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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

Front Lighting. At the McNeil River mouth in Alaska, a red fox den with mother and an active and inquisitive pup. In this simple frontlit scene, the mood is carried entirely by the action in the frame. Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR
Front Lighting
4 This is the everyday pattern of light we use the vast majority of the time, and it's often a winner. Front lighting means you feel the light on your back when you're facing the subject. Just like sidelighting, you need to concern yourself with shadows and the possible loss of detail. Unlike sidelighting, texture and shape aren't so pronounced with front light so you need to look for body gesture to bring out some of those attributes in your subject.

The red fox pup, climbing on mom, is a classic example. Shot in the last rays of daylight (minimizing shadows), the front lighting let me see right into the subject. In a very important way, it's doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the storytelling by revealing so much. Front light can do a great job of setting the mood in a photo, which is probably why all of us like shooting in those classic hours of early morning and late evening. It's why I photographed the foxes just at dusk.

Flash. During the deep winter night on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, a polar bear family feasts on a whale carcass. Be careful with flash, or you risk creating an overly harsh photo. This one is helped by Peterson's use of vehicle headlights for fill light. Nikon D3, AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED, SB-900 Speedlight
5 Another form of front lighting is flash. You can move a flash off-axis to create other directional lighting, but usually we're photographing wildlife at some distance, and it can be difficult to move the flash far enough to create sidelight or backlight without prepositioning and wireless control. The polar bears were photographed with a single flash in the hot-shoe. Normally that light would be very harsh, so why isn't it here? Two factors: snow and headlights. The snow bounced some of the flash light up into the white subjects, and I used the headlights from the van to give some fill light as well.

Diffused Overcast Light
6 I love to keep the light simple, so I only think about the subject. For that reason and so many more, overcast, soft and diffused light is my absolute favorite light in which to photograph. The qualities of this light suit just about every animal. When photographing birds in this light, you need to keep the colors of their plumage in mind. Overcast light dulls their colors with an overwhelming amount of blue. Just the slightest touch of flash, though, makes those colors jump off the page while not affecting the softness or mood of the overcast light.

What's The Right Light?
7 Here's what I encourage you to do: Really analyze two elements of these photos and all that you see. First, what's your emotional response to the photographs? Once you know that, and it can be challenging at first, look at the pattern of the lighting and make a correlation between the two. I know, for example, that I like to use sidelighting when trying to communicate humor or drama. Front lighting is useful when I want to be direct in my storytelling, and bad weather is ideal for conveying the struggles of survival. And when making a straight line to the heartstrings, overcast light just can't be beat. When you start connecting light to your storytelling and your subjects in this way, you'll know the light that wraps your wildlife!

You can see more of Moose Peterson's photography and read his blog at www.moosepeterson.com.


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