Along with subject, the quality and direction of light is a primary concern in photography. Harsh noon-day sun is difficult to deal with, and very dim light can lead to noisy high-ISO images. But, what is the best light for nature and landscape photography? What about other popular outdoor subjects, such as portraits? travel? architecture? And many others. Herein we relate our thoughts on lighting conditions for landscape, architecture, portrait and nature photography, especially wildlife and most especially birds. Needless to say, there is no one solution, and many approaches can work depending on subject and intentions, resulting in pleasing images. So, this is more a statement of personal preferences rather than a list of “thou shalts."
Coincidentally, the inclusion of "natural light" in the title does not exclude the use of flash, especially exposure compensated fill flash when appropriate. Rather, it refers to outdoor conditions where natural illumination is a primary source of light -- for either all or part of the composition.
Natural Light for Wildlife and Birds
There is a sentiment that full frontal sun -- either early morning or late afternoon, but not noon-day -- is the best lighting for birds. According to some, anything less is simply not image-worthy – unless it is to be a silhouette. We agree with this viewpoint for many subjects, but not for all. As a positive example, consider a bird in still water under a clear sunlit sky. Full frontal sun (“point your shadow at the bird") is almost guaranteed to produce outstanding images. Full sun makes the plumnage colors pop off the screen, and the reflection of blue sky off the water provides a gorgeous backdrop. Depending on magnification and distance to subject, including the bird's reflection in the composition can add drama to the image.
There is another full sun case that merits discussion, that is a completely backlit scene. While one can produce dramatic silhouettes in this situation, there is also the possibility of using flash to produce successful and striking images as well. In this case, the flash becomes virtually the primarly light source for the subject while the background is exposed for ambient. This will require a careful balancing of foreground flash and background exposure compensation -- and perhaps a bit of experimentation as well -- but the results can be very worthwhile.
Moving on from full sun in open air, there is the question of small song birds in wooded locations. What then?
In the latter case, the subject is likely to be shadowed by the surrounding foliage, and illumination can be quite low. In these circumstances, fill flash can produce positive results. But still, what about the overall sun and sky conditions filtering down from above? With full sun, all too often the background can assume a distinctly dappled appearance, full of hot spots that cannot be eliminated, even with long telephoto lenses. In my experience, most times an overcast sky is more likely to lead to a pleasing background. Of course, heavy overcast may not leave enough light for sufficient shutter speed at a tolerable ISO, but for a modestly bright overcast sky the background will be a pleasing and non-intrusive blur and the color rendering will not be so cool as to spoil the image.
To some degree, the same comments also apply to outdoor portraiture. The key is to avoid bright hot spots in the background – although in the case of portraiture a bit of rear rim light catching the hair is a distinct advantage if it can be managed. Judiciously applied flash fill can be very effective in either circumstance. The flash brings up the exposure of any lingering shadows as well as providing a catchlight in the subject's eyes.
Landscape and Architecture
So then, what about landscape and architecture? One would think the rule of full frontal sun and a clear blue sky would apply there as well. And certainly, there is nothing wrong with this approach, especially if the subject and the illumination are such that there are no deep shadows in the image. If the scenery is noteworthy, the resulting images should be equally so. But, is there another approch that will also work?
The answer to that question is that clouds in the sky can notably enhance the composition -- if the range of scene highlights and shadows does not exceed the dynamic range of the capture device. In the latter case, a judicious choice of bracketing and HDR processing may yield pleasing results.
Often many approaches will yield positive results. For example, I often composition bracket, employing different perspectives and frame orientations (horizontal vs. vertical) in order to provide after-the-fact flexibility. On occasion, one can also apply HDR processing to a single image with success. In the final analysis, how one approaches each opportunity is a matter of personal creative choice. There are no right and wrong answers; only varied interpretations of a particular subject and scene.
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