Lighting For Wildlife

Think about the way you illuminate your subjects to tell their story
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Bad Weather Light. In the Yellowstone wilderness with snow softly falling, a red fox curls up under the open skies. The gray, flat light helps to tell the story of this fox’s struggle for survival. Nikon D3X, AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR, TC-17E teleconverter

The light is just blazing away as we head down the highway. We round the corner where we know mountain goats hang out sometimes, so I slow down to look. Up the narrow canyon, I see a nanny and kid, working their way down. It’s that time of day when they visit the salt lick. I pull over, get out the 600mm and head over to the edge. You might be thinking that I must be nuts to stop in bad light to photograph a white subject. I am nuts, but in this case, I knew that the salt lick was under the bridge, and that while the goats would be in shade, the light blasting around the walls would be somewhat directional, yet soft. And so for the next hour until the sun moved, we had a great time shooting in great light at high noon.

FAR RIGHT: Front/Sidelighting. Deep in the Canadian prairie, a Swainson’s hawk watches its mate to see if it’s coming back to the nest with food for the young. The light is a combination of front and side. The hawk’s dramatic pose carries the shot without more dramatic, directional light. Nikon D2XS, AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 200-400mm ƒ/4G IF-ED

1 Sidelighting is a pattern of light I like to work with a lot, and it’s also the most challenging because you have shadows to think about. There’s a plus and minus to shadows. The plus is the texture and detail that shadows can bring out in a subject. The owl in the tree is a prime example. Although the owl is facing into the light, to the lens axis, it’s sidelighting. The sidelighting is particularly strong in this shot because of the way the tree falls into shadow. The illuminated owl pops out of the dark, shadowed bark to create a magical scene.

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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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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