Using light in wildlife photography (part one) – Australian Photography

By Michael Snedic | 8 September 2021

Whether it’s rays of light in a rainforest, subtle early morning sunlight poking through mist or gorgeous backlighting on a bird, nice light can make the world of difference to the feel of an image.

Nature’s Diffuser

Without exception, nature provides the best diffuser. An overcast day will always produce much more favourable and ‘even’ lighting as the light is much more subtle. On a sunny day you will often end up with harsh light projected onto your subject as well as contrasting shadows. Unfortunately, trying to ‘fix’ these type of images in post-processing is usually a lost cause.

Early morning light right after sunrise is hard to beat if you are wanting subtle, delicate light to fall on plants you are photographing, such as the grevillea shown here. You can also add extra light to the plant by using a diffused hand held torch. Experiment with the angle that you are shining the torch and once you find the right angle of light, you can then work on composition and focusing. Nikon D850, 105mm f/2.8 lens. 1/320s @ f8, ISO 800.
Early morning light right after sunrise is hard to beat if you are wanting subtle, delicate light to fall on plants you are photographing, such as the grevillea shown here. You can also add extra light to the plant by using a diffused hand held torch. Experiment with the angle that you are shining the torch and once you find the right angle of light, you can then work on composition and focusing. Nikon D850, 105mm f/2.8 lens. 1/320s @ f8, ISO 800.

Modern cameras are excellent at metering available light and photographing wildlife on overcast days will generally produce images with perfect exposure. However, care still needs to be taken if the subject is white or brightly coloured. If you are using Manual mode, you generally need to increase your shutter speed to avoid overblown highlights.

If your camera is set to Aperture Priority, then you will likely need to reduce your exposure compensation in one third increments, until you achieve the perfect exposure. To check for this in the field, turn on the ‘blinkies’ and check your highlight areas aren’t blowing out too greatly between shots.

Where diffused light truly comes into its own is in the rainforest. If you have ever taken shots in a rainforest on a sunny day then you’ll know the end results are usually disappointing – for me personally, I don’t even take out my camera in these conditions! Sure, you can take a few images as a memory, especially if you have travelled far to get to your shooting location, but the shots won’t be ‘competition winning’ by any stretch.

However, if you are lucky enough to be in a rainforest on a cloudy or rainy day, try to use a circular polarising filter (CPL). The CPL will help reduce unsightly glare on wet rocks and leaves and give your images a slightly saturated look without being gaudy and over-the-top. Just don’t forget that a CPL will lower your shutter speed by an average of 1.5 to 2 stops, so keep an eye on your shutter speed. 

Rim Lighting

Rim lighting can add a lovely effect to a wildlife image, especially if it is used the correct way. To use it effectively, you will need to position the sun behind the subject that you are photographing. Early morning (sunrise) or late afternoon (sunset) light creates the most pleasing effect that will really emphasise your subject.

By shooting birds and other wildlife with the sun in front of you or slightly to the side, rather than behind you, you can create lovely rim lighting around your subject. By lining up your subject (in this case a Cape Baron Goose chick on Kangaroo Island) so that it is in line with the sun, you are also stopping the sun from being completely overblown in your shot. Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/2500s @ f5.6, ISO 400.
By shooting birds and other wildlife with the sun in front of you or slightly to the side, rather than behind you, you can create lovely rim lighting around your subject. By lining up your subject (in this case a Cape Baron Goose chick on Kangaroo Island) so that it is in line with the sun, you are also stopping the sun from being completely overblown in your shot. Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/2500s @ f5.6, ISO 400.

By moving around with your camera and lens and composing the shot, where the harsh light of the sun is ‘blocked’ by the animal, you end up with a rim of light around your subject. Rim lighting is the perfect way to accentuate textures in fur or feathers, as well as shapes and contours. You’ll find it works best for subjects that don’t move much.

Creating Great Silhouettes

I have always been a huge fan of creating photographic silhouettes, and they can be great to shoot if you’re stuck with high contrast lighting. However, as with rim lighting, sunrise and sunset are the best times to try it. The key here is to choose the correct metering on your camera.

To create a silhouette like of this Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on a Grass tree, set your camera’s metering to Matrix (Nikon), Evaluative (Canon) or Multi Pattern/Multi Segment (most other brands) and expose for the sky. Sunrises and sunsets is the best time to try this. Nikon D850, 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/8000s @ f5.6, ISO 800.
To create a silhouette like of this Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on a Grass tree, set your camera’s metering to Matrix (Nikon), Evaluative (Canon) or Multi Pattern/Multi Segment (most other brands) and expose for the sky. Sunrises and sunsets are the best time to try this. Nikon D850, 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/8000s @ f5.6, ISO 800.

If you use Spot Metering on your subject, then the subject will often be correctly exposed, but your background will be blown out. The secret is to use Matrix Metering (Nikon), Evaluative Metering (Canon) or Multi-pattern or Multi-segment Metering (most other camera brands), which will mean the camera’s meter will read the whole scene you are photographing.

If the background is way too bright, then try to reduce your exposure so that the background is exposed well. With the background correctly exposed, your subject will become a silhouette. Photographing wildlife subjects when there is a rich, colourful sunrise or sunset will often give you the best end results for this style.

You can also create interesting silhouettes when the sky is dull. I suggest turning the background to white when post-processing, thus creating interesting black and white silhouette images.

Look out for part two next week. 

About the author: Michael Snedic has been photographing Australia’s wildlife and natural beauty for nearly a quarter of a century! He is widely published, is a Nikon School tutor and is an in-demand speaker at Camera Clubs and Photography Conventions across Australia.

Michael is the founder of WildNature Photo Expeditions, specialising in nature-based photography workshops to destinations such as Lord Howe Island, Tasmania (Cradle Mountain, Freycinet, the Bay of Fires and the Tarkine region), Girraween and Lamington National Parks, Carnarvon Gorge, Kakadu National Park and the Wildflowers of WA, as well as overseas destinations. To see more of his work, visit www.michaelsnedic.com

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