In the old days, you would purchase a package of film and inside the film box was an instruction sheet that described the concept of sunny 16, shooting your images with the sun at your back and other such general information. The makers of the film knew that shooting your images with the sun behind your back would be the easiest technique for those with little photographic experience. In this edition of my blog articles, let’s discuss lighting.
During full sun, there are three basic types of lighting for wildlife photos. These are direct frontal lighting, some type of angled lighting and silhouettes. Of course, there are variations and combinations of these three; but these are the three basic types.
There is a famous bird photographer that teaches his students; “Point your shadow at the bird”; basically saying to use direct frontal lighting. He teaches that this increases his percentage of keepers because he does not need to worry if the light is on the wrong side of the bird or that the bird may have turned his head out of the light. With direct frontal lighting, if the bird turns his head to the left, the sun strikes the left side of its face; if the bird turns its head to the right, the sun strikes the rights side of the face. The same type of lighting can also be used on mammals, reptiles and other crawling things. Many times, this is a good lighting technique; other times it is: ah, shall we say BORING! Direct frontal lighting means no shadows; no shadows mean no definition to feathers or fur. Take a look at your passport photo or your driver’s license photo; this is direct frontal lighting.
My mentor and teacher, Charles Glatzer, instructs that “light illuminates, shadows define”. Basically, by moving the light a bit off angle, the light now defines the feathers, fur or texture of the animal better and gives it more depth and rounding. With the light now coming at an angle, it does make the imaging process a bit more challenging because you must wait till the animal moves its head or body into the most pleasing light angle. Few things look worse than having a shadow on the wrong side of the body or have a shadow hide important details.
Wait till the light is directly behind the animal; expose for the light and you have silhouette lighting. Basically, the subject will be black and the background will be bright; if it happens to be a sunset or sunrise; it will be bright and colorful.
So when you setup your camera to photograph wildlife (or you Aunt Minnie), carefully consider the angle of the light. Many times, you can move a few feet to the left or right and completely change the mood and emotion of an image.
Photo credits: Moose Henderson.