On any form of photography, lighting can have a big impact on the resulting images, and can elevate a good image to a fantastic one. There is no ‘best’ type of light, but by utilising the various forms you can create a much wider range of images. Photographing wildlife outdoors means you cannot alter the light as a studio photographer can so you normally have to work with what you’re given and use it to your advantage as best you can. Although you can predict where the sun will be at a certain time of the day, predicting where your subject will be is a different matter! However, there are some actions you can take, particularly if you have a good idea of where your subject is likely to be.
The angle of the sun has a large bearing on images. In almost all cases, I prefer to shoot when the sun is lower in the sky as the light is much softer. When the sun is high in the sky, it can result in harsh shadows and highlights, and it is easy to lose detail in these areas. Whereas in winter the sun is low throughout the day, in summer the high sun in the middle of the day largely restricts photography to early mornings and late afternoons and evenings. Fortunately, this coincides with the period when wildlife is most active – or in the case of many invertebrates such as butterflies, most photograph able – so it pays to concentrate your shooting around these periods.
The three main directions of light are front lighting, side lighting and back lighting. The great thing with digital photography is that you can experiment, pretty much for free, and you get instant feedback via your LCD screen. Each form of lighting won’t work in every scenario and for every subject, but try out various techniques on different subjects and in different situations and you’ll get an idea for what works best and what kind of look you prefer.
Using light creatively
Traditionally, the most common advice is to shoot with the sun over your shoulder. When the sun is low in the sky it should bathe your subject evenly in light and show o the colours best. It should also give a catchlight in the eye of your subject, which adds life to a photograph. Shooting with the sun behind you and a background in shadow can also create dramatic images as exposing for your illuminated subject should render the shaded background black, which can really emphasise colour.
While front lighting can result in lovely images that show off your subject’s beauty, they can also sometimes look like record shots, and it can be difficult to capture images that stand out in this lighting. Using different light angles such as from the side or behind allows you to create images that can appear much more imaginative and artistic, and you can be much more creative.
Side lighting is as the name suggests, when you photograph with the light coming in from one side. This results in images where one side of your subject is illuminated, and the other is in shadow. It can be used to great effect – although it works better with larger subjects. When using side light, I expose for the illuminated side of the animal, which places the other side in shadow.