Learning to Stretch Perfect Light

Among nature photographers, one of the first rules of shooting is learning to take advantage of the soft, seemingly magical light of early morning, irregardless of where they happen to be. At this time of day, because the sun’s light has to travel the greatest distance through the earth’s atmosphere, it is more filtered and thus not as harsh as it will be just a few hours later.

Happily, this is also a time when many wild creatures also tend to be more active, but just as frequently, other birds and mammals are up and moving at all hours of the day, irregardless of what the light looks like for photographers.

The solution is learning to “stretch” perfect light so you can still come away with usable and often truly outstanding images throughout the day. You’re not changing the sun’s brightness, but rather, only using it differently, and the techniques are not hard to learn. Sports and news photographers have to use these methods every day, and they are easily applied to outdoor and nature shooting.

Here are several techniques you can begin using the next time you venture afield; you may have been using one or more of them without realizing it, and the longer you continue as a nature photographer, the more tricks you’ll learn. These five are closely related, so learn to combine them as you compose and shoot.

1) Concentrate on Color – Although bright light under a clear sky will wash out colors, you can work around this by composing contrasting colors in the same image. For example, place a bright red or yellow against a lighter brown or green. The key is having a brightly-colored subject with a lighter background, rather than vice-versa. Black or dark brown backgrounds can work, but if your brighter subject is small, a dark background may simply overpower it.

At times, polarizing filters can help you here, but be careful and learn to use them correctly. Their primary function is to reduce glare, which frequently does result in richer color saturation, but some of today’s professional films (if you’re still shooting films) do not always yield pleasing polarized results because their emulsions already offer excellent color saturation.

2) Shoot Tight – This is one of the most critical techniques in making successful mid-day photos. Use telephoto lenses and isolate your subject so you eliminate background brightness or contrast.

Don’t hesitate to choose a telephoto even when you’re already close to your subject; used in this manner, the result is almost three-dimensional when you have strong side lighting and you use a large aperture to further reduce depth of field. This is when the zoom lenses in your bag really earn their keep because you can vary your composition without changing your physical position, but fixed focal length telephotos also work well.

One of my own favorite lens in these situations has long been an 80-200mm zoom, but I know others who prefer a straight 300mm.

3) Change Directions – Frequently, angled light or back-lit scenes are far more dramatic than those with front lighting. In fact, even experienced photographers often express surprise at how much a photograph can be changed simply by re-positioning yourself a few feet one way or the other.

I have been very fortunate to have been able to photograph wildlife in different parts of the world, but one afternoon several years ago in Kenya’s Amboceli National Park re-taught me the importance of changing my shooting direction. My guide and I had found a large herd of wildebeast moving across the sandy plain as if in migration, and both the beauty as well as the suddenness of the scene kept us glued to our original spot.

After a few moments of rapid shooting, I finally began to analyze the lighting. Brown animals in a dust-filled setting with harsh side lighting was turning a color photo practically into a black and white rendition. That wasn’t all bad, but when we moved just 30 yards and I began shooting directly into the sun, the wildebeast instantly became silhouettes against a burnt orange background. It was the same animals in the same location but the visual impacts of the photos from my two shooting directions convey totally different moods.

4) Try Fill Lighting – Using a fill flash, even at mid-day, can add surprising results when you’re shooting subjects within about 10 feet. Flash photography has never been easier than it is with today’s dedicated flash units, but the original rule governing their use has not changed: a fill flash is used to complement natural light outdoors, not over-ride it.

In other words, don’t shoot into the sun in the belief the flash will keep you from getting a shadow-covered subject, because often it won’t. Instead, use the flash to reduce contrast between bright areas and shadows and create a more even overall light.

Think small, too, as in subjects like birds or squirrels; a single hotshoe-mounted flash is not going to help you much if you’re trying to light up a buffalo you happen to see at noon in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, but conversely, it can certainly help add detail if you’re only composing on the animal’s dark head. At close distances, regular fill flash can be used successfully with telephoto lenses, too, without having to resort to special accessories.

5) Avoid Harsh Light Contrasts – Don’t confuse contrasting light with contrasting colors, because even the best films made cannot handle the f/stop difference between bright light and dark shadow. With professional color transparency films, the exposure latitude you have even on a uniformly lit subject is often only about 1/2 stop and practically never more than one full stop. Thus, film does not always capture color the way your eye sees it, especially in high contrast conditions. Digital does a better job in this than film, but even so, it can’t always be corrected in the computer.

In many instances, it’s easy to avoid harsh contrasts when you’re shooting. Scenics that include both land and sky, for example, often present this problem, but it might be solved if your composition includes a long, brushy tree limb as a framing device to eliminate much of the sky. Maybe the sky (or the ground) isn’t needed at all;

re-position your horizon line or change your camera angle to emphasize another aspect of the scene.

As you can see, all five of these shooting techniques are closely related, and with experience you’ll probably begin incorporating several of them simultaneously. The more you do use them, the more you’ll also recognize that you can indeed “stretch” perfect light well beyond that magical time of early morning.


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