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

By Michael Snedic | 13 September 2021

This is part two of a two part series on using light in wildlife photography. You can see part one from last week, here. 

Capturing a moody landscape

There is nothing more appealing than a photo of a moody landscape. This could be rays of light beaming through a rainforest, mist across a valley or the sun hitting a part of a beautiful landscape.

One of the best tips I can give when photographing sunrises and sunsets is “look behind you”. I was on the Overland Track in Tasmania, photographing a beautiful sunrise scene, when I turned around and saw an even more amazing view. The mist hovering over the landscape, coupled with the beautiful pink glow of the sunrise, made for a perfect setting for this image. Nikon D700, 150mm f/2.8 lens. 1/25s @ f11, ISO 800.
One of the best tips I can give when photographing sunrises and sunsets is “look behind you”. I was on the Overland Track in Tasmania, photographing a beautiful sunrise scene, when I turned around and saw an even more amazing view. The mist hovering over the landscape, coupled with the beautiful pink glow of the sunrise, made for a perfect setting for this image. Nikon D700, 150mm f/2.8 lens. 1/25s @ f11, ISO 800.

The best way to capture rays of light or mist is to venture out with your camera early in the morning, especially after rain. It is important to expose for the rays of light or mist to make them stand out. Once again, this effect is best on a cloudy day. 

Waterfalls and cascades are very popular subjects with many landscape photographers. To be in an environment where you are surrounded by rainforest while breathing in fresh air and listening to water flowing is very relaxing. For best results when photographing waterfalls or cascades, photograph them when it’s cloudy.

It may be the angle of the sun hitting a certain part of a landscape that makes an image ‘pop’. Try honing in on that particular area by zooming in with a lens that has a longer focal length. This way you are concentrating on that specific area and accentuating the part of the landscape that has the sun shining on it.

Some of the most interesting images of trees I have seen over the years are ones that have been taken directly after rain. Certain species of eucalyptus trees for example shed their outer bark at particular times of the year and reveal incredible colours on the inner bark.But when this layer of bark becomes wet, the rich colours come to life.

Some people don’t like to head out after rain or during rain but I can guarantee some of the best shots of trees have been taken during rain!

Fill Flash for Birds and Wildlife

While natural lighting is often preferred by many wildlife photographers, fill flash can be advantageous in some situations. Recently I was presenting a wildlife photography workshop in the rainforest in Lamington National Park, Queensland. It was early in the morning; the clouds were very dark and shutter speeds were abysmally low. This is where flash can help.

The light released from a flash or speedlight is enough to increase your camera’s shutter speed, without the need for a really high ISO setting which can create lots of noise. Sure, images with lots of noise can be corrected in post, but the issue is that your image quality will be greatly reduced.

By practising with different flash angles, varied power settings and diffusers over the top of a flash, you can end up with shots of the same subject, all with varying lighting effects. Sometimes using two flash units, where each flash is set up on brackets attached to the camera’s hot shoe, can also create delicate light without harsh shadows.

Portable Diffusers and Reflectors

If you don’t have a flash, handheld diffusers and reflectors can be a good backup. Something like a 45cm or 50cm 5-in-1 reflector/diffuser is compact and easy to carry around and very versatile, and I’ll always try to pack one when photographing macro subjects such as fungi, flowers or insects. Fungi images in particular can be greatly improved by using external light sources.

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.

A portable diffuser between your camera and macro subjects can create a nicely diffused lighting effect. And, rather than ending up with overblown macro images, the subject will be bathed in subtle, diffused light that is much more pleasing on the eye.

A reflector is also a very handy product to keep in your camera bag as they are cheap and easy to use in the field. I prefer using the silver diffuser compared to gold and I use it to reflect natural light onto fungi or plants. If you are photographing gilled fungi
or flowers that have shadows, a reflector adds just the right amount of extra light in the darker areas of the image

My advice is to locate the position of the sun, point the reflector to the sun and then slowly move the beam of light onto whatever it is you are photographing. Small reflectors are great because you can usually hold one with one hand while your other hand presses the camera’s shutter button or remote/cable release (if using a tripod).

In the end, it doesn’t matter what type of external light source you try and where you position it, the key is you experiment.

Photographing wildlife in zoos 

Zoos and wildlife parks are the ideal  places for practising your wildlife photography. There are plenty of animals to choose from in varying shapes and sizes. Sometimes though, lighting can be quite harsh, especially if you’re stuck visiting in the middle of the day. It may not be ideal, but you can still photograph in sunny conditions.

Shooting wildlife, such as this Thorny Devil, through glass at wildlife parks and zoos can be quite challenging. If the exhibit is outdoors, like here at the Alice Springs Desert Park, or there is harsh lighting above you indoors, then you’ll need needs to be taken that the glass doesn’t reflect light back on to your camera. One way to eliminate this unwanted light is to use a lens hood on the lens you are using and carefully touch the glass with the hood, but at an angle. This way, you have a much better chance of photographing your subject without unsightly light across your image. Nikon D700, 200mm f/4 lens. 1/25s @ f5.6, ISO 800.
Shooting wildlife, such as this Thorny Devil, through glass at wildlife parks and zoos can be quite challenging. If the exhibit is outdoors, like here at the Alice Springs Desert Park, or there is harsh lighting above you indoors, then you’ll need needs to be taken that the glass doesn’t reflect light back on to your camera. One way to eliminate this unwanted light is to use a lens hood on the lens you are using and carefully touch the glass with the hood, but at an angle. This way, you have a much better chance of photographing your subject without unsightly light across your image. Nikon D700, 200mm f/4 lens. 1/25s @ f5.6, ISO 800.

If shooting white animals or ones with shiny feathers, fur or scales, you can increase your camera’s shutter speed in order to reduce overblown highlights.

Alternatively, if shooting in Aperture Priority, reduce your exposure by going minus with your exposure compensation (+/-). Also in Aperture Priority, when shooting an animal and the background is very bright, you can choose Spot Metering. This metering setting helps better manage exposure on your subject.

Experiment, experiment, experiment

The best thing you can do to understand lighting is to experiment like crazy – it’s something I still do today. When you have downloaded your images onto the computer, look through them carefully. Some images may not work, while others might be nice but nothing special. It doesn’t matter, as it is from these mistakes that you learn.

Carefully study why some images worked and others didn’t and try and replicate your best results next time you are out shooting. Doing this will help you create fantastic, well-lit and interesting images. ❂

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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