Choosing the Best Lighting for Wildlife Photos

lighting in wildlife photos

What’s the best kind of lighting for a wildlife photo? The simple answer to that question is, that there isn’t a ‘best’ form of lighting, but rather it depends on what species you’re shooting, how you’d like to portray the animal, and what you’re trying to achieve from both a creative and technical perspective. There was a time when I would have said that sunshine is the best light to shoot wildlife, and whilst this may often be the case it isn’t necessarily true all of the time. There is also the direction of the light to consider. That is, should you photograph using the old adage of having the sun coming from over your shoulder, or is it better to make use of side or backlighting? There are no concrete answers to these questions, but the way I approach it is to work with the prevailing light in any given situation and to use the light to my advantage whenever possible.

choosing a lighting style with wildlife mark hamblin
Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix) male displaying at lek on moorland.

When discussing light for any photographic subject there are three key parameters to consider: the type of light, its direction, and the colour temperature – all of which have a bearing on how the subject is lit and therefore how it is recorded in the final image. When photographing some subjects, such as in a studio, all of these parameters can easily be controlled to produce the kind of lighting that best suits the subject or to create a certain effect. This is far less controllable when shooting outdoors of course, although there is an element of predictability in terms of the position of the sun at a specific time. For landscape photography, the position and time that the sun will rise can be predetermined and therefore you have a good idea of how it will light the land. By then putting yourself in the right place at the right time it’s possible to capture the desired image assuming the sun isn’t obscured by clouds.

Further Reading: “The Golden Hour in Landscape Photography

lighting in wildlife photos
The lighting in this photo has brought out the iridescence in the lapwing’s feathers.

This level of predictability allows for a certain degree of control over the resulting images but this is harder to do when photographing wildlife as there are other factors involved. Nevertheless, the decision of what time of day you choose to photograph and in what lighting conditions remains your own and so despite the vagaries of the weather, it is possible to be proactive in terms of determining the type of lighting in which you shoot. Sunshine suits most subjects but try to shoot when the sun is low in the sky. In winter this is the case all day but in summer when the sun is higher in the sky it’s best to shoot either early or late. Midday sunlight can be harsh leading to unflattering shadows and hot spots.

Many subjects, especially mammals, are most active at dawn and dusk so photographing at either end of the day is beneficial not only for capturing the best light but also increasing your chances that your subject will be active. Very early or late sunshine has a warm colour temperature and is particularly well suited for animals with shades of brown and red in their fur. This low light is also much softer with less intense shadows. With the sun striking the animal from a low angle there is much more light in the subject’s face, providing a catchlight in the eye and revealing the character of the animal.

Further Reading: “How to Photograph Wildlife in Low Light

wildlife lighting
Brown Hare (Lepus capensis) running through field of grass.

While bright sunlight has some obvious benefits it does create problems, most notably ugly shadows. While shadows are generally regarded as a good thing when taking landscapes, and for that reason side lighting is often the preferred light of choice, this doesn’t always hold true when photographing wildlife. The reason being that side lighting illuminates the subject on one side with the opposite side in deep shadow, which creates high contrast images. With large animals this can actually be very effective, especially when taking close-up portraits but for small to mid-sized subjects it is unflattering and generally doesn’t produce an attractive photograph. There are always exceptions of course and there is certainly no harm in experimenting with side lighting.

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) adult on dark-coloured loch, Scotland.

More extreme still is backlighting, a form of lighting that can create the most dramatic wildlife images of all. Although backlighting creates even more contrast issues it is nevertheless more uniform than side-lighting and to my eye produces a more attractive result. Backlighting often has a greater pictorial quality as oppose to a the straightforward rendition of a species that results from front lighting. It is most effective with subjects such as mammals that have long hairy coats, as the backlighting emphasises their outline, or for birds in flight with semi-translucent wing feathers. Best results tend to be when shooting against a dark background since this makes the backlit fur or feathers stand out more clearly. The sun also needs to be striking the subject directly from behind so in most cases the technique works best when the sun is low in the sky.

Further Reading: “Master Backlighting in Wildlife Photography

lighting types with wildlife
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) adult in flight in late evening light. Iceland.
backlight wildlife
Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in summer pelage running across moorland, backlit by morning sun, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

Although sunlight is often desirable, it does bring problems of contrast and unwanted shadows as outlined above, something that can be avoided by shooting in diffused or overcast light. If you have no choice but to photograph in the middle of a summer’s day, then diffused light is preferable since this lowers the dynamic range allowing you capture detail in both the brightest and darkest parts of the subject. If you have ever tried to photograph seabirds in bright overhead sunlight you’ll be aware how easy it is to burn out the white plumage or conversely lose detail completely in the dark feathers. But if you take the same subjects on an overcast day or when the sun is diffused by thin clouds all of the detail can easily be recorded and the results are far superior.

overcast light wildlife
Photographing on an overcast day allows for a lower dynamic range in the photo, making it easier to capture detail in the blacks and whites.

Certainly subjects that are predominantly very white / pale or extremely dark can be quite difficult to photograph well in bright light partly due to the difficulties of dealing with the high contrast and lack of detail but also in terms of exposure. Exposing for the subject may mean that the surroundings are incorrectly exposed or become very dark / bright. Softer, low contrast light when there is some cloud cover allows more detail to be recorded in the subject as well as the surroundings to produce a much more evenly lit and exposed picture.

overcast lighting tips
Raven (Corvus corax) perched on ground. Norway.

To re-cap from the first paragraph, the best form of lighting for wildlife is both subjective in regard to your creative ambitions but also governed by factors such as contrast, shadows, exposure and the way in which the details in the subject’s fur or feathers are captured. You may well have your own preference for a certain form of lighting such as rim-lighting, but it certainly pays to consider the quality of the lighting and how this impacts upon the portrayal of subject in the final image.

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