A Quick Guide to Wildlife Photography Lighting

by John Stapel

a guide to lighting in wildlife photography

If you want to capture beautiful wildlife photography, then you must learn to master lighting.

You see, with careful use of light, you can capture stunning detail, you can create beautiful silhouettes, you can produce lovely golden images, and so much more.

But if you don’t understand wildlife photography lighting, then your images are bound to fail, over and over again. Bad light makes for bad images, after all!

I’ve been photographing wildlife for years, and in this article, I explain everything you need to know about lighting your wildlife photos, including:

  • The best time of day for wildlife photography
  • The types of lighting to avoid like the plague
  • How to position yourself relative to your subject for the best effects

Ready to become a wildlife lighting master? Then let’s dive right in!

1. Shoot during the golden hours

The golden hours refer to the hour or two just after sunrise and the hour or two just before sunset.

And they’re absolutely amazing for wildlife photography.

During the golden hours, the sun sits low in the sky, which means that it’ll hit your subject with beautiful, even rays of light.

And because the sun is so low in the sky, it turns a lovely golden color, which looks gorgeous in wildlife photos:

sidelighting wildlife photography Sidelit grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) courting at sunrise.

Plus, many animals are active in the early morning and late afternoon, which means that you’re more likely to capture the action.

Golden-hour lighting does come with a problem, however:

It tends to be weaker than standard midday lighting, which makes it tougher to do sharp wildlife photography, especially when your subject is moving.

Now, on days with little-to-no cloud cover, you’ll generally have all the light you need to keep your wildlife subjects sharp, even if they’re moving fast.

But if the sun goes behind clouds, you’ll start to struggle (and you’ll struggle more the lower the sun sits in the sky).

So while I highly recommend doing wildlife photography during the golden hours, pay attention to the weather, and make sure you have plenty of light!

2. Avoid photographing wildlife at midday

Midday lighting is plenty bright, but it’s hard, it’s contrasty, and the intense downward angle creates unpleasant shadows. So if you want to capture the best wildlife photos, I recommend you avoid midday lighting whenever possible.

Note that, when I say “midday lighting,” I’m really referring to the time between the sunrise and sunset golden hours, not just high noon. Therefore, midday lighting actually takes up most of the day, and you only have a couple of small windows – the golden hours at sunrise and the golden hours at sunset – to get great photos.

Fortunately, while sunny midday lighting is bad for wildlife photography, you can head out at midday when it’s overcast. Clouds diffuse the harsh sun, and they’ll give you a lovely soft effect.

But you need to be careful; heavy clouds will dramatically decrease light brightness, and so you’ll often need to boost your ISO to compensate for the lack of light (especially in the morning and afternoon).

3. Use sidelight to create texture and depth

Sidelight refers to light that comes from beside your subject. With proper sidelight, half of the subject is illuminated while the other half turns dark and shadowy.

And thanks to the light-dark contrast, sidelit wildlife photography tends to look dramatic, with a greater sense of shape, form, and texture. In fact, sidelight often adds a sense of three-dimensionality that you just can’t get from full-on frontal lighting.

Look at the sun-shadow contrast on this hare:

wildlife photography lighting from the side A sidelit brown hare (Lepus europaeus).

Can you see the depth? The texture? The drama? That’s all thanks to the power of sidelighting!

Now, while you can capture sidelit images anytime before or after high noon, the best sidelighting does occur during the golden hours. The sun is low in the sky and the lighting is soft; therefore, the highlights and shadows on either side of the subject are easy to capture.

So head out in the morning and/or evening, and capture some stunning sidelit wildlife photos!

sidelighting wildlife photography A bellowing red deer stag (Cervus elaphus) with light from the side.

4. Use backlighting to create artistic wildlife images

Backlight refers to light that comes from behind the subject (so that it shines in the face of you, the photographer).

Most wildlife photographers avoid backlight because it turns the subject dark and shadowy, creates lens flare, and causes compositional problems.

But while backlighting can look bad…

…you can also use backlight to create wonderfully artistic images. For instance, if you shoot during the golden hours, you can capture beautiful rim light effects, where the backlight creates a stunning halo:

backlighting wildlife photography The hair of this pony created a golden outline when backlit by the low sun.

Note that you’ll need the sun to be very low in the sky, so shooting just after sunrise or just before sunset is best. I’d recommend working against a relatively dark background (like the grasses in the photo above). And you’ll get the most visible effect if your subject has fur or feathers.

You will still have significant exposure issues to contend with; I’d recommend deliberately underexposing so that you retain details in the highlights, and I’d also recommend taking several test shots and carefully reviewing your images until you get an exposure that you like.

wildlife photography lighting from behind

5. Use backlighting to create silhouettes

Have you ever tried to capture a wildlife silhouette? The technique isn’t too difficult, and the results are incredible.

silhouette wildlife photography lighting A silhouette of a red deer stag (Cervus elaphus) is an instantly identifiable form against a sunset sky.

As with artistic rim light effects, you can create great silhouettes when the sun is very low in the sky – though instead of shooting against a dark background, you should angle yourself so that you’re working against the brightest portion of the scene.

(You can also shoot silhouettes just after the sun has gone down; in fact, this is my favorite time to do wildlife silhouettes because there’s often lots of beautiful color in the sky.)

Note that you can create silhouettes using either sidelight or backlight, but because brighter backgrounds tend to produce more dramatic silhouettes, I do recommend relying on backlight whenever possible.

For the best results, you’ll need to dramatically underexpose the subject. Try metering off the sky behind the wildlife, then use the resulting exposure to capture your image.

One tip for shooting wildlife silhouettes: Sometimes, it can be good to keep a bit of detail in the shadows. That way, you’re not left with a solid wall of darkness, and you’re able to maintain a connection between the subject and the viewer.

If you decide to use such an approach, you’ll want to brighten up your exposure slightly; otherwise, you’ll lose all the shadow detail and end up with a dark blob!

6. Use front light for wildlife portraits

Sidelight and backlight create stunning dramatic effects, it’s true.

But sometimes it’s best to capture highly detailed wildlife portraits, and if that’s your goal, then front lighting is a great choice.

Front light comes from in front of your subject and illuminates them evenly, so you can expect minimal shadows. And because front light is so even, you’ll have an easier time exposing for subjects with a range of tones.

wildlife photography lighting frontlight

As usual, I do recommend shooting during the golden hours for the best results!

Wildlife photography lighting: final words

Capturing beautiful wildlife photos might seem difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy – once you know how to work with light!

By understanding the quality and the direction of the natural lighting, you can create detailed, dramatic, three-dimensional images that stand the test of time.

So grab your camera, and – if the light is right – head out for a session.

Now over to you:

What type of wildlife photography lighting is your favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  • GENERAL

  • PREPARATION

  • SETTINGS

  • LIGHTING

    • Manipulating Natural Light in Wildlife Photography

  • GEAR

  • ADVANCED GUIDES

  • CREATIVE TECHNIQUES

  • POST-PROCESSING

  • INSPIRATION

  • RESOURCES

A Quick Guide to Wildlife Photography Lighting