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Wildlife photography for every kind of light

May 24, 2011

By Andy Rouse

There is no doubt that interesting light can make the difference between a good picture and a truly great picture. We all like to photograph in sunlight but as wildlife photographers we have to temper this with a little reality. Our subjects rarely stroll through bright sunlight and may inhabit the darkest recesses of the densest, dankest rainforest. Coupled with the likelihood that the sun won’t be shining, this means that the good wildlife photographer has to be adaptable to any light conditions.

Wild dog in evening light, private game reserve, South Africa; DSLR, 100-400mm lens, 1/60 f4, ISO 200 RAW, beanbag

Kingfisher on perch, Oxfordshire, England; DSLR, 300mm lens, 1/250 f8, ISO 100 RAW

Stunning is the only word that can be used to describe the colour of kingfisher feathers in the sun, though it is one of those birds that look good at any time of the day.

Natural Light
There is no substitute for the wonderfully saturated sunlight just after dawn or an hour before sunset. Early and late light brings out the full colour of your subject and its fur or feathers and gives your pictures a very pleasing look. The soft light also causes fewer exposure headaches, as the latitude between extremes is far less apparent; you should still pay attention to your readings, though. An 81A filter can make the image look even more saturated for film users, while DSLR users can just add some more saturation when they process their raw files on the computer at home.

Red lechwe, Okavango Delta, Botswana; 35mm SLR, 600mm lens, 1/60 f5.6, Velvia 50

My favourite time to shoot is first thing in the morning, when the air is clear and the light quality is wonderful. Here it picks out the coat on this lechwe perfectly, helped by an 81A warm-up filter.

Barn owl outside nest, Hampshire, England; 645 SLR, 300mm lens, 1/125 f4, Velvia 50

Soft evening light was vital to help correctly expose the pure white feathers of this barn owl. In this light the extremes of colour are reduced; hence you will find that the light meter will give a more accurate result. In this instance I metered on the window frame adjacent to the owl, as this was sufficiently neutral to give me a reading
I could trust.

Back Lighting
The temptation with photography is always to play it safe and just take the standard shots with the sun over your shoulder falling directly onto the subject. For most photographers this achieves their goal, with a nicely balanced image that any camera can deal with and that friends, family or clients will admire. Occasionally, you will get the chance to shoot directly into the sun, either by choice or simply because that is where your subject is happily sitting (or more usually sleeping!). Shooting backlit is not something that most amateur photographers naturally consider doing, given it is not easy to achieve, but it is often a deliberate choice of professional photographers. The exact techniques for exposure of a backlit subject are essentially the same as those for a silhouette. Back lighting creates images that are moody and convey a real sense of moment, and will astound anyone you show them to. The key to the backlit shot is getting the ‘ring of fire’ surrounding the subject. Here are a few tips to help you get those winning backlit shots:

  •  Timing Back lighting is only possible in the first 30 minutes after dawn and in the sameperiod before sunset. At other times the ring of fire that surrounds your subject will be too harsh. In low light this halo effect around your subject will be red in colour and look stunning.
  • Backgrounds Backlit shots work best if the background is simple, so set a low aperture of f5.6 and keep the background diffuse.


Following on from shooting a subject backlit is shooting a subject in silhouette. This means that the subject is completely dark – just a black shape with an outline.

Silhouettes are a fantastic medium for conveying atmosphere, especially when taken against a sunset or the wonderful period just before sunrise. The technique with silhouettes is to ensure that the subject image is completely underexposed. This sounds obvious, but if you point your meter at the subject it will not be, because the camera will try to compensate for its darkness. Therefore, you need a couple of sneaky tricks:

  • Bright-point technique Metering from the brightest part of the sky will cause the camera to underexpose the resulting image, which is exactly what we want. It is the same effect that happens when we look at the sun: we squint to make our field of view darker, which is exactly what the camera is doing. So choose a bright area and, if the sun is out, be careful
    not to point directly at it, as it could damage your camera, not to mention your eyesight.
  • Quick and dirty technique Simply set your exposure compensation to –1 to –2 stops; this will completely underexpose the image. Either way will work, and persistence will mean that you will take images that stand out from the crowd.

Common langur, Uttar Pradesh, India; 35mm SLR, 100-400mm lens, 1/500 f5.6, Velvia 50

As soon as I saw this langur in the tree I knew it had to be a backlit shot. One reason was the light on the tail; the other was the 30m drop on the other side that made a front shot impossible! So we manoeuvred the vehicle into position, I used a portrait format to keep the tail in the shot and I deliberately underexposed by –1 stop to remove the detail in the langur’s body.

White rhinoceros and calf, Waterberg, South Africa; 35mm SLR, 300mm lens, 1/400 f5.6, Velvia 50

The rhino calf was causing havoc for its mother, chasing adult rhinos around and generally making itself unpopular. I waited and took this backlit shot, –1 stop underexposed. Note that both the images on this page have plenty of space around the subject. Don’t crowd your backlit shots, and if you have a zoom, don’t be tempted to go for the frame filler – it is a waste of a good opportunity.

Southern giraffe, private game reserve, South Africa; DSLR, 300mm lens, 1/500 f8, ISO 100 RAW

Some animals have very recognisable profiles and these make the best candidates for a silhouette.

Bottlenose dolphin, Honduras; 35mm SLR, 17-35mm lens, 1/250 f8, Velvia 100

Including the habitat in the image can give more than just a silhouette, as it creates a very atmospheric picture. Here I took the meter reading from the bright water, dialled it into manual mode and used that to shoot as the dolphin jumped. The composition was dictated by the dolphin – all I could do was to press the shutter at the right time.

African elephant, private game reserve, South Africa; 35mm SLR, 28-80mm lens, 1/250 f4, Velvia 50

Sometimes it can be difficult to separate a potential silhouette from the background, even with the owner of the most recognisable ears in the world. Silhouettes only work with a clear background. To solve this I had to lie down flat on the track and try to concentrate on getting the correct exposure, while the elephant advanced steadily towards me.

Fallow deer in woodland, Sussex, England; 35mm SLR, 100-400mm lens, 1/500 f5.6, Sensia 100

A travel photographer’s guide to gear on the road

Taking care of your equipment on the road

Ruth Eastham and Max Paoli discuss using foreground in your images

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 1:35 am

    I’m speechless… these shots are amazing! Thanks for the tips on back lighting.


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