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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lighting For Wildlife

Think about the way you illuminate your subjects to tell their story

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Sidelighting. In a nest cavity used for decades, a great horned owl comes out in the early-morning sun to soak in the warm glow. This image shows what a dramatic effect you can create with sidelight. Because the tree trunk is in shadow, the owl positively jumps off the page. Nikon D3X, AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR
Feathers and fur love sidelighting because they come to life. The fur is soft and the feathers tickle, and when you can reach out to your viewer with them, this is where sidelighting really excels. But one thing you also should notice is the shadows themselves; we can see into them for the most part.

Sidelighting takes advantage of shadows, but only when the shadows don't go to jet black. We need some solid blacks for color and sharpness. With too much black—and it's a very fine line—our soft, cuddly critters develop an evil side.

Bad Weather Light
2 You've probably heard me say, "The worst weather can make for some of the best photography." And it's true. When the weather is miserable, rainy, snowy or foggy, for example, there's no direct sunlight, so there's no one distinct lighting pattern. It's at these times that we can use color or the lack of color to make the subject pop and tell our story.

The image of the red fox asleep on the knoll, while it's snowing no less, is what I'm talking about. While I'm bundled up so only my eyes are exposed to the elements, these critters are out doing their daily thing of survival. There's just a pinch of light somewhere, so you see a tad of shadow for the smallest amount of detail, but that quality of light adds to the visual story of survival and enduring and succeeding. In this case, the environment, which is white, helps out tremendously, bouncing around what light there is and creating that wraparound light.

Back Lighting
3 This is a very dramatic lighting pattern, but one that really stumps me the majority of the time. Being a weakness, I work at it a lot to push myself, but I don't have an amazing portfolio of examples. I can share with you the two things I've found that work. The first is realizing that black is your friend and that you should use it to emphasize the distinctive shape of your subject. I use it when I have an animal whose outline is easily recognizable; then I underexpose by at least one stop. The other is to use it when you have some element naturally bouncing light into the subject. This keeps the backlighting effect from becoming a complete silhouette.


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