Rainforest Photography: A Guide to Lighting

rainforest photography lighting tips

At ground level, light in a tropical rainforest is a commodity often in short supply, so learning how to adapt and deal with this is fundamental to successful rainforest photography.

rainforest photography
Dawn light in a tropical rainforest – this is Danum Valley, Borneo – can create mesmerizing photographic opportunities, but such moments can be so fleeting.

In this guide, I will help you learn how to maximise the use of natural light and share some lighting management techniques that will help you generate awesome rainforest images.

Read more: Rainforest Photography: 8 Top Tips for Stand-Out Images

Combating low light

Using high ISO values is the standard modus operandi in a rainforest, but of course, there is a trade-off – at higher ISO values, image quality can suffer.

Having said that, the technology of modern sensors and noise reduction software is such that even at high ISO values, it is possible to achieve excellent results with good tonality.

How far you can increase the ISO will depend on the model of the camera you own, but most current models produce acceptable results at ISO 2000-4000 and some well beyond this (especially with subsequent noise reduction in post-production).

rainforest photography tips
Noise reduction software, especially with new AI technology, is remarkable and facilitates photography under circumstances that would have been impossible a few years ago. This shot of a male cock-of-the-rock in Manu, Peru, was taken in very low light at ISO 4000, but you’d never know it.

Whether during the day or more obviously at night, using flash appropriately is a necessity in rainforests. If used incorrectly or clumsily, flash is detrimental to images as it causes distracting highlights, ugly deep shadows, and inaccurate colors.

However, when used judiciously, it can be hugely beneficial and elevate images from mediocre to memorable.

rainforest photography with flash
A simple single flash (with a softbox) setup provided all the light for this image of a green-and-black poison dart frog in Costa Rica.

Fundamentally, flash can be used in one of two ways. Firstly, it can provide ALL the light necessary to create an image; obviously, this is the case when photographing at night but can also be the case during the day.

And secondly, flash can be used in conjunction with daylight to augment an exposure. Here the illumination for the image is provided by a combination of natural light and light from the flash.

rainforest photography lighting tips
Here two flashes were used to light a bush cricket at night in Manu, Peru. One flash from the rear to provide backlighting and make the bush cricket ‘glow’, and a second from the side front to illuminate the detail of the insect.

The possible proportions of daylight versus flash light are almost infinitely variable, and different combinations produce effective results under different circumstances.

Whatever the final proportion, there is always a ‘balance’ between the two forms of light in creating a final exposure. For this reason, this is often referred to as ‘balanced’ or ‘fill-in’ flash.

Read more: How to Balance Flash with Ambient Light in Macro Photography

Fill-in flash

Within rainforests, where ambient light levels are often low, ‘fill-in’ flash is a crucial technique and can be used in a variety of ways.

By adding light from a flash to existing natural light, it is possible to ‘lift’ subjects from gloomy backgrounds, ‘fill-in’ shadow areas where detail would otherwise be lost, and/or reduce overall contrast.

The issue, of course, is that this is only possible when the subject is close enough for light from the flash to reach. This working distance is governed by the power of your flash.

using flash in photography rainforest photography
Three flashes were used to light this giant Rafflesia flower in Borneo. One on each side, each with diffusers, provided soft ‘fill-in’ light to help ‘lift’ the flower from the darker background. A third small flash was fired directly into the center of the flower to illuminate the dark interior.

Pop-up flashes on the top of cameras are only useful when the subject is relatively close, say less than 2m away, whereas larger ‘bolt-on’ flashguns can throw light effectively onto subjects up to 10m-15m away.

While it is always dangerous to over-generalize, a simple no-nonsense approach to ‘fill-in’ flash is to set your external flashgun to ‘balanced TTL’ or ‘i-TTL’ (the terms/abbreviations used vary between manufacturers), then reduce the flash output by 1.3-2 stops (flash output control marked [⚡+/-]).

A more controlled approach that allows greater subtlety and fine-tuning is to set the flash to manual and then adjust the power output (full, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc.) to provide whatever you deem to be the ‘correct’ amount of additional light falling on the subject.

rainforest photography light

Further refinements can also be made. When working close to smaller subjects like insects, frogs, and reptiles, the use of softboxes is a good way of keeping the light diffuse and looking natural.

Conversely, if a subject is a considerable distance away, a flash extender can prove invaluable.

These attachments place a Fresnel lens in front of the flash, with the effect that the light from the flashgun is concentrated into a narrower beam and allows it to be projected over a much longer distance.

They are often used in conjunction with telephoto lenses.

Read more: How to Photograph Reptiles and Amphibians with Flash

Dawn to dusk and changing light

No matter what time of day, light is all too often a limiting factor in a rainforest.

Other than those times you can make use of canopy towers or walkways, your photography is going to be limited to the forest floor, where as little as 10% of the light falling on the canopy reaches.

Hence, using a tripod becomes obligatory as shutter speeds will often be slow, and in conjunction, ISO values will need to be high.

rainforest photography ideas
At first light, views up and down rivers can provide plenty of opportunities. The Segama River in Borneo at dawn.

Until the sun breaks through, light levels will be extremely low; even when it is light above the trees, the forest floor can be very gloomy. This obviously limits opportunities and often means photos still require the addition of light from a flash.

Early mornings in rainforests are very often misty too, with the mist clinging to the canopy, even if the sky is clear above. However, when rays of direct sunlight do break through, the effects can be simply wonderful.

This is my favorite time of day in a rainforest: the combination of magical mists and golden shafts of light percolating through the shroud creates a mystical, ethereal atmosphere that is perfect for taking evocative photos.

using mist in rainforest photography
Views from canopy towers and platforms offer a wonderful perspective, especially at dawn when mists often hang low over the rainforest canopy. This is Danum Valley, Borneo.

To take advantage of these conditions, you do need to get an appropriate vantage point. Here, towers, platforms, or canopy walkways can be ideal.

If these structures are not available, try to find appropriate breaks in the forest where it is possible to see edges along lines of trees, where the mist and canopy can be seen mingling.

Views up and down rivers offer this and are especially good where a river bend and overhanging foliage can be used to frame the composition.

Of course, the early morning is also when so many animals are stirring and begin their daily routines.

macaws rainforest bird photography tips
These scarlet macaws in Costa Rica were photographed late afternoon, but crucially, there was diffuse cloud in front of the sun that created perfect soft light.

If you are interested in photographing birds, this is certainly the time to be at the top of a canopy tower as the first couple of hours after sunrise are when bird activity is highest, and the light can be at its best.

Generally speaking, by 08.30 am, the light, if direct, is on the cusp and is already becoming too harsh.

However, if the morning mist persists for longer, this does prolong photography as the mist is able to diffuse the light’s increasing harshness, often giving it a pleasing ‘watery’ quality.

But once the sun burns through the last mist properly, it is probably time to head back to the lodge for breakfast.

As is the case in most places, the middle of the day in a tropical rainforest is very challenging photographically, especially when it is sunny.

Between 08.30 am and around 4.30 pm, not only is the light harsh and bluish, but its effect filtering through the canopy is catastrophic as it creates extremes of bright highlights in patches of sky and the glints and reflections off shiny foliage, juxtaposed with the deepest, darkest shadows.

hummingbird rainforest wildlife photography
Taken in the middle of the day, cloudy conditions provided the soft light needed to photograph a sword-billed hummingbird in the montane rainforest of Ecuador.

Such extremes of contrast are virtually impossible to deal with, and images showing any elements of the forest are ruined by blotchy, patchwork high contrast backgrounds and insipid colors.

So, what are the options if you want to carry on taking photos? Well, very often in tropical rainforest areas, it is not sunny at all. There are many days when the sun never breaks through, and it is cloudy all the time.

The problem of harsh light doesn’t then present itself as the light is continually diffuse and flat. However, not all clouds are created equal as far as rainforest photography is concerned.

The ideal types are high in the sky and not particularly dense, so conditions remain reasonably bright, and the light levels stay relatively high and ‘workable’ on the forest floor.

Such conditions produce soft, diffuse light, with reduced contrast and few deep shadows, and this is ideal for taking photos that show plenty of detail, whether face and fur detail in a primate, scale detail on a reptile, or accuracy of color in a flower or fungi.

However, care should be taken with compositions, especially when using wide-angle lenses, as it is generally detrimental to have too much ‘white cloud’ or other highlighted areas showing in the background.

These are very distracting to the main subject and tend to look ‘ugly’ in the overall composition.

Sadly, there are many occasions when the clouds are low, dark, and brooding, and this cuts light levels down to a minimum, making any photography very difficult. There is also the likelihood of an imminent downpour, so heading back to the lodge may be the best bet.

rainforest photography light
Cloudy conditions in the middle of the day helped with this shot of cup fungi (Cookenia sp.), but using a fish-eye lens, care had to be taken with the background to avoid too many distracting ‘white sky’ elements.

If sunny conditions do persist, then the ‘dead’ period does not have to be totally unproductive, but your options are certainly more limited.

I tend to concentrate on photographing small subjects, close-up, where we can control the light and create illumination that is pleasing. This involves using flashes, softboxes, diffusers, and sometimes LED video lights.

rainforest photography wildlife macro tips
This might look like a night-time shot, but it was taken in full daylight and illuminated entirely with flash – two from the rear for back lighting effects and one front the front to show all the detail.

Diffusers are simply sheets of translucent white or off-white fabric that are used to ‘shade’ a subject, so that the natural light falling on the subject becomes diffuse. This removes the harsh, destructive highlights and shadows.

While diffusers ‘soften’ the lighting, the addition of some flash to pep up the subject or ‘fill-in’ darker areas may also be necessary. Once again, it is a good idea to also add a softbox to the flash to avoid reintroducing harsh light that you have tried hard to avoid.

In addition, natural light can be augmented with the use of constant light from an artificial daylight source like an LED video light.

I use small, portable ones to sometimes throw a pool of light onto a subject or a particular area of a frame, where shadows are deepest, and then top this up further with light from a flash.

Read more: Landscape Photography Settings for Cloudy Days

Rainforest photography at night

Flash becomes the sole source of light for most, but not all, images at night.

Here it pays not to be too ambitious. If you see an animal way up in the trees, there is no way you are going to be able to take a meaningful photo, even if you had a flashgun comparable in output to a lighthouse.

Remember, light intensity reduces by the inverse square rule, which means it drops off exponentially: if you double the flash-to-subject distance, the light reaching the subject reduces to one-quarter (not by one-half).

Therefore, after dark, concentrate on finding and photographing smaller accessible subjects – insects, reptiles, and especially frogs that tend to be far more active at night.

nighttime rainforest photography wildlife
A simple setup – one flash on the camera hot shoe and a telephoto lens allowed me to get a worthwhile shot during a chance nighttime encounter with a banded civet in Borneo.

When on a walk, keep your equipment simple and manageable – one body, one macro lens, a couple of flashes, and a softbox. Also, remember to take a good head torch to look for subjects and also to help you see when assembling and manipulating your photo equipment.

That said, around lodges, there is often the bonus of inquisitive animals scavenging or investigating hunting possibilities around the lodge (lodge lights attract insects and they sometimes draw in predators).

Over time, these animals often become relatively tolerant and habituated, so sometimes they can be photographed.

In such situations, it pays to be mobile, so you can follow the creature if necessary armed with a zoom telephoto and a flash mounted on the camera hot shoe.

Such situations often produce ‘grab’ shots, but nonetheless can be of species you’d never get to see or photograph in a more controlled way.

And finally, there is the option of taking images with no flash at all. Perhaps images with nothing more than the evocative light of the moon? Or, if you have a UV torch, you could specifically look for species that ‘fluoresce’ under UV light.

There are various plants that do this, including pitcher plants (genus Nepenthes), and some arachnids like harvestmen (Opiliones) and most famously scorpions.

Here, the UV torch does not need to be strong (smaller, weaker beams are often better). Light levels are obviously low, so exposure durations are necessarily long; hence images like this are only possible when the subject is stationary, and the camera is held firmly on a tripod.

The secret with this technique is to ‘paint’ the UV light around the subject during the time the shutter is open, so the subject is bathed evenly in UV light and no shadow is cast (which would happen if you shone the light constantly from one direction).

Read more: How to Use Ultraviolet Light for Creative Nature Photography

In conclusion

There is no getting around the fact that lighting in the rainforest is challenging.

The windows of opportunity in the day when natural light is pleasing in quality and brightness are few and far between, and on some days, they do not occur at all.

As you become more experienced in rainforests, you will gain a fuller understanding of the situations that are good and those that should be avoided.

Mastering the basics of flash and learning to use it well is crucial to broadening your repertoire. But flash should not be scary – think of it as a handheld lighting device that is under your control.

Visit Nick's website

An award-winning photographer and critically acclaimed author, Nick has been photographing wildlife and guiding tours for over 30 years and is known for his work in Borneo, the Amazon and Madagascar. His recent books include Handbook of Mammals of Madagascar (Bloomsbury 2023) and Madagascar Wildlife (Bradt 2023). Nick regularly contributes to international magazines and has twice been a category winner in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition.

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