Plan the Light for Better Animal Photography

lighting wildlife photography
Backlit bird

Unlike portraiture, there is no “Smile for the camera” when photographing wildlife.   No bringing animals into the studio or setting up fancy lighting gear.  For these reasons, many photographers mistakenly believe that the light “Is what it is” when shooting animals.  These photographers are missing out.  This post will explain how you can improve the lighting in your animal photography.

Even without owning a flash, you can improve your wildlife photography lighting by doing a little planning.  Let's suppose you're going to shoot birds near a river tomorrow morning.  You know the sun rises in the east, so you can tell on which side of the river you should go to see the birds front-lit.  Without planning, you might drive to the wrong side of the river and be stuck shooting backlit birds all morning while watching beautiful front-lit birds on the other side of the river.  A little planning can do a lot of good.

Obviously, this tip doesn't only apply to shooting birds near a river.  Suppose you're planning to go photograph deer in the mountains this evening.  You know the light will be best when you're looking east.  Which direction should you head down the trail when looking for deer?  Well, east!

Even if you are shooting wildlife in the middle of the day, planning is still important.  If you plan on shooting alligators in the Everglades and you're forced to shoot in the middle of the day, you can plan to go somewhere with thick tree cover to create shade rather than heading out into the grasslands.

Is backlighting always a bad thing for shooting wildlife?  Not necessarily.  I have shot many beautiful wildlife images that were backlit; however, 99% of the time we prefer front-lit photos of animals so the side of the animal we see doesn't look dim and muddy.  The photo featured on this page is an example of a backlit bird.  It's a nice picture, but it probably would have been better if the bird were better lit.

So next time you go shoot wildlife, just stop and think for one brief minute.  When will the light be best?  Where should I go to match the light I'm looking for?  What direction will be best to get front-lit animals?

For more wildlife photography tips, check out my $5.99 eBook entitled “Improve Your Wildlife Photography.”  You can buy a PDF of the book to read right on your computer.

3 thoughts on “Plan the Light for Better Animal Photography”

  1. animal photography presents its own challenges, of course. Few of the techniques you learned to create portraits and candid people shots apply to photographing landscapes and other scenery. You need the right lens and the right light to shoot great outdoors photos—as well as a good eye for the beauty of nature.

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