10 Haunting Pictures of Wild Animals at Night

A hidden camera sees animals on the move at night in a way the human eye cannot.

At dawn, after three nights of trying to capture a decent photo of elephants at a South African watering hole last July, Hungarian wildlife photographer Bence Máté was devastated to find the pachyderms had fished the flash for his expensive remote camera system out of its hide box and smashed it to smithereens.

Fearing the camera was next, he rebuilt the box, surrounded it by a bank of stones, and sprinkled chilli powder liberally all around. The elephants didn’t touch his gear again.

Since 2009, Máté had been working out the kinks in his remote-operated photo system for taking nighttime pictures of animals. On a short trip to Zimanga Game Reserve in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, in 2015, he bagged several good images of hippos and water buffalo. Encouraged by his success, he returned in 2016 for a 35-day trip.

Over that month, he shot 50,000 digital frames and ended up with only 10 pictures he felt were usable—that is, where the moon wasn’t too bright, or where the animals that did show up were positioned just right. He got lucky when a lion and the reserve’s largest male elephant visited the pond—once each.

Captured in long exposures to include natural light from stars, moon, dawn, and dusk, Máté’s images reveal restless prey and taut, watchful predators. The occasionally blurred motion, he says, evokes a sense of how the mind might be aware of movement at night, but not truly perceive it.

Máté hopes his photographs bring home the importance of protecting nature, and give people a deeper view into the behaviour of animals that are seldom seen, even by the light of day.

Observing wild animals in close proximity, without binoculars, is extraordinary, says Máté. “Seeing them with your own eyes is a completely different feeling.”

While elephants are mainly active during the day, they tend to rest during the hottest hours, seeking food and water again into the evening. This bull elephant is the largest on Zimanga Game Reserve in South Africa.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

In the midst of a drought gripping South Africa several years ago, a hippo visits a watering hole filled for the animals to slake their thirst. Máté was testing out a new custom remote-controlled camera system when he got this shot of the large land mammal, backlit by the remnants of the setting sun.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

On the night of a full moon, Máté waited in a car to try and get a shot of animals under lunar light. Clouds came and stayed all night, clearing only near dawn as the moon sank to the horizon. As Máté prepared to leave, a water buffalo appeared. A warthog joined the frame as Máté followed quietly on foot to get the shot.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

Probably startled by the sound of the clicking of the remote camera’s shutter, a lion pauses to investigate. The young male waited nearly half a minute before moving on, revealing a portrait of frozen concentration.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

The light from nearby villages competes with the stars as water buffalo approach, drink from, and depart a watering station on Zimanga Game Reserve in South Africa.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

Fallow deer walk beneath silent skies in Hungary near Duna-Ipoly National Park. Foiled by clouds, too-bright moonlight, streaks left by aeroplane navigation lights, dead camera batteries, and no-shows by the deer, Máté finally captured this group after three years of attempts.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

Many of Máté’s African wildlife portraits—including this one of zebras visiting a watering hole on a game reserve—were taken with a remotely operated system.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

To take this photo of water buffalo visiting a watering hole at night, Máté put a remote-operated camera in a waterproof box near a drinking station and piled rocks on top of it. A series of images might be ruined by water splashes, or a fly crawling on the hide box’s protective window, or the weather changing—but getting “just one perfect photo” makes all the waiting and tinkering worthwhile, he says.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

Máté prefers his subjects to be illuminated by whatever natural light is at hand—moonlight, starlight, or the glow of sunrise or sunset. But a quick pop of light from a flash helps bring the animals out of the shadows, like this group of blue herons at sunset in Kiskunsági National Park in Hungary.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

Header Image: Illuminated by a burst of flash light, an elephant is accompanied by a distant zebra under a star-studded sky. Máté had to wait more than two weeks for this photo, taken at the Zimanga Game Reserve. PHOTOGRAPH BY BENCE MÁTÉ

 

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