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How Light Direction Effects Your Photos

Direct front lighting is great for capturing detail and eliminating potentially detracting shadows. Sanderling, Washington. 600mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/2500 second at f/8, ISO 800

The direction of light on a subject depends on where you have placed yourself and determines how your subject is illuminated. Most of the time, shooting subjects front lit is a good choice. But changing to back or side lighting often produces more dramatic images. Be aware that proper exposure becomes more challenging to assess in back or side lighting scenarios.


A subject is front lit when the light comes from directly behind you, the photographer, and your shadow points toward the subject. Front light produces an even, low-contrast light that is good for revealing colors and details because there are no dark shadows. Front lighting is a safe choice—it is easy to make correct exposures and has predictable effects. Often a good starting point for documenting a species, it is great for action shots too. A drawback to direct front lighting is that the lack of shadows can hide the textures and dimensionality that tone variation reveals, so it tends to flatten out the subject. To alleviate that, try shooting front-lit images just a bit off axis—having the light source 10 to 15 degrees off center can add just enough edge shadow to provide some dimension.

I used side lighting to shoot these Burrowing Owl chicks in Idaho to give them more depth and dimensionality than front lighting would have. 35mm, 1/640 second at f/8, ISO 40


Side lighting, directional lighting that illuminates the subject from the side, is good for revealing textures and for emphasizing shapes because shadows are created by this type of light. This can enhance the drama and mood of an image and provide unique opportunities for composition. However, side lighting’s intense contrasts, with both deeply shaded and brightly lit portions, are unpredictable. Not all subjects and situations are well suited to it. Side lighting also changes constantly as your subject moves and the angle of the light changes. You will likely have to wait and hope your subject moves to just the right angle against the background you want. Side lighting can also create very distracting backgrounds, especially in vegetation. Look for opportunities where your subject is positioned against an evenly shaded background and shoot when the light is low as the contrast won’t be as great—differences between the light and dark areas in your image will be softer and less severe. Exposure is most challenging with this type of light because of the variability and high contrast. Concentrate on exposing the highlights correctly and let the rest fall into place.

Light plumage with feathery edges against dark backgrounds are great candidates for dramatic back-lit images. Bald Eagle, Alaska. 500mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/1000 second at f/8, ISO 500


Back lighting occurs when you are pointed directly toward the light source (usually the low sun) and the shaded side of your subject is facing you. Like side lighting, back lighting does not work for every situation or subject, but when the opportunity presents itself, you should take full advantage of it because it can produce some of your most dramatic and unique images. In general, back lighting works best with subjects that have fuzzy or textured edges, which will be illuminated and create a halo around your subject. It also works better with lighter colored subjects or with subjects that are lighter than the background. A darker colored bird, like a cormorant, against a light background won’t work well. There can be a range of correct exposures depending on the image you are trying to create. The same scene can produce a very dark image where just the shape and edges of a subject are revealed or a lighter, glowing image where some detail is visible on the shaded side of the subject and colors are enhanced. This could be further aided by adding a bit of fill flash to the shaded side. When shooting back-lit images, be aware of lens flare. Lens flare occurs when direct light from the sun hits your lens and reflects off the internal elements, producing spots or a bright cast over parts of the final image. In some cases, it can be a creative decision to include lens flare, but it is generally something to avoid. Move your camera position off-axis until it is no longer an issue.

Greater Sage-Grouse backlit on a lek at dawn, Wyoming. 600mm lens, 1/2500 sec. at f/7.1, ISO 400


Spot lighting is a relatively rare phenomenon when a shaft of light penetrates an otherwise shaded scene and illuminates your subject. With small subjects like birds, this usually happens when a beam of light makes its way through thick vegetation and falls on the subject. This is not a type of lighting that you can deliberately pursue, but be ready for it when it occurs, as you can produce unique images where the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the subject. Focus on exposing for the illuminated highlights (whatever the spot light is hitting). If necessary, meter a well-lit area outside of your scene and recompose.

A narrow shaft of light fully spot lit this Brown Pelican in Florida while its surroundings were completely shaded. 600mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/1000 second at f/5.6, ISO 1000


Reflected light does not occur frequently in nature, but when it does, take note and use it to your advantage. When sand, snow, ice, or water reflect light in ways that fill shadows or cast an even, soft light over your entire subject, you have a great photographic opportunity. If you have ever walked outside on a snowy morning and your entire surroundings seem like they have been lit up, you know what I mean. Snowy landscapes bounce light in all directions, creating lighting akin to what you might find in a studio. It is especially good for shooting birds in flight because the snow acts like a giant reflector illuminating the underside of your subject.

American Avocet, Montana. 600mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/500 sec. at f/5.6, ISO 1000. I also used the ground level opening in the Grouse V+ Blind to shoot the avocets foraging at eye-level with a more blown out background.

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