Technique: Guiding Light

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As one of Britain’s leading wildlife photographers, Ben’s personal approach to wildlife photography lies in the creative art of ‘seeing’. His aim is to use his pictures to communicate his personal vision, to generate an emotional response and to excite the viewer’s aesthetic sensitivity. Ben specialises in bird and mammal photography and has won numerous prestigious international awards..

For a wildlife photograph to be truly successful, it should strike an immediate connection with the viewer. In almost all situations, the effective use of lighting is critical in achieving this. Light is the medium, the camera is just the paintbrush. Light is the photographer’s chief resource, his best friend and his worst enemy...


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...But when exploited to the full, it can be used to turn a relatively mundane scene into something truly captivating. 

The good news is there is always a way to make the best of whatever lighting conditions you find yourself in. However, unlike the controlled environment of a studio, you have to adapt to your environment, understand the light, and decide what to do to harness its particular qualities and potential that day. It’s worth taking time to notice and study the light around you, even when you’re not going out to shoot photographs. You’ll gradually come to appreciate its subtleties. 

I have always been a keen advocate of backlighting. Contre-jour photography can be used to evoke emotion and accentuate the subjects form though the use of rim lighting. Due to the intensity of sunlight, backlighting should only be attempted when the sun is close to the horizon. During the golden hour the light is warm and rich and contrast levels are relatively low, so it pays to get out as early as possible. Your choice of background can have a huge impact on the final image, so pay careful attention to your surroundings and explore every possible angle. Shooting towards the light against a dark background full of shadow, can be an effective way of highlighting the shape and form of your subject. Taking this idea to the extreme would be to add in some negative exposure compensation, so that only the rim lighting is visible, letting the rest of the image fall into under exposure; between two and three stops should be enough. Similar to a silhouette, this is an effective way of reducing the image to its simplest form, rendering only the outline of the subject visible against a black background. There are several other factors to watch out for when backlighting your subject. Lens flare can be an issue when shooting directly towards the sun. A lens hood will undoubtedly help, but you may need to move to one side, so that the sun is off centre, to eliminate it completely.

Birds in flight can look particularly effective when shot into the light. The wings will appear almost translucent as the light floods through the feathers, but care must be taken not to lose too much detail in the highlights. A small amount of burnout is often unavoidable, but check your histogram regularly and adjust your exposure if necessary.  

Good use of backlighting can create simple, stylised images that are full of atmosphere. Focus on form and shape rather than detail, and don’t try to overcomplicate your scene. Concentrate instead on your key subject and the atmosphere you can conjure.

Misty mornings
Following a cold but clear night, mist will often form at dawn, transforming the landscape and creating dream conditions for wildlife photography. Colours become muted and tones soften, allowing the delicate form of the subject to take precedence. To take advantage of these conditions, you will need to watch the weather forecast closely and plan your shoots to make the most of any fleeting opportunities. For this reason, pick a location that is close to home and easily accessible. Just about any subject can look effective in mist, but some are more suitable than others. Birds and animals with a distinctive shape work particularly well as their outline will be instantly recognisable. Mist will often form on water, so ponds, lakes and reservoirs are great places to search. You will need to venture out early, as mist evaporates quickly as soon as the air starts to warm up. You will also need time to find the subjects, seek out the best position to shoot from, and decide on the most effective backgrounds. As with any type of wildlife photography, it pays to make numerous visits to the same location, as you will gain important knowledge that will pay dividends in the long run. Always scan your surroundings and try to visualise any possible images. Whilst dark backgrounds will help to highlight mist, lighter backgrounds can work equally well, especially when coupled with a pale subject such as a swan. In this instance, a high key effect can be achieved by exposing to the right. To achieve this, simply add enough positive exposure compensation so that the histogram just nudges the right hand edge of the graph. The whites should be visible, but will appear clean and pure. The key lies in the ability to visualise the image and to know when, and when not, to apply the technique. 

Autumn is a good season to head out early, as the United Kingdom experiences regular cloud inversions as cold air sinks into topographic depressions. You don’t need to live in the mountains to experience this, it can happen anywhere. In the winter, water retains heat better than air and creates a different kind of temperature inversion you can experiment with.

The blue hour
During the brief periods before sunrise and following sunset, the light temperature cools down and blue hues become more apparent. This is known as the ‘blue hour’. Due to the high ISO capabilities of modern cameras, it is now possible to shoot in low light, and images taken during the blue hour are easier to achieve than ever before. Pictures taken during this stage of the day take on a serene and ethereal quality. It is a unique, transient type of light and produces a special kind of atmosphere that only occurs during this brief period. Available light will naturally be low, so you will need to watch your shutter speed closely and raise the ISO relatively high in order to freeze any possible movement. Dialling in the most effective exposure should be fairly easy during this time as the light will be low-contrast, so you will have no strong shadows to worry about. 

When it comes to exposure, there is no right or wrong. It is a personal expression and is up to you as the photographer to decide how you would like the final image to appear. Unless I am pursuing a low-key look, I prefer to expose to the right, as maximum visual information is then available for post-production. High-key images happen to be on-trend at the moment, however, trends come and go, but atmospheric images will always endure.


Brown bear rim-lit at dawn
By under-exposing a backlit image, you may find it possible to render only the outline of your visible subject, reducing your image to its simplest form. For this image of a brown bear, I dialled in -3 stops of negative exposure compensation to achieve the effect.

Red-footed booby in flight backlit
I captured this image in the Galapagos Islands during the golden hour. It was shot into the light to highlight the shape of the wings. Exposure was tricky and I was careful to retain detail in the shadows.

Red deer backlit at dawn
During Autumn, mist will often form at dawn following a cold but clear night. In such conditions, shooting into the light will evoke atmosphere and bring out the golden hues of the early morning light. On particularly cold days, shoot against a dark background and you may find the breath of your subject visible, adding an extra element to your images.

Brown bear at twilight
I captured this brown bear from a hide in the middle of the Finnish Taiga forest at around 1am. There is something quite magical about shooting during the blue hour. Couple this with a layer of mist and you are on to a winning combination!

Great crested grebes displaying at dawn
This image was taken less than one mile from my house. It is a location that I have worked at for over twenty years, and I know it inside-out. Gaining local knowledge about your location, such as the different subtleties in the light, the behaviour of your subjects and the effective backgrounds, is often the key to success.

Snowy owl at dusk
Creating high-key images is relatively straightforward and requires enough exposure to push the histogram all the way to the right. The key is to know when, and when not, to use the technique. Images with predominantly pale tones are perfect candidates. I photographed this snowy owl as the sun was sinking, just enough light was present to create some subtle, muted colour in the sky.

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About Author

Ben Hall

Ben Hall is one of Britain’s leading wildlife photographers. His personal approach to wildlife photography lies in the creative art of ‘seeing’. His aim is to use his pictures to communicate his personal vision, to generate an emotional response and to excite the viewer’s aesthetic sensitivity.  Ben’s work is represented by Getty Images, Naturepl and RSPB Images and is sold worldwide. Ben specialises in bird and mammal photography and has won numerous prestigious international awards including category wins in Bird Photographer of the Year, British Wildlife Photography Awards and Nature’s Best Photography Awards USA. 

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