’ve padded down here with our guests on safari many times before, usually looking ahead to some great low level, intimate wader and waterbird photography. But now we’re here for the first time to photograph after dark. The novelty of negotiating the pipe is ramped up further this evening. No-one will admit to it, but you can sense everyone’s a tad nervous. That’s because our subjects today are much bigger and way more menacing than graceful water birds and diving kingfishers.

As we file into the hide we can see straightaway that the water of Zimanga’s custom built lagoon hide, milky blue by day and the perfect foil for beautiful bird photography, has changed under cover of darkness into a black primordial soup. Ghostly moths and insects spiral and swirl over the surface where the creatures we’ve come to photograph may already be lurking. Steadying the hands to attach cameras to tripods is difficult in the dark and we fumble and stumble nervously with our gear, working quickly to ensure our photographic set-ups at least won’t be shaking. Then we spot it – out there in the shadows, partially lit by the LED panels on either side of our ‘shooting gallery’ – the unmistakable shape of a hulking great Nile crocodile.

Nile crocodile at night
Telephoto zooms helped frame shots on the pool’s edge

Breathe. Remember to breathe. The expensive, specially designed one-way glass in this custom-built hide is all that separates us from the monstrous reptile that’s now circling in the water just inches away. The blind that closes our portal to this Jurassic world has been lowered for tonight and the slit we will photograph through seems as narrow as a letterbox. But it’s very important the croc can’t mistake any reflection of itself in the glass for a rival. We certainly don’t want him fighting with himself! We need to set up quickly. The croc is already swimming up and down in the shadows at the edges of the light, stealthily surfacing and submerging by turn. On the hunt…

We’re itching to photograph. We’re missing a three-course dinner back at the lodge for this, but who cares. As photo opps go this is pretty unique. The cruising croc, on the other hand, clearly does have food on his mind. His great green eye has a sinister and hungry-looking stare.

Nile crocodile at night
Motionless monster – reflection shots looked ‘jawsome’

This is a bonus photography session on our final 2018 safari to Zimanga private game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Charl Senekal, Zimanga’s pioneering photographer/owner, is constantly looking to push the photographic bounds of the existing photo hides, as well as planning new ones (a forest bird hide is currently being developed). He’s invited our two small groups of guests to be ‘guinea pigs’ in some trial runs of the new LED lights he’s just installed, designed primarily to extend lagoon hide sessions to allow photography of shy, crepuscular visitors and nocturnal birds like night herons and painted snipe. Do crocs eat guinea pigs we wonder?

As we settle in we need to contend with the fact that our view on the watery world of night-time is quite narrow, albeit wide enough to shoot freely through. We also need to ensure we’re on single shot mode as multiple shutter bursts might scare off our sensitive reptilian subjects. (Silent-shooting folk with mirrorless cameras needn’t pay heed to this bit and may choose to feel smug). The crocodiles are being drawn into the lit area in front of the hide with a few butchers’ scraps,  luring them into the pool from the nearby, larger dam they usually call home.

Nile crocodile at night
Wider shots also had menace conveying a croc on the hunt

The croc that’s already in the pool is hunting widely from one end of the water to the other, so we decide the best lenses for the job are going to be our 100-400mm Canon f4-5.6 zooms. A 70-200mm f2.8 would obviously give us valuable extra speed in these conditions, but we’d need the subjects at close range, whereas the crocs spend much of their time at the farthest edge of the pool. With the longer zooms we can frame shots at range, or go wide enough to include the wonderful reflections when the crocs are at rest and closer to us. It’s these reflections that deliver some of the most spelllbinding shots from the two sessions we have with our groups.

At times, when two or more crocs are present, there’s a brief flurry of interaction, as they scrap over scraps. But even under lights it’s impossible to freeze fast movements without using ridiculously high ISOs, so we keep with the extra flexibility of framing rather than speed, and concentrate on the static portraits.

Nile crocodile at night
The perfect mirror reflection shots are quite surreal

It’s important to ensure the highlights aren’t blown when photographing under lights at night, otherwise it’s easy to kill the mood of these special shots. We ignore our camera’s meters, and shoot in manual mode, starting at an ISO of 1600. Settings of around 1/20sec at f/8 prove just about right, but we’re constantly adjusting as the animals move nearer or further away. At such low shutter speeds the crocs have to be motionless, but this isn’t a problem, as the animals regularly lie completely still. We even drop our ISO to 400, and try a few shots at very low shutter speeds, locking our cameras tight on the tripods, for ultimate, noise-free quality. The amazing reptilian reflections make compelling images.

It’s a memorable evening’s photography. The darkness completely changes the way you see and experience wildlife. It’s what makes the nocturnal photography on Zimanga so fascinating. With no distracting background to impede the eye, subjects become exaggerated, heightened versions of themselves. You notice their size more, their shapes become more defined and characteristics more emphasized. And the sharply contrasting interplay of light and dark totally magnifies the drama. Add a mirror-reflection to the mix and the whole thing becomes quite mind-blowing.

It’s wildlife photography alright…but not as we know it.

NB It’s expected that in future the nocturnal crocodile photography will be a summer-time activity on Zimanga offered in the months between November and February.