Wildlife photography combines a selection of skills, both creative and technical. Many people struggle with one aspect in particular; knowing the best light for shooting their wildlife photo.
To take a top-class wildlife photograph, you will need to understand your creature; where to find it, the way to approach it without scaring it away, and how to know the exact moment to press the button to capture the character of the topic. Frequently an Animal Control photographer will spend hours trying to get a fantastic shot. What a shame, then, if all of that effort is wasted by taking your photo in bad light.
As a nature photographer, I’ve learned that the perfect light for a photo may change depending on the topic. Landscape photographs are usually best photographed in sunny weather, early in the morning or late in the afternoon once the contrast is low and the light is soft and colouful. To understand the best lighting for wildlife photography, you can take a lesson from the landscape and rainforest photography.
To find the best lighting for a wildlife photo, you’re really looking to minimize comparison, and to eliminate shadows from significant areas; most significantly through the face of the animal.
Bright light is likely to overexpose parts of the subject, while the face and the underside of the animal could be lost in heavy shadow. The result will be unattractive, and lacking much of the detail that should give personality to your photograph.
There’s nothing wrong with taking your wildlife photos on a sunny day. Just don’t forget the lesson from picture photography and seek to take your photos early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Sometimes the subject is illuminated from a more horizontal angle, so the complete face of this animal is well-lit; you’re less likely to have shadows over the eyes and other important features. If there are shadows, they will be much softer because the contrast is much lower when the sun is low in the sky.
The light at these times is also much more colourful, with the golden colors you associate with sunset and sunrise. This is a classic technique for enhancing landscapes, but it can be equally as effective for wildlife. The warmth of this light can create an intimacy in your images that’s completely lost in the harsh light of midday.
The second strategy is to follow the rule of rainforest photography, and take your photos in overcast weather. This permits you to catch your subject in very even, low-contrast light.
I find cloudy days especially helpful for animals with glossy surfaces. Frogs, for example, have damp, shiny skin which reflects a lot of light. In glaring conditions a green frog may appear mostly grey or silver in a photo. On a cloudy day the same frog is going to be shown in its true colors.
Birds can often look more colourful on a cloudy day, for the very same reason. The sun shining on glossy feathers can create a lot of reflection, robbing the picture of its normal colour.
1 final question you may ask: if you use a flash to illuminate a wildlife photograph? My reply to that is a definite”NO.” Flash photography bathes the topic in white light, coming from right in front of the subject. It could illuminate the subject, but at the exact same time rob it of the pure play of light and shade which makes a good photo so appealing.
This approach can work very well, but remember; those are experts in flash photography. If you’re at the beginner stage, I suggest learning to work with natural light. When you get the hang of it, I guarantee you’ll be happy with the results.