Night vision: A new world of wildlife

Thermal imaging and a new night vision camera are changing the way animals are photographed in the dark

Martin Dohrn, the acclaimed wildlife photographer, has recently developed a night vision camera that might just change our entire approach to nature photography. Called the Starlight, it allows him to take vividly clear photographs of game on the Masai Mara in the dead of night, effectively capturing the otherwise private lives of these nocturnal animals for the first time.

"There are still very few photographic devices capable of creating images without sunlight or artificial light," Dohrn says. "Imagine trying to describe to someone what a peach tastes like when you are limited to using words such as bitter, sour, or acid. The paradox of trying to make images in the dark is that we can only do it with light." Not any more. Sixteen years in the making, the Starlight, used alongside an infrared and thermal camera (of the sort popular with the military for night-time operations), allows Dohrn to penetrate even the most hidden corners of the Kenyan plains.

Dohrn recently brought back these astonishing pictures taken in the Masai Mara, where he was making a film for the National Geographic television channel. Previously, night shots of this kind were not deemed quite good enough for television, the images too grainy and too fuzzy for transmission. But Dohrn's are remarkably clear, and, as a consequence, are also startlingly intimate.

Sophie Stafford, editor of the BBC Wildlife magazine, and also on the judging panel for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, suggests they are nothing short of groundbreaking.

"The judging panel is always looking for something unusual, something new to come along in the world of nature photography," she says. "That's pretty rare these days; so much has already been done. Which is why Martin's are so very exciting. They are truly ethereal, and in effect they give us an exclusive, unique view. It's the final frontier of photography, if you like."

Born in New Zealand but raised in the UK, Dohrn, 53, has been making nature films for the best part of two decades now. One of his films, Mara Nights, was recently voted among the most influential documentaries by the BBC, but it is clear that the Starlight is the summation of his life's work.

"The combination of [this] camera," Dohrn says, "an infrared and a thermal camera, allows us to create attractive images in complete darkness, without using any light whatsoever." The latter in particular, he adds, was completely unaffected by light levels, "and so was able to reveal every single warm-blooded animal within a couple of kilometres. It was a completely new world."

This bold leap in nature photography is already proving fruitful: Dohrn now finds himself much in demand, not least in Hollywood, where he is in advanced talks with a major film director for a project due to start in early 2011. And although it will be a while before the Starlight, or a variation thereof, reaches the high street, professional and amateur photographers are nevertheless likely to be inspired by his results, and keen to emulate them.

"What Martin's pictures will do, I believe," says Sophie Stafford, "is encourage everybody else to experiment more, and also to take more risks, to become creative. It is hard these days to truly amaze in this field, but these new methods have set the bar very high indeed. It is completely new technology, the dawning of a new era. We should be excited about it."