Wildlife Photography

Light and Wildlife Photography

In wildlife photography, the quality of light hitting your subject is essential in capturing images that grab your viewers attention.
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The Right Light for Wildlife Photography

Words & Images by Diana Andersen

Choosing The Time of Day

Like all forms of photography, light is a crucial component to the success or failure of a wildlife image. Looking for the direction and quality of the light hitting your subject is essential in mastering your photography skills and creating images that capture the attention of your viewers.

The very early morning light and the last light of the day is best for wildlife. At this time of day, the light is warm and has a low angle which helps reduce shadow and saturate colours. Overcast days produce much softer light and can prolong your shooting time, but low light conditions can result in higher ISO and can silhouette birds against the sky. Of course, this is all relative to the time of year, the environment and the location. Dense rainforest with low light and arctic conditions with bright white surroundings will have their own challenges.

The other reason for going out at this time of day is that animals are more likely to be active and looking for food, making it more likely that you may get photos that capture behaviour. Knowing the direction of the light before you encounter wildlife will help you approach from an advantageous angle.

Determining the Direction of the Light

The light coming from behind the subject referred to as backlighting can be striking, but it isn’t easy to do well. If you are starting your journey with wildlife photography, you should try mastering light falling on your subject before tackling subjects that have the light source behind them.

It is difficult to get around wild animals as they generally move faster than we do so do your homework on a location before arriving. An example would be finding that you are on the wrong side of a river for the direction of the light, making it impossible to avoid backlight. If you are facing into the sun approaching wildlife, they will most likely move away from you towards the sun.

The following two photos show the difference between light falling on the subject and coming from behind. Creative use of backlighting can result in outstanding and unique images. Some lens and camera combinations do a much better job of reducing lens flare and haze, and skilled post-processing techniques can also enhance the image. The methods for mastering backlight in wildlife photography requires a more in-depth look so I won’t go any further in this instance.

Diana Andersen is a professional photographer with a Bachelor of Arts in Design. Major Australian galleries and collections hold her award-winning work. After years as a practising designer and a lecturer in design, Diana turned her attention to her other passion, animals, and became a zookeeper working in conservation. A published author, Diana initially used photography to illustrate her books, but it has since become a passion. Diana founded Animalinfo Publications in 2007.
Wetlands Dawn. Fine art limited edition print by Diana Andersen


This fine art print of a Pelican landing against the setting sun on a lake is a limited edition print by Diana Andersen  SHOP NOW >

Kangaroo image with light from behind.
Kangaroo - late afternoon light is good for wildlife photography.

Another problem to avoid is shooting an animal in the shade with bright sunlight in the background. In this situation, the subject will usually be dark as the camera will want to expose for the light background. When you achieve the correct exposure on the subject through spot metering or by using positive exposure compensation, the sunlight area behind the animal will most likely become blown out due to the extreme difference in light between the foreground and the background.

If you encounter an animal in this type of setting, try to change your angle. Avoid the bright light behind the subject in favour of an area that is also in the shade. The alternative is to allow the background to blow out entirely to create a more graphic and artistic image. Bear in mind that these images risk not be accepted in wildlife competition if you remove areas and objects in the background. This type of editing is often very effective in monochrome and images with dramatic texture or patterns in the subject.

Bright light in the background can result in more graphic wildlife photography images. Darter Portrait by Diana Andersen

Light and Shade, Black and White

One of the biggest challenges faced by wildlife photographers is achieving correct exposure in rapidly changing light. The two photos below of the white Little Egret, taken less than a minute apart, show the difference between sunlight hitting the bird and the change conditions as the sun goes behind a cloud. When bright light strikes light coloured birds and animals, it is easy to blow out the highlighted areas of your image.


Rapidly changing light can be challenging in wildlife photography. Little egret in sunlight.
Little egret photo in cloud cover.

Managing Highlights

Blown-out highlights occur when the exposure fails to capture detail in the highlights of an image. The resulting image, if printed, would show the paper with no ink in the blown areas which is unattractive and undesirable. Even in a photograph intended for on-screen viewing, blown highlights will be detrimental to the success of the image. This issue is a common problem in bright light, but one you can avoid by exposing for the white areas in your subject. Learning to look at your histogram and using the highlight alert function of your camera will help you avoid the issue and improve your photographs.

If your camera has highlight alert as a menu option, make sure you turn it on. When you review a captured image on the LCD screen of your camera, blown-out highlight areas will blink. Your histogram will show blown highlights as areas climbing to the top of the graph on the right-hand side.

Exposure Compensation

Using exposure compensation to underexpose the image until all the blinking highlights have disappeared will avoid blown highlights. With white birds, this will inevitably result in a darker background which may or may not be desirable. Darkening an image in post-production will not rectify blown highlights as there is no data or detail recorded in the file to retrieve. Darkening these areas will only result in flat grey fill appearing. Within reason, lifting the shadows is preferable to blown highlights bearing in mind that ISO noise will be more evident in the shadow areas.

Ideally, wildlife photographers shoot in full manual mode choosing the ISO, shutter speed and aperture of the resulting shot, but this can be difficult to master in rapidly changing light. Learning to change your settings quickly during shooting will allow you to have much greater control. By reading the settings in your viewfinder and preprogramming your camera’s button functions, you can make rapid changes to your settings while shooting.

The alternative is to shoot in aperture priority, shutter priority or auto ISO to allow one of the parameters to fluctuate in quickly changing light conditions. My personal choice is auto ISO as I like to dictate the ‘look’ of an image in terms of depth of field and want to be sure that my shutter speed is fast enough in case of sudden movement of the animal. Whatever your choice, learning to be aware of your fluctuating settings in your viewfinder will help you avoid over and underexposed images.

Galah. Cloudy conditions are good for capturing detail in fur and feathers.

Using Cloud Cover

The soft diffused light from cloud cover can be lovely for shooting white birds and getting detail in fur and feathers without harsh shadows. The catch 22 is that if you are out early or late looking to get that beautiful warm light, not only is it absent but the light at that time when it is overcast can be very flat and dull. It also increases your ISO substantially result in noisy (grainy) images. The brighter the overcast conditions are, the better your photos will be.

The other thing that affects your images is light and dark. Light colours reflect light, dark colours and black absorb light, so in overcast conditions, black or very dark birds and animals appear dull. Sunlight falling on dark birds and animals, or a light source for macro shooters shooting in low light conditions will help your images immensely. The following two photos of black cockatoos show the difference between sun, in the case of the Naso red-tailed black cockatoo pair, hitting the birds, versus the Carnaby’s cockatoos where the conditions were overcast.

Naso Red-tailed Black Cockatoos in sunlight.
Carnaby's cockatoos against an overcast sky.

Understanding the Blues in Bird Photography

It is interesting to note that the colour blue in bird feathering is not a pigment but is created by the feather structure, which reflects blue light allowing us to see the blue colour. As a result, photographing birds with blue plumage or colours containing blue can be problematic. The way light hits the bird will affect the appearance of a bird. You can take great photos of blue, green and purple birds in overcast conditions but it will depend on the direction and intensity of the light hitting the bird.

The following two photos were again taken only a few minutes apart and are of the same bird. The sun was behind a cloud in the one in the tree, and the resulting light was relatively flat. Within a few minutes, the sun was out again, and the bird’s beautiful iridescent blue was at its best. Sometimes you need to be patient and wait for the light to be right.

Greater Blue-eared Starling with the light obscured by a cloud.
Greater Blue-eared Starling in the sun.

The Importance of a Catchlight

As humans, we relate to the eyes in the subject of a photo. A feature that can make or break your image is light catching the eye, referred to, of course, as a catchlight. Without a catchlight in the eyes of your subject, the eyes are dead. The tiniest glimmer of light brings life to your image and increases viewer engagement. It can be a matter of waiting for your subject to look towards the light source, or sometimes you can change your position slightly in relation to the bird or animal. The first is desirable as it is best to keep movement to a minimum.

Splendid Wren with no catchlight.
Splendid Wren with catchlight in the eye.

Capturing your subject in the best possible light can be both challenging and frustrating. Unlike photographing humans, suggesting to wildlife that they turn slightly to the right or left, look up or down, simply doesn’t happen. Only patience, practice and perseverance work with wildlife photography. Understanding the importance of light and how it impacts wildlife photography is crucial . Getting up before dawn and making your way back to the car in virtual darkness also requires a level of dedication but one that will reward you with images that step up to the next level. Once you see the difference that light can make to an image, you will find it much easier to set that alarm clock!

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