Why and How: Controlling the Natural Light in Nature Photography
You are a photographer. You know that you must use control with the natural light when taking your photographs.
Have you ever wondered “why” and “how” you should use natural light?
In this article, I will provide you with food for thought.
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The Little Story Behind This Article
It is always interesting to share a personal experience when explaining a point. I will now tell you my story, to further illustrate the context of natural light.
This story takes place in Dombes in June 2019. Patricia A. is a faithful participant of my nature photo workshops. She has become one of my good friends. We often understand each other before finishing our own sentences. Together we have encountered many extraordinary moments when shooting in the field.
It was 11:00 a.m. I had begun my presentation on photography, as is the custom during one of my workshops. Patricia had been gone on the field since 5 a.m. She should have returned around 10:30 am, and yet, I had no news of her arrival. I had begun my presentation for the other five photographers when suddenly, she silently walked into the common room.
She walked lightly, as if walking on air. Without saying a word, her gaze was strangely fixed on somewhere else. Nobody said anything, but we were intrigued. Usually, after being in the field, she arrives in a hurry and always heads straight for her computer. This time, she did not hurry. It was the strangest sight.
I was afraid that she had bad news to share.
I asked her how she was doing, and if she had a good morning on the pond capturing photos with a floating blind.
She turned and stared into my face, her eyes shining. I paused, expecting the worst because I believed that with such a solemn expression on her face, she might begin to cry.
Then she whispered faintly, “I saw the light!... I finally understand what you have been trying to tell me after all these years. I have made more than 2,000 photos…”
I understood her immediately. I smiled. I was incredibly happy for her. I allowed her to rest and take her time. I knew that later I could ask her to give a summary of the presentation with her personal notes. However, for a few moments, she was filled with amazement and wonder. I could not bring myself to steal that joy from her, that magical moment that so few photographers have experienced.
Patricia is one of a small number of photographers who have seen this magical light. A rare few have lived an extraordinary moment. After this experience, nothing will ever be the same when shooting.
I have been fortunate enough to experience this emotion many times in my career. Each time is a highlight that I will never forget. The moment is totally indescribable. Only people who have experienced it can understand.
I believe that it is from this moment that we understand what “photographing” means.
Why: Controlling Light in Nature Photography
In photography, light is your medium. It is for this reason that it must be understood.
- Light defines shapes.
- Light defines lines.
- Light creates textures.
- Light determines colors.
When I create a nature photograph, I strive to always control these three elements in the following order:
- The décor.
- The natural light.
- The photographic elements.
Light comes second. Controlling it is essential to correctly capturing a moment in a photograph. Its goal is to highlight the centers of interest by creating contrasts and models. These will create the famous 3D effect that I continually seek out in my work.
A Little Bit of Etymology
The etymology of the word photography comes from two roots of Greek origin. The prefix of “photograph” means "who uses light". The suffix means "which results in an image".
Natural Light: Necessary Yet Insufficient
Following this etymological analysis, you would think that photography is basically an adept management of natural light.
However, I have found that in nature photography, light is insufficient.
I always place this decor in my scale when comparing the components of an image.
Light is a necessary condition for creating a beautiful nature photograph, however, it is not enough. Without a well-chosen decor with a strong impact, a nature photograph remains poor, without much interest.
This is certainly not true in other photographic fields. However, I have not mastered other fields like I have in nature photography. Therefore, I will refrain in sharing my opinion on a subject where I have less experience.
The Purpose of Natural Light in Nature Photography
Light is different depending on the hour of day and the season. In addition, your choice in the point of view can completely change the rendering of the natural light in the scene.
I advise you to always favor the natural light at sunrise and sunset, when the sun is low in the sky. It is at these moments that the best contrasts are obtained. The low-angle lighting creates a whimsical, magical play between the lights and the shadows. These shadows create relief around centers of the photographic elements. This is what gives depth to the photo.
In the language of photography, it is said that a zenith sun crushes the scene. The absence of contrast and modeling makes the centers of interest appear to be flat.
You must know how to harness the heat of the lights. The morning lights are often cold, while the evening lights are warmer.
Playing with lights can completely change the natural appearance of a scene.
The Direction of the Light Is Essential
The individual presence of natural light on a nature scene is insufficient. You must consider its direction.
If the sun is behind you, then the stage will be flat, lacking volume.
If the sun is facing towards you, which is the backlight technique, then the centers of interest will be in silhouettes. This is often referred to as “shadow puppets”. The scene becomes suggestive.
If the sun is on the same side as the textures, then the details and volume of your image will be better restored. The shadows provide relief for the viewer’s gaze to rest upon. You should not hesitate if it is possible to change your point of view to achieve the best result.
In nature, specifically in scenes with animals, this is the last method that I reserve for only special photos.
If the sun is cloudy then it will give more softness with lesser marked high lights and low lights.
How to Use a Camera to Capture Lights
Cameras have three main modes for measuring natural light. While other modes may appear, they are only variations of the three basic modes.
In some camera manufacturers, this measure is known as the evaluative measurement, or matrix.
The matrix measurement considers the entire scene that will be photographed. It is an average of all the lights photographed. This is the most standard, efficient, and common mode to use.
It is not suitable for very contrasted scenes. The photographed scene must be very evenly lit.
The Central Weighted Measurement
The central weighted measurement is a valued surface close to the midpoint of the image. It is finer than the matrix measurement. It is to be used when the light is not evenly distributed over the entire image. The calculation of the measurement also considers the predominant central surface. In wildlife photography, this applies to when a large animal is photographed at the center of the image. The coat, the plumage, or the skin will be perfectly exposed. It should be noted that most cases offer the possibility of modifying the size of the central surface. This size is given in millimeters.
This is the most difficult measure to manage because the analyzed area is very small. The slightest shake of your camera when the trigger is pulled can cause the scene to be either over or under exposed. This measure is particularly suitable for birds with white plumage. It is enough to measure the light on the plumage details. The rest of the scene may be dark, but the bird will be perfectly exposed.
Most cameras today perform spot metering at the point of focus. A few years ago, this measurement was automatically set in the center of the image.
A good mastery of natural light is essential for creating uniquely interesting photographs. Good management creates volume and relief, that will lend a 3D effect to your photograph. However, it takes time and experience to tame this technique of natural light and to know how to use it wisely.
My wish for you is that you might one day know the profound emotion of encountering "the Light". After that moment, nothing will ever be the same again when you shoot a scene.
Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.