Monday, April 30, 2007

Wildlife photo secrets (2): learn about light

The previous post generated quite a response so I'll keep going; for a while anyway.

Actually any kind of photographer, not just a wildlife photographer needs to learn about light. It's right there in the name, learn to write (graphy) with light (photo).

It's the seduction of animals, birds, butterflies, flowers (pick your poison), that brings many people into taking pictures. Most people are just happy to have records of what they saw. A few will attempt to see rarer and rarer things in order to photograph them. A few will try and catch a rare behavior. This is eventually the point of the the whole exercise to many.

But, this will not always make a good photograph and certainly not a good photographer. What makes the latter is a certain ineffable something. However, the first has quite definable elements. One of them is light!

Saying that light makes a photograph is trivial, except what I mean is it makes or breaks a good one. Good light can elevate the mundane to beauty and bad can do the reverse.

So what's to light? Well, there's different kinds of lights. Heres all the features in which light can vary and that you get to play with in a photograph.

(a) brightness (the obvious one). You can have a high key image in which you pour a lot of light onto both the background and/or the foreground. Or you can go with the darker more mysterious look that allows just a subtle limning of the solid form of the object being photographed. Picks up a little detail no more, unlike a silhouette (which you can also do.)

(b) spectrum: there are warm lights like the light you get just around sunrise and sunset are often make very winning photographs. Or cool light, which you usually get after the sun's gone down, on overcast days or in the shade, can make mysterious looking images.
The kind of colour you get will depend on the WB if you're using digital. So if you want to keep these casts (loosing which can be quite silly) the easiest thing I've found is to leave things on daylight WB.

(c) Hard light, where shadows have sharp defined edges. Most photographers seem not to like this light, it can nonetheless be turned to you advantage. At least partially because in this light, colours are often quite saturated.
Diffuse light, with softer or no shadows at all, the love of all photographers, particularly macro people. The light that seems to come from everywhere at once.

(d) The area that the light hits, how tight the beam/spot of light is and what kind of fall-off it has on the edges. Like the tighter, harder edged spot of light on the owl versus the softer edged halo around the saw-scaled vipers head. The idea here is to draw quick attention to the specific object of interest while keeping it away from that not of interest.

(e) The direction the light comes from:top-lit, back-lit, vs front-lit vs side-lit. The backlit and hence rim-lit tree cricket versus the front left lit ant.
Again, its a way of emphasizing one element as opposed to the some other element in the picture. (Note that the ant image also has pretty controlled fall off, avoiding lighting any other leaves or elements of the background that might prove disturbing.)

(f) and finally something I have no clear examples for, number of light sources and the intensities and 'cast' or 'colour temperature' of each source.

Now what you've to figure out, when working with available light, is what kind of light you're working with and how to use it to your advantage. If you're making you're own light, decide what is the kind of light that would be best for the situation. (I know it's hard, but this is just the start!). If you want to know more about light, and even more about lighting something up using your own light sources, try Strobist. I've learnt and continue learning a helluva lot there.

And if you're still with me at the end, wish you good light!


Pulok Pattanayak said...

Neatly written. Wonder, what next!

Natasha Mhatre said...

Thanks Pulok, I don't know what next will tell you when I do

Jim Johnson said...

N. This is a terrificalaly useful post for me since I although I am not a photograpaher, I run my mouth about photography a lot. I appreciate the careful discussion! Jim Johnson

Natasha Mhatre said...

Thanks Jim,
Its great to have you here :)

Paul said...

Excellent series of articles. Please feel free to post to

Natasha Mhatre said...

Thanks Paul, I'll have a look at the website you've mentioned.

Natasha Mhatre said...

Thanks Paul, I'm presuming you're Paul O'Connor who started the site? Anyway, I've naively posted my own posts myself. I hope this is ok?