A Quick Guide to Wildlife Photography Lighting

If you want to capture beautiful wildlife photography, then you must learn to master lighting.

You see, with careful use of light, you can capture stunning detail, you can create beautiful silhouettes, you can produce beautiful golden images, and so much more.

But if you don’t understand wildlife photography lighting, your images are doomed time and time again. Bad light gives bad pictures, after all!

I’ve been photographing wildlife for years, and in this article I explain everything you need to know about lighting your wildlife photos, including:

  • The best time of day for wildlife photography
  • Types of lighting to avoid like the plague
  • How to position yourself in relation to your subject for the best effects

Ready to become a wildlife lighting master? So let’s dive in!

1. Film during the golden hours

The golden hours refer to the hour or two just after sunrise and the hour or two just before sunset.

And they are absolutely surprising for wildlife photography.

During the golden hours, the sun is low in the sky, which means it will hit your subject with beautiful, even rays of light.

And because the sun is so low in the sky, it takes on a beautiful golden color, which looks great in photos of wildlife:

wildlife photography with side lighting
Sidelit gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) courting at sunrise.

Plus, many animals are active in the early morning and late afternoon, which means you’re more likely to catch the action.

However, there is a problem with the golden hour lighting:

It tends to be dimmer than standard midday lighting, which makes it more difficult to capture sharp wildlife, especially when your subject is moving.

Now, on days with little to no cloud cover, you’ll usually have all the light you need to keep your wild subjects in focus, even if they’re fast moving.

But if the sun goes behind the clouds, you’ll start to struggle (and you’ll struggle more the lower the sun is in the sky).

So while I highly recommend doing wildlife photography during the golden hours, pay attention to the weather and make sure you have plenty of light!

2. Avoid photographing wildlife at midday

Midday lighting is very bright, but harsh, contrasty, and the intense downward angle creates unpleasant shadows. So if you want to capture the best wildlife photos, I recommend avoiding midday lighting as much as possible.

Note that when I say “midday lighting” I’m actually referring to the hour Between the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, not just noon. Therefore, the midday lighting actually takes up most of the day, and you only have a few small windows – the golden hours at sunrise and the golden hours at sunset – to get great photos.

Fortunately, although sunny midday lighting is bad for wildlife photography, you can go out at midday when it is overcast. The clouds scatter the harsh sun, and they will give you a nice soft effect.

But you have to be careful; heavy clouds will drastically reduce the brightness of the light, so you will often need to increase your ISO to compensate for the lack of light (especially in the morning and afternoon).

3. Use side light to create texture and depth

Side light refers to the light coming from beside your subject. With proper side light, half of the subject is illuminated while the other half becomes dark and shadowy.

And thanks to chiaroscuro contrast, side-lit wildlife photography tends to look dramatic, with a greater sense of shape, form, and texture. In fact, side lighting often adds a sense of three-dimensionality that you just can’t get with full front lighting.

Look at the sun-shadow contrast on this hare:

side lighting wildlife photography
A brown sidelit hare (Lepus europaeus).

Can you see the depth? The texture ? The drama? It’s all thanks to the power of side lighting!

Now, while you can capture side images anytime before or after noon, the best side lighting occurs during the golden hours. The sun is low in the sky and the lighting is soft; therefore, highlights and shadows on either side of the subject are easy to capture.

So head out in the morning and/or evening and capture great wildlife photos with side lighting!

wildlife photography with side lighting
A bellowing red deer (Cervus elaphus) with light from the side.

4. Use backlighting to create artistic images of wildlife

Backlight refers to the light that comes from rear the subject (so that it shines in front of you, the photographer).

Most wildlife photographers avoid backlighting because it makes the subject dark and dark, creates lens flare, and causes composition problems.

But against the light can look bad…

…you can also use the backlight to create wonderfully artistic images. For example, if you’re shooting during the golden hours, you can capture beautiful rim light effects, where the backlight creates a stunning halo:

backlit wildlife photography
This pony’s hair created a golden outline when backlit by the low sun.

Note that you will need the sun to be very low in the sky, so it is best to shoot just after sunrise or just before sunset. I would recommend working on a relatively dark background (like the grasses in the photo above). And you’ll get the most noticeable effect if your subject has fur or feathers.

You will still have significant exposure issues to deal with; I would recommend deliberately underexposing to retain detail in the highlights, and I would also recommend taking several test shots and reviewing your images carefully until you get an exposure you like.

wildlife photography lighting from behind

5. Use backlighting to create silhouettes

Have you ever tried to capture the silhouette of a wild animal? The technique is not too difficult and the results are amazing.

silhouette wildlife photography lighting
The silhouette of a red deer (Cervus elaphus) is an instantly identifiable shape against a sunset sky.

As with the artistic rim light effects, you can create great silhouettes when the sun is very low in the sky – although instead of shooting against a dark background, you should lean back so you’re working against the the brightest part of the scene.

(You can also photograph silhouettes simply after the sun has set; in fact, this is my favorite time to do wildlife silhouettes because there are often so many beautiful colors in the sky.)

Note that you can create silhouettes using either side lighting or backlighting, but since brighter backgrounds tend to produce more dramatic silhouettes, I recommend relying on backlighting whenever possible.

For best results, you will need to significantly underexpose the subject. Try measuring the sky behind the wildlife, then use the resulting exposure to capture your image.

A tip for photographing wildlife silhouettes: Sometimes it can be good to keep a little detail in the shadows. This way you don’t end up with a solid wall of darkness and you are able to maintain a connection between subject and viewer.

If you decide to use such an approach, you will want to lighten your exposure slightly; otherwise you will lose all shadow detail and end up with a dark spot!

6. Use the front light for wildlife portraits

Side lighting and backlighting create stunning dramatic effects, it’s true.

But sometimes it’s best to capture very detailed wildlife portraits, and if that’s your goal, the front light is a great choice.

Frontal light comes from the front of your subject and illuminates it evenly, so you can expect minimal shadows. And because the front light is so even, you’ll have an easier time exposing subjects with a range of tones.

wildlife photography front lighting

As usual, I recommend shooting during golden hours for best results!

Wildlife Photography Lighting: Final Words

Taking great photos of wildlife may seem difficult, but it’s actually quite easy – once you know how to work with light!

By understanding the quality and direction of natural lighting, you can create detailed and dramatic three-dimensional images that stand the test of time.

So take your camera and, if the light is good, go for a shoot.

Now your turn :

What type of wildlife photography lighting do you prefer? Share your opinion in the comments below!





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