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Manipulating Natural Light in Wildlife Photography



An Icelandic pony, shot against a setting sun

When photographing wildlife, the sun is one of the most useful tools that enables you to create something different or add impact to your images.  By taking control of your position relative to your subject, and to the sun, you can manipulate the available light to your advantage.

Favourable times of day for wildlife photography are at the beginning and end of the day when the sun is low in the sky. 

This often coincides with periods of heightened activity of many animals, but also with a warmer directional light from the sun being lower in the sky. 

When the sun is low in this way, it lends itself to a number of key natural lighting techniques.

side lighting wildlife photography

A side lit brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

Side lighting

You can naturally side light your subject by keeping the sun at approximately 90 degrees to the direction that you are facing.  The sunlight will then be lighting your subject from the side which can result in a greater sense of shape, form, and texture from the contrast between the soft light and shadows across the subject.

side lighting wildlife photography

Side lit grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) courting at sunrise

It can add a sense of three dimensionality that full-on front lighting cannot do, and because of the soft nature of the light, the highlights and shadows are not too intense and can be easily captured.

side lighting wildlife photography

A bellowing red deer stag (Cervus elaphus) with light from the side

Back lighting

One of the first tips you often hear when starting in photography is not to shoot into the sun. However, by doing just that you can create striking images.  By positioning yourself so that your subject is directly between you and the sun, you can capture a strong backlit outline of your subject that is almost like a halo of light.  This works best when there are fur or feathers to capture the light, and it is preferable that the outline of your subject is easily recognizable.

back lighting wildlife photography

The hair of this pony create a golden outline when backlit by the low sun

Exposing for backlit subjects can be difficult, as you will be dealing with areas of extreme brightness and shadow. It is best to ensure you retain detail in the highlights (as that will be forming the main detail of the image) by manually underexposing.


Silhouettes are another way of capturing the strong outline of your subject, but in this instance it is achieved by shooting your subject against a bright background, often the sky.  Just after the sun has gone down is a great time for this technique.  There can often be far more colour in the sky once the sun is below the horizon, and the sky will still be bright enough to easily cast your subject into silhouette.

One tip for shooting wildlife silhouettes is that sometimes it can be good to ensure you retain some detail in the shadows, for example an eye. This can help retain some interest in the large area of black, and to keep a connection between the subject and the viewer.  If you want to do this, you will need to ensure that you do not underexpose the subject too far, such that the shadow detail is lost, to give you flexibility during post-processing.

silhouette wildlife photography

A silhouette of a red deer stag (Cervus elaphus) is an instantly identifiable form against a sunset sky

To conclude

It can be difficult to motivate yourself to get up for sunrise or to be out photographing at sunset, but those times of day give you much more flexibility to use the natural light as a powerful tool in your wildlife photography.  By understanding how the position of the sun relative to you or your subject will influence the final image, you can create images that aren’t possible at other times of day.

So get out there and see how you can use natural light to make you images stand out!

Further reading on wildlife photography:

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Wildlife Photography

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Elliot Hook
Elliot Hook

is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others.

Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

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