Using Natural Light For Great Wildlife Photography

Wildlife photography combines a range of skills, both creative and technical. Many people struggle with one aspect in particular; knowing the best light for capturing their wildlife photos.

To take a top-class wildlife photograph, you need to know your animal: where to find it, how to approach it without scaring it away, and how to know the precise moment to press the button to capture the character of the subject. Often a wildlife photographer will spend hours trying to get a good shot. What a shame, then, if all that effort is wasted by taking your photo in bad light.

natural light in wildlife photography

Photo captured by Radoslav Toth (Click Image to See More From Radoslav Toth)

As a nature photographer, I have learned that the ideal light for a photo varies depending on the subject. Landscape photos are usually best photographed in sunny weather, early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the contrast is low and the light is soft and colorful. On the other hand, rainforest photography is usually best in the middle of the day in cloudy weather to eliminate extremes of light and shade. To understand the best lighting for wildlife photography, take a lesson from both landscape and rainforest photography.

To get the best light for a wildlife photo, you are really looking to minimize contrast, and to eliminate shadows from important areas–most importantly across the face of the animal.

If you take your photos in the middle of a sunny day, you are bound to encounter shadows in all the wrong places. Bright light is likely to overexpose parts of the subject, while the face and the underside of the animal could be lost in heavy shadow. The result will be unattractive and lacking in much of the detail that should give character to your photo.

There is nothing wrong with taking your wildlife photos on a sunny day. Just remember the lesson from landscape photography and seek to take your photos early in the morning and late in the afternoon. At these times, the subject is illuminated from a more horizontal angle, so the full face of the animal is well-lit; you are less likely to have shadows over the eyes and other important features. If there are shadows, they will be much softer because the contrast is much lower when the sun is low in the sky.

wildlife photography lighting

“Monkey” captured by Stephanie (Click Image to See More From Stephanie)

The light at these times is also much more colorful, with the golden hues you associate with sunrise and sunset. This is a classic technique for improving landscapes, but it can be just as effective for wildlife. The warmth of the light can create an intimacy in your pictures that is completely lost in the harsh light of midday.

The second approach is to follow the rule of rainforest photography, and take your photos in overcast weather. This allows you to catch your subject in very even, low-contrast light.

I find cloudy days particularly useful for animals with glossy surfaces. Frogs, for example, have damp, shiny skin that reflects a lot of light. In glaring conditions, a green frog may appear mostly grey or silver in a photo. On a cloudy day the same frog will be shown in its true colours.

Birds often appear more colorful on a cloudy day for the very same reason. The sun shining on glossy feathers can create a lot of reflection, robbing the photo of its natural color. It may seem the opposite of what you would expect, but the dull light of a cloudy day can actually produce the truest colors in a bright wildlife subject.

One final question you may ask: should you use a flash to illuminate a wildlife photo? My answer to that is a definite “NO.” Flash photography bathes the subject in white light, coming from directly in front of the subject. It may illuminate the subject, but at the same time rob it of the natural play of light and shade that makes a good photo so appealing.

Some wildlife photography experts use multiple flashes to brightly illuminate a subject from every possible angle. This approach can work very well, but remember: these are experts in flash photography. If you are at the beginner stage, I recommend learning to work with natural light. When you get the hang of it, I guarantee you will be happy with the results.

About the Author:
Andrew Goodall writes for http://www.naturesimage.com.au and is a nature photographer based in Australia. He manages a gallery in Montville full of landscape photography from throughout Australia.

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3 Comments

  1. Kimberly says:

    Thank you for these tips. I plan to do some practice at the zoo this weekend and I’ll keep this in mind!

  2. Tom says:

    Nice article with some easy to understand concepts. But, get someone who is a naturalist to proof read. An orangutan is not a “monkey”.

  3. Brian says:

    Stephanie, that orangutan is an ape, not a monkey!

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