Make the most of natural light
Once you are competent with your camera and consistently capturing decent shots, you will start looking for ways to take your wildlife photography to the next level. An easy win is to make the most of natural light.
Good light can turn an average photo into an extraordinary photo.
The best time for photographing wildlife is around sunrise and sunset. The light is most beautiful in the ten minutes after sunrise and before sunset. The light rapidly becomes cooler and harsher as the sun gets higher in the sky, however, it is still very good for at least an hour or so at the beginning and end of the day.
Good light is so important that I aim never to miss a sunrise or sunset whilst out in the field.
There several different ways to use beautiful sunrise and sunset light. Most commonly, photographers will place the sun behind them so that their subject is bathed in lovely warm light. Front-lighting will always achieve pleasing results, but I also encourage you to experiment with side-lighting and back-lighting as this can often result in more interesting photographs.
Below I have given some examples and tips different lighting effects…
This is great when you have a strong subject. Your subject matter is the overriding feature of the photo and the light is there to complement it. Front-lit shots are generally very easy to expose just by metering on the subject.
This gives you dramatic shadows which emphasise the form of your subject and texture of the background. Be careful with your exposure… if you meter on a shadowy area then your highlights can become blown out.
There are two types of backlit shots, silhouettes and non-silhouettes. In a silhouette, the subject is completely black and only the background is exposed. Usually the background is a sunrise or sunset scene. It is easy to expose a silhouette by metering on the bright background.
The other type of backlit shot is where you expose details in the animal and have a bright background behind. This is much easier to achieve these days because modern camera RAW files have good dynamic range so you can easily brighten shadows and darken highlights in post-production. You will need to meter on the subject to expose the shadows.
Often you can get a lovely halo of brightly-lit fur or feathers around the edge of your subject. This is particularly effective if you can line-up the animal with a dark background.
In general, back-lighting works best when the sun is low and the light strong (in Africa this occurs more frequently in the wet season when rain washes all of the dust and smoke out of the sky).
You can view more backlit photographs in this collection on my website.
Tips for shooting when the light is “bad”
The light in the middle of the day is generally not ideal for photography as you get very harsh, contrasty shadows. One way to deal with this is to use fill-flash. This just involves turning on your flash and letting it fire when you take a shot. The little bit of extra light from the flash helps brings out the details in the shadows. Usually this will only be effective when you are quite close to your subject. When using a telephoto lens, you can get a flash extender (a lens that attaches to your flash) to increase your reach.
My second tip is to make use of cloud. When clouds block the sun, they can act like giant diffusers. This makes the resulting light much softer and the shadows less defined. I photographed this shoebill right in the middle of the day. A cloud eventually drifted in front of the sun for a short while and that was enough for me to get the shot I wanted…