Follow the light

Words and pictures by James Gifford. Words and pictures by James Gifford.

It’s All Greek to Me - Originating from the Greek, ‘photography’ literally means ‘drawing with light.’ That may sound strange, given that light appears to be all around us; but once you recognise its nuances and how to exploit them, you will find that light has the power to transform your images.

You will often hear photographers talk about the golden hour – essentially the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset – when the light is particularly warm and soft. Although it is undoubtedly easier to capture good images during this period, most photographers cannot afford to spend most of the day not taking pictures, which means that often you have to think creatively about how to maximise what light you do have.

Front-Lighting
Most often, the tendency is to shoot with the sun behind you, which, in that golden hour, will give you a classic, softly front-lit subject full of saturated colour. However, even under these favourable conditions tiny details can make a big difference. Wait until your subject turns its face towards the sun so that you can catch a glimmer of light in its eye, which will add more life to your photograph. This is especially important for birds, whose small eyes often get lost in the shadows.

Pro Tip
If your movement is restricted, or the animal is being particularly uncooperative, it is possible to recreate the light in an animal’s eye using a small burst of flash; but be careful not to let your artificial flash overpower the natural light.

Side-Lighting
For something a bit more striking, position yourself so that the sun is lighting your subject from the side. The idea here is to have part of the animal or person’s face in sunlight, while the rest is in shadow. TV programs and films often use this technique, which can lead to a much more dramatic three-dimensional effect – completely altering the mood of the image.

Back-lighting
To generate a really atmospheric picture, try photographing with your subject back-lit. Since you will be shooting into the sun, there are a few things you must bear in mind. First, never point your camera directly towards the sun, as it can damage both your equipment and your eyes. Your subject will seem quite dark anyway; so unless the sun is very low you would normally want to avoid having it in the frame, as the picture will end up over-exposed. If it is late in the day, one way round this is to compose with the sun directly behind the subject, which would be blocking the glare.

Your second problem is that the bright sun sometimes makes it harder for the camera to focus, leading to the lens constantly searching when on autofocus. Switch to manual focus, and, if you have time (and the function on your camera), use live-view to check that your subject is sharp. Finally, the tricky lighting situation may confuse your camera’s metering, causing it to overexpose (making the image too light). We’ll cover metering in depth as a later topic, but for now the simplest solution is to review the shot you have just taken on your playback screen. If it is too bright, retake the picture using negative exposure compensation (usually a +/ – button on the camera) to make it darker.

Halos and Dust
As with front-lit and side-lit subjects, the softer the light, or the lower the sun is in the sky, the greater the effect of back-lighting will be; but essentially the idea is to create a halo of light around your subject which will accentuate any hairs or fur on its outline. Baboons and vervets are great animals to experiment with because of their uneven coats and long fur; hyenas are good as well. Light also refracts beautifully off clouds of dust. It is worth your while to hang around waterholes late in the afternoon in the dry season, waiting for a herd of zebras, elephant or buffalo, which tend to kick up mountains of dust in their eagerness to drink.

Take Advantage of Shadows
Once you have mastered the different directions of light, there are plenty of other ways to experiment. If an animal is under the dappled shade of a bush, for example, try to capture it when its face is briefly in the light. The shady background will come out almost black, creating a striking and unusual contrast with the sun-lit subject.

Clouds can be Useful
Possibly a surprising benefit of photographing at this time of the year is the effect of clouds. On an overcast day, the clouds diffuse the sunlight, softening the light, allowing you to take pictures towards the middle of the day without the harsh shadows you would normally see at this time. Alternatively, if you can capture your subject against a background of menacing storm clouds when the sun is behind you, the light will appear surreal and almost magical.

Ultimately, the goal is to envisage in advance the effect you want to create, and position yourself to use the light accordingly. Try taking a picture of the same subject from alternative angles, and you will be amazed at how dramatically different the results are. It won’t take long before you know instinctively where to position yourself in relation to the sun in order to create the best image possible, and soon you, too, will be ‘drawing with light’.

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