Wildlife Photography Secrets: Angle of Light

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.

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February 04, 2011


Thanks for the tips, I always get stuck with something good in really harsh sunlight.

January 26, 2011


Last year in South Africa I noticed how hard it really is to get a great shot on a safari, not to mention the whale watching! Thank you for sharing, good tips!

January 22, 2011


Some stunning images ! Thanks for the tips :o)

January 22, 2011


..thanks for the lesson..!

January 22, 2011


Some usefull tips on lighting.
Actually if one masters the lighting, then 70% of his/her work is done.

January 21, 2011


Valuable article, thanks for sharing!

January 20, 2011


Thank you for posting this very helpful blog

January 19, 2011


This is the = You always remember and You always forget;)

January 19, 2011


Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge. Your work is amazing and very inspirational.

Rob & Maiu

January 19, 2011


Great blog article, some v.useful tips!

January 19, 2011


These animal shots you have are absolutely brilliant.
As for the light .. looks like you definitely have the ability to capture it very well :)

January 18, 2011


Good tips! Thank you!

January 18, 2011


thx for sharing...great blog...its always an inspiration to shoot animals in free nature...

January 18, 2011


Excellent information. Thank you for sharing.

January 18, 2011


Great blog article! Thanks John!

January 18, 2011


A great blog... Thanks for sharing...

January 18, 2011


I do a lot of animal photography, so these are good tips for me. I had never heard about pointing your shadow at the subject. Thanks.

January 18, 2011


Nice tips! 25 years ago I had a passport photo done by a professional photographer and it was actually a good photo, too. Why do they want such boring light, these days?

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