Wildlife photography combines a range of skills, both technical and creative. Many people struggle with one aspect in particular; knowing the best light for shooting their wildlife photograph.
To take a top-class wildlife photo, you will need to understand your creature; where to find it, the way to approach it without scaring it away, and how to understand the precise moment to press the button to capture the character of the topic. Often a wildlife photographer will spend hours trying to find a good shot. What a shame, then, if all of that effort is wasted by taking your photo in bad light.
As a nature photographer, I have learned that the ideal light for a photo may change based on the subject. Landscape photos are usually best photographed in sunny weather, early in the morning or late in the afternoon once the contrast is reduced and the light is soft and colouful. To understand the ideal lighting for wildlife photography, you can take a lesson from both landscape and rainforest photography.
To find the best light for a wildlife photograph, you’re really seeking to minimize contrast, and also to eliminate shadows from important areas; most significantly across the surface of the animal.
If you take your photos in the middle of a sunny day, you’re bound to encounter shadows in all the wrong places. Bright light is likely to overexpose sections of the subject, while the face and the bottom of the creature could be dropped in heavy shadow. The result will be unattractive, and lacking much of the detail which should give character to your photo.
There is nothing wrong with taking your wildlife pictures on a sunny day. Just don’t forget the lesson from landscape photography and endeavor to take your photographs early in the morning and late in the day. Sometimes the subject is illuminated from a more horizontal angle, so the complete face of this animal is well-lit; you’re less likely to have shadows over the eyes and other essential features. If there are shadows, they’ll be much softer since the comparison is significantly lower when the sun is low in the sky.
The light at these times is also much more vibrant, with the golden hues you associate with sunset and sunrise. This is a traditional technique for improving landscapes, but it can be equally as powerful for wildlife. The warmth of this light can create an intimacy in your pictures that is completely lost in the harsh light of midday.
This permits you to catch your subject in quite even, low-contrast light.
I find cloudy days particularly helpful for animals with glossy surfaces. Frogs, for example, have moist, shiny skin that reflects a whole lot of light. In glaring conditions a green frog may seem mostly gray or silver in a photograph. On a cloudy day the identical frog is going to be shown in its true colors.
Birds can often look more colourful on a cloudy day, for the exact same reason. The sunlight shining on glossy feathers can create a lot of reflection, robbing the picture of its normal colour.
One last question you may ask: should you use a flash to illuminate a wildlife photo? Flash photography bathes the subject in white light, coming from right in front of the topic. It could illuminate the topic, but at the exact same time rob it of the natural play of light and shade which makes a good photo so appealing.
Some wildlife control pros use multiple flashes to brightly illuminate a subject from every possible angle. This strategy can work very well, but remember; those are experts in flash photography. If you are at the beginner stage, I suggest learning to work with natural light. When you get the hang of it, I guarantee you will be pleased with the results.