The word “photography” means “writing with light,” and the right lighting can make the difference between a ho-hum snapshot and an award-winning photograph. But what is the “right” lighting? And how do you take advantage of it?
In general, photographers think of light as coming from one of four directions—from the front, side, back, or overhead. Each of these has pros and cons, with widely varying results. Then there are different qualities of light, such as bright or soft. Different combinations of these conditions will greatly affect your results.
Front lighting means that the light source is shining on your subject from behind the photographer. This is the easiest for your camera to meter, and is a good place to start if you’re new to photography. Birds illuminated by frontal light show their true colors, an important consideration if you’re taking the picture for ID purposes. The downside is that you often lose a lot of texture. Sometimes, frontal light is described as “flat light” because it tends to eliminate shadows.
Side lighting is just that—the light source comes from the side of both the subject and the photographer. If you’re looking for a 3-D effect, arrange yourself to shoot with the sun at right angles to your subject. This light is also best for landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon, when you want the rocks to have depth. Here you can see a side-lit Rufous Hummingbird. I would have preferred it to be facing the light, rather than turning away, but I love how each feather is outlined in shadow. (If you’d like, click on the image to enlarge it.)
Backlighting can be tricky to expose properly. Sometimes it’s intentional, but even a bird posed against a bright sky can appear backlit in your photos.
Then it comes down to a hard choice: do you want your subject to be a silhouette, or would you prefer meter off the bird and allow the background to be overexposed? It’s well worth taking a few test shots, then checking the histogram on the back of your camera, to make sure you’ve got it right. You may have to compensate by increasing the f-stop (or decreasing the shutter speed) a couple of stops.
When done properly, backlighting can be impressively dramatic, as you can see in the photo of a Gray Crowned Crane at the top of this page. The bird’s face is in shadow, while your attention is drawn to the “halo” of feathers that make up the crown. In this case, the background was also in shadow, so there was no conflict about what part of the picture to expose for. I also darkened it a bit more in my post-processing to eliminate any distracting blobs.
Overhead light is what you get at noon, when the sun is right overhead. This causes unattractive shadows and high contrast, burning out the highlights while leaving the shadows without detail. You can see the unfortunate results in this shot of a pair of Roseate Spoonbills, right.
This is the worst time to take pictures. Happily, it’s also the worst time to go birding, and the best time to enjoy a lingering lunch and a siesta.
Make sure you wake up in time for the Golden Hour. This hour right before sunset (or right after sunrise) is when the low sun gives everything a soft, warm glow. And don’t put your camera away once the sun goes down. Depending on the latitude, daylight can linger for a while as the sunset becomes ever more breathtaking.
There’s one more good time to take photos. A cloudy-bright day allows the photographer to saturate colors without extreme shadows. Those shooting flowers or people can create this light even on a bright sunny day, by moving into open shade and using umbrellas and reflectors. Birds are unlikely to hang around while you flash a reflector at them! Be thankful when nature provides a thin layer of high clouds.
Of course, there are days when the light doesn’t fit any of these categories. Fog lends its own mystique while washing the color out of the scene. It was foggy when I captured these Brown Pelicans, left.
Rain makes everyone miserable, except maybe the ducks. And then there are days with the sky is choked with a thick, gloomy layer of clouds that turn the light greasy, with high contrast, faded colors, and glare. Since the colors are off anyway, you might consider shooting in black and white (as I did for this already black-and-white Wood Stork). Or you could just give up, go do something else, and come back another time.