Rainforest Photography: A Guide to Lighting
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of course, the early morning is also when so many animals are stirring and begin their daily routines.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.