Wildlife photography tips: Make the most of natural light

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Paying more attention to natural light is perhaps the single most important step to improve your photography. With many landscapes, having good natural lighting can even be more important than the choice of subject itself. Different types of natural light produce a wide variety of subject appearances — even though these all have the same light source. Learn how to achieve the right light for your subject by using the unique qualities of your particular time of day and weather.

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Three factors influence how natural light renders a subject: time of day, camera direction and weather. In this article, we will explore time of day under clear skies, and what effects it may have on your images.

Even though all natural light originates from the sun, a subject’s illumination is actually comprised of several components:

  • Direct Sunlight (warmer, high contrast)
  • Diffuse Skylight (cooler, low contrast)
  • Bounced Light (has qualities of reflecting object)

Depending on the time of day, the relative amount of each component changes. We’ll start with noon (when the sun is at its highest), then see what happens as the day progresses to sunset (or reverses to sunrise).

CLEAR MIDDAY SUNSHINE

Midday lighting is primarily comprised of direct, downward sunlight. Such light has little chance to scatter and diffuse through the atmosphere, or to bounce off the ground and illuminate the subject indirectly. This results in the hardest and most neutrally-coloured lighting of any time of day. This is typically the least desirable type of natural light.

Due to these drawbacks, too often photographers put their camera away — potentially missing unique opportunities. For example, water may appear more transparent, since light penetrates deeper and direct reflections off the surface are less likely. Alternatively, other types of photographs are more about capturing a particular event, as opposed to achieving an image with optimal lighting.

Overcoming Unique Challenges. Be aware that colour saturation is typically lower, and that downward shadows generally don’t produce flattering portraits, or make other subjects appear as three-dimensional. Many photographers encourage liberal use of polarizing filters to manage contrast, since this is often when they’re most impactful, but at this time these can also more easily make the sky appear unnaturally dark and blue. If shadows appear too harsh and colours aren’t sufficiently saturated, try converting to black and white, since these may even benefit from the high contrast of midday light.

EVENING & MID-MORNING

Evening and mid-morning light becomes slightly warmer, and begins to cast noticeable shadows. Since direct light now originates from an upper side, subjects often appear much more three dimensional. Such lighting is usually much more predictable than sunsets and sunrises, primarily because this time is less dependent on the effect of surrounding mountains, or the location of the cloud line.

Overcoming Unique Challenges. Mid-evening and morning has perhaps the most compromised lighting. It’s not as neutrally coloured as during midday, but also not as warm or intense as a sunset. It’s also less harsh and originates from a better angle than during midday, but also isn’t as soft and diffuse as during twilight or overcast lighting. These qualities make it a good all-around time of day for photography, but also run the risk of making photos appear too ordinary, since one cannot use any uniquely exaggerated lighting traits to emphasize particular features in their subject.

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GOLDEN HOUR & SUNRISE/SUNSET

Just before sunset and just after sunrise (the “golden hour”) is typically regarded as the most desirable light for photography. This entails horizontal light that casts long shadows and gives subjects a warm glow.

Sunsets and sunrises make for exciting and highly varied lighting, because these are heavily influenced by subtleties in the weather. Clouds are rendered using sunlight that reflects off them from underneath and not above. This causes the sky to light up with a soft, warm light.

Overcoming Unique Challenges. Sunsets and sunrises are often spectacularly vibrant in person, but this isn’t always translated well into an image. Make sure that your camera’s auto white balance doesn’t counteract a warm-looking scene. Also ensure that the colour saturation isn’t overly conservative to minimize the risk of colour clipping. Ironically, when the lighting is most dramatic is also when your camera is most likely to make an error with its exposure. Try to take several photos, or use partial or spot metering just in case.

Sunrise vs. Sunset. Although sunsets and sunrises are in theory identical, weather patterns can cause these to be consistently different. Many photographers prefer one over the other. Some find that they’re more prepared to photograph during sunset over sunrise, because light quality builds steadily prior to a sunset. With sunrises, the light often starts at its best and gradually fades. In addition, being awake and on-location for a sunrise is often impractical in the summer months. On the other hand, sunrise photography is usually void of potentially distracting crowds It also often has a low-laying mist and dew on foliage. Sunrises often also have a calm, quiescent quality — particularly with scenes involving water — that isn’t present during sunsets.

TWILIGHT, DAWN & DUSK

Twilight, dawn and dusk typically describe the half hour before sunrise or after sunset. During this time, the sky is still bright but there’s no longer any direct sunlight. The primary source of light effectively becomes the entire sky. One side appears warm and reddish and the other becomes a cool blue or purple. This can produce wonderfully soft, multicolour lighting that gives a calm, peaceful mood to subjects.

Overcoming Unique Challenges. Perhaps the biggest disadvantages are the lack of contrast and ambient light. Hand-held shots are therefore rarely possible. In addition, achieving a sufficient sense of depth may require more attention to composition. Cameras also often over-expose twilight scenes when using automatic exposures, since twilight almost never contains any fully white objects. This can wash out the otherwise delicate colours.

Alpenglow. If you’re lucky, a phenomenon called “alpenglow” may appear as a red or pinkish glow in the sky furthest from the setting sun. However, it’s never a guarantee. Alpenglow can be a helpful effect for extending a sky’s warmth well beyond sunset.

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Clare James1

Blogger Profile - Clare James

Following a passion for adventure sports and wildlife conservation, Clare took up photography to document her travels and soon became addicted to the power of images. She specializes in underwater, adventure and wildlife photography and her work has been exhibited in Cornwall, UK. Clare worked with Africa Media as an instructor in the Wildlife and Adventure Photography program.

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