How to Harness Artificial Light for Stand Out Urban Wildlife Photos
Once the sun goes down, you’re left in darkness. On a clear night, the moon and stars may cast a cold, weak light, revealing mysterious shapes in the dark. But when the clouds come in there’s nothing to see, save what your mind can conjure.
The world sleeps. Well, except for nocturnal animals!
That’s the natural way and, as humans, we naturally don’t like the darkness. So, we make light. Once it was fires, now it comes from electricity. Our cities and towns, and even villages, are flooded with fluorescent and LED lights, like mini artificial suns that respond to the push of a button. The sun comes and goes, but cities never sleep.
In this photographic guide I’m going to encourage you to look at the artificial lights around you in a new way, and introduce you to my favourite techniques for using urban light sources to create interesting and unique urban nature photos.
The contrast of natural and artificial features can make for beautiful images. In the city, you don’t always need a clear sky for good light!
Where to take urban wildlife photos
There are all sorts of artificial light sources in urban areas, including streetlights, shop signs, and vehicle lights. These can all vary in brightness, colour, and shape– a delight to the eye of a creative photographer.
Cities are lit up more at dusk, so shooting around sunset usually offers your best chance of capturing interesting photos. You can work with the soft, ambient light of the evening, coupled with the brighter artificial light.
When shooting in an urban area, it is important to be aware of your surroundings and your safety, especially if you’re out around dusk or dawn. Always stick to places you know, and keep an eye out when you’re taking photos.
Be mindful also of where you direct your camera – you don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, if it’s not obvious that you’re there for the wildlife!
Finding a good location is often more of a task than finding a subject. Although nature can thrive in urban areas, it can often be well hidden, lost in the concrete jungle.
Busy areas where there are lots of chances to find dropped food, such as town centres, drive-through car parks, and large train stations, are usually good bets.
These areas are also usually well-lit, meaning plenty of opportunities to create some interesting and exciting images! Street lamps are a good place to start: lots of birds, such as crows, gulls, and kestrels, like to perch on these, as they offer a great vantage point of the environment below.
Once you’ve found an area with interesting lights and an interesting subject, you should think about how you want these two aspects to feature in your image. Below, I will share with you some of my favourite techniques (along with example images), so you can get your creativity flowing and take some great photos of your own!
Read more: How to Photograph Urban Wildlife
Silhouettes are a great technique for urban wildlife photography. Using city lights to silhouette your subject can create moody, atmospheric photos, and can also allow your images to tell more of a story about your subject and its urban home.
To create a silhouette you will need a bright light source, like a street lamp, and you will need your subject to be positioned between you and the light. You will want to underexpose your image to account for the light.
Personally, I like to use a wide aperture so the background light is out of focus and creates a bokeh. The ISO and shutter-speed you use will depend on your camera’s ability to handle noise and the lighting available, but balance them to meet your needs and create an underexposed image.
The image below shows a robin welcoming in the twilight with a song.
To create this image I had to slowly move, until the perch from where the robin was singing was directly between me and a streetlight. I then underexposed the image to show the warm orange glow of the light, as well as the soft, deep blue of the dusk. I exposed the bird in the corner to leave negative space and let the image ‘breathe’.
These aspects together tell the story of the quiet tranquillity of dusk on this residential street. Streetlight silhouettes can be an effective technique not only for small birds, but also larger animals and insects too.
The closer you are to a light source, the larger it will appear in frame. So, keep in mind how close you need to be to fit all, or just part, of your subject in, depending on the image you want to create.
Read more: How to Shoot Striking Silhouettes
You don’t always need to have your urban light source in frame to create a unique urban image. Look for reflections in ponds, lakes, or even puddles, and see how you can incorporate these into your images!
This swan lives on a city lake that is surrounded by strings of multicoloured lights. To create this dreamy-feeling image, I positioned myself at the right height so that the reflection would be behind the swan. I used a wide aperture of around f/1.4, to create a vibrant bokeh of lights behind the bird.
This technique often works best on still water, as the reflections are clearer. Getting lower down can give a more personal feel to the image, as you are closer to the animal’s level. However, it is important to make sure your angle includes the reflection, in order to create an interesting urban image.
To create individual bokeh balls, such as in the image above, you will want a reasonably fast shutter-speed, for example 1/60th of a second or above. Otherwise, the movement of the water will blur the reflection. But blurred reflections can also be a cool technique to try!
Harness the weather
You could use streetlights to highlight the falling rain or snow against the darker ambient light, or to cast an eerie glow on a misty evening.
Experiment with shutter-speeds too. A slower shutter-speed would capture the movement of the precipitation, while a faster shutter-speed would freeze it.
In this atmospheric photo of a red fox the scene was completely lit by street lamps, as it was taken well after sunset on a foggy evening.
For this image, I positioned the subject smaller in the frame. It meant I was able to capture more of the ambience of the scene, and include some of the surroundings to tell the story of this urban fox, always watching from the shadows.
It is often interesting to go for wider angles to try and incorporate the environment in the image, especially with urban wildlife photography.
Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife in Low Light
Car headlights can present a great opportunity for lighting your urban wildlife shots. In this photo of a crow, I used headlights from a passing car to light the image. The cool white light cuts through the afternoon mist, and gives the image a very different feel to an orange street lamp.
The biggest challenge for this image was timing the passing car so that the lights were either side of the crow. When using headlights to light your urban wildlife images, pick a spot where you can stand safely away from the road but still capture your subject on camera, or try using your own (or a friend’s) parked car to light the scene!
Illuminating a scene
This up-close and personal swan portrait was taken at night, completely lit by streetlights. This artificial illumination casts the picture with soft, warm colours, and the angle of the light reflects interestingly off the bird’s beak.
This creates a squiggly bokeh and adds a nice catchlight in the bird’s eye. This is a unique type of light that you wouldn’t be able to get naturally.
When shooting an image completely lit by urban lights, such as street lamps, you will need to let a lot of light into your camera by using a high ISO, wide aperture, and low shutter-speed. A high ISO and low shutter-speed aren’t usually ideal in wildlife photography, but it can be worth it to catch some interesting colours!
Other techniques you could try include long exposures to capture movement, for example headlights from moving cars, or backlighting images to create bright highlights around the edge of a well-exposed subject. This is a technique known as rim-lighting.
Normally I wouldn’t recommend a tripod for urban wildlife photography, as they can be bulky and get in the way. However, when trying for long exposure images, a tripod is essential to stop camera shake.
White balance also plays a big part in how your images look, especially as artificial lights can cast very different colour hues on your images. White balance is best set in-camera, but can also be changed with photo editing packages.
I personally shoot a custom white balance and adjust it until I think it best represents the colour I want in the image. I might also make small adjustments in e to get the ‘feel’ of the image just right.
Read more: How to Take Creative Urban Wildlife Photos
You never know where your next great photo could be taken. So, when you’re out on your next urban adventure (or just walking to the shops), keep an eye out for interesting lights, and observe how they illuminate a scene.
Let your creativity wander and you’ll find inspiration in the most surprising of places.