In a perfect photographic world, with every trip into the field you’d easily encounter the species you want to photograph, it would be cooperative, it would be in an area with an exquisite background, it would make constant eye contact, its young would come out and play, its mate would join in—you get the idea. Of course, the light would also be perfect! For me, it’s all about the light. But since this isn’t how the world works, we sometimes have to take the light we’re given. Day by day, hour by hour and even minute by minute, light can change. It’s with this in mind I share with you the differences in light and the differences it can make in capturing successful images. Additionally, when it’s not perfect, try some of the suggestions below to use the light you’re given to your best advantage.
1. Front Light With Early/Late Sun
All wildlife subjects look fantastic in early and late light. The color is warm, it’s soft, directional and appealing. There’s a golden glow that bathes the animal in shades of orange and yellow, and it lasts for approximately 10 minutes. When you’re blessed with a subject at sunrise and sunset, move to a position where you feel the sun on your back. Another way to look at it is to point your shadow toward the animal. If you use either of these two strategies, the animal will be front lit. Strive to be out at sunrise and sunset if you want to bring your photos to the next level.
2. Front Light, But a Bit After Sunrise and a Bit Before Sunset
As the sun gets higher in the sky, it loses its warmth, but the direction allows you to still make great images. The angle has yet to reach the height where it’s time to put the camera down. Look for subjects offset against an out-of-focus background. Concentrate on smaller animals as they still look appealing because there’s less mass to cause shadows. Again, aim your shadow at the subject and look for a highlight in the eye. Without it, the animal gives the impression it lacks life.
Sidelight works well because it means the sun is close to the horizon. As stated above, when it’s at a low angle, the color is warm and engaging. Sidelight does present some challenges, but when everything falls into place, the resulting image has impact. It behooves you to be cognizant of the head angle to make sure light falls on the face, a highlight appears in the eye and the rest of the subject isn’t hidden in shadow. As in the photo of the bull elk, the shadow can add interest because it mimics the shape of the head.
With animals that have fur or fluffy feathers, I love to use backlight because it creates a glow around its perimeter. This works to your advantage, especially if the background is dark. The glow allows the subject to separate from what would otherwise create a merger of the dark animal against a dark background. Be aware of your exposure to prevent blown out highlights. If the subject is cooperative and there’s 360-degree access, quickly go to the front-lit side of the animal to come back from your shoot with varied options.
5. Mostly Cloudy
Clouds can be advantageous because they allow you to make images during the middle of the day. If the sun was bright and high, you’d see that the light isn’t appealing—it’s way to harsh and contrasty. When clouds are bestowed, bias your exposure toward the right, but don’t spike the highlights. The idea is to open up the shadows as much as possible to add any sparkle that may be hidden given the cloudy conditions.
6. Bright Overcast
Bright overcast is similar to cloudy, but the clouds are thinner. In the best bright overcast condition, soft shadows appear. Again, it expands your photo time throughout the entire day because you don’t have to battle the hard light of noon. Highlights still appear in the subject’s eyes, which is a bonus. My ideal day would be clear mornings and evenings and bright overcast when the sun is high. I could make images the entire day.
When the sun is out and it’s high in the sky, look for animals in the shade. The look it provides falls somewhere in between bright overcast and shade. Trees with dense canopies provide a great source of shade, as does the side of a building. In the photograph of the fox, shade was created by two sources—the shade from the forest and the side of a house. It was photographed in an urban environment. It pays to always have your camera ready, as you never know when a photo opportunity will surface.
8. Flash As a Main Light
There was a time when I really got into photographing insects. It even got to the point where I looked under leaves to find cocoons or a chrysalis and monitored either so I could photograph the moth or butterfly as it emerged. The more I got into it, the more I wanted to use light to my advantage. I wound up creating a mini portrait studio with three flashes and set up a blue background. My main light was mounted in a 12×12 softbox to the right of the insect, a smaller bare flash was placed to the left and I then used another small light to the back and right of the setup to create a rim or accent light. But there were numerous times where it wasn’t practical to carry this setup into the field so I created a mount that attached to my camera onto which I could mount a flash on the right side and another on the left. It was my walk-around mini studio. If you’re into macro bugs, I encourage you to experiment with flash as it allows you to use small f-stops because they provide enough light to make the photo at ƒ/22.
9. Flash Fill
Under cloudy skies, it’s tough to obtain a highlight in the eye. As I mentioned above, a highlight adds life to the subject. To create a natural highlight and to provide a bit more pop to the light, attach a flash but dial it down. Let the ambient light control the exposure. Control the amount of light output from the flash to provide just enough to make the image twinkle. Do this by adjusting the exposure compensation on the back of the flash.
I referenced backlight above and mentioned its attributes. To create a silhouette, incorporate the same strategies, but don’t dwell on the fact the sun has to be directly behind the subject. Walk to the left or right of the sun’s path and you’ll be surprised at how far you can deviate and still obtain a silhouette. Be cognizant of the red channel at sunrise and sunset to prevent blowing out the warm tones at these times of the day. If in doubt, err on the side of underexposure.
Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.