At first, using natural light for nature and wildlife photography seems like an obvious topic. After all, the sun is often the only lighting you have for capturing these kinds of subjects with your camera. However, how you use natural light is of the utmost importance - if you’re successful, you will have dramatic, eye-catching images. If not, your images will fall flat and suffer from overexposure, underexposure, or harsh contrast, to name a few.
Have a look at these quick tips for using natural lighting in your nature and wildlife photos, and learn how to create stunning images that are sure to impress.
Why Golden Hour?
The most obvious tip when it comes to utilizing natural light has to do with Golden Hour. And obvious as it might be, that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly important. Getting out early and staying out late is less convenient for most people, but the light is just too good to pass up. The soft, warm glow of a sunrise or sunset will bathe your subject and its surrounding environment in pleasing light. And because of the softness of the light during Golden Hour, there are a number of ways you can use the light to compose a better shot, including backlighting, sidelighting, and silhouettes.
If possible, position yourself such that your subject is between you and the sun. The backlighting that illuminates the subject will give it a glow that highlights its shape and details, as was done in the image above, but without casting the animal in deep shadow, as is the case in a silhouette. This technique works best when the subject has a lot of character - feathers or fur, for example - that stand away from its body and captures the light.
Backlighting is a tricky situation from an exposure standpoint. With areas of extreme brightness and extreme shadow, your camera’s meter will probably have great difficulty deciding what the best exposure will be. Help your camera out by exposing for the highlights; it’s easier to recover the details in the shadowed areas in post-processing than it is to recover those in the highlighted areas. But beware! Don’t push the highlights too far. Use your histogram to get an idea of how far you can take the exposure without blowing out the highlights.
Using sidelighting creates perhaps some of the best nature and wildlife images. The angle of the sun, positioned at approximately a 90-degree angle from you, will highlight the texture of the scene. This creates dynamic areas of shadow and light that give the scene a much greater level of visual interest. The advantage of using sidelighting during Golden Hour is that the light will be so soft that you won’t have to worry about harsh contrasts, thus making it easier to get a proper exposure. Nevertheless, expose for the highlights as discussed above, so you’re sure to retain the detail of the shot.
If wildlife is in the scene, sidelighting also gives their body a greater level of detail, so viewers have a better sense of the size, shape, and form they are viewing. This is particularly important if the surrounding environment lacks much in the way of texture or other qualities to give the image added appeal.
A silhouetted shot is an ideal way to take advantage of a bright background, like the sky, to highlight the form and outline of an animal. Golden Hour is a great candidate for creating silhouetted shots because the sky provides the bright backdrop you need, but it will also be extremely colorful, making it a much more interesting background than a plain, blue sky in the middle of the day.
Again, the trick to getting the best silhouette is to meter off of a bright part of the sky, then compose your shot and fire the shutter. If need be, switch your camera to spot metering or center-weighted metering mode so you’re sure to get the reading from the part of the scene you intend. This will give the sky the best exposure while also ensuring that your subject is cast in a good deal of shadow. Once you take the photo, inspect the level of exposure, and if it’s not dark enough, dial in some negative exposure compensation to darken the image.
No matter which type of lighting you use, pairing it with Golden Hour will make your job much, much easier because of the softness and warmness of the light. However, that doesn’t mean it still won’t require a lot of work! You might find that you need to switch to full manual mode to get the camera settings right, or you may need to use bracketing to get the best exposure. You’ll certainly need to polish your images in post as well. However, by using these lighting tips, you’ll have a better raw image with which to work, making the task of post-processing that much easier.