with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Basic Nature Photography Chapter 2 – Light Effects

Many different effects can be made with light. The challenge is not only learning to “see the light” but learning how to expose for the light in your camera. Learning to use the light accordingly and create these dramatic effects adds not only sparkle and excitement but also drama to your images.

Sunset/Sunrise Tips

The best tip for sunrises and sunsets is to be at the right place at the right time – and the right time is pre-dawn and pre-sunset. Study where the sun will set or rise. Line it up with an interesting foreground. Look for elements to add intrigue or balance to a static horizon line (mountain, tree, rocks). Look where the sun will cast its colorful light. What subjects will be fully exposed and warmed by the rosy to golden colors?

Photo of a ball sun creating a silhouette of Deception Pass Bridge, WashingtonWhen you are photographing for silhouettes and capturing the sun itself in your image, the sun will usually be aimed right at the lens of your camera, often resulting in sun flare problems. Visible through the viewfinder and, depending upon your aperture, the circles or octagonal shapes will appear more or less intense. They are caused by the sun bouncing around in the barrel of the camera lens and reflecting off the glass surfaces inside. To block sun flare, you need to cast a shadow over the front element of your lens. This can be done with a simple lens hood, or you can use a hat, your hand, an opaque reflector, or anything that will cast a shadow over the front element. Of course, if the sun itself is included in your photograph, it’s impossible to keep the sun from striking the lens. In this case, your lens must be top quality to minimize lens flare. Lenses with better quality coatings and fewer elements perform better when aimed at the sun.

One you have chosen your subject matter, have patience. Stay prepared and wait for the light to happen. The colors shift quickly as the sun moves near the horizon, so pay close attention. Sometimes the colorful light will be brilliant and quick and other times it will slide across the sky slowly, deepening gently. Don’t be in a hurry. The best color might be a minute after you think the show is over or it may have already passed. Take lots of pictures. And bracket your exposures for color saturation – take a variety of exposures by over-exposing for lightness and under-exposing for richer, darker tones. The subtle and ever-changing colors of a sunset or sunrise, influenced by the pollution and dust levels in the air, offer serious challenges for your camera’s meter as well as for your film.

Proper exposure for sunsets and sunrises is found by metering off the “middle-tone”. This area is usually an area of the sky that doesn’t include the sun itself. To enrich the brilliant colors, try underexposing a half stop or more.

Fog Tips

Fog in the mountainsFog in the valleyFog is created when moisture condenses in the air. This can occur when warm moist air passes over a colder land mass, when cold air crosses warm bodies of water, or when the air temperature drops to the dew point close to the ground. Often found in the early morning or within a few minutes of sunrise, it creates soft light on animal fur as they move through the mist. It creates interesting effects on landscapes and scenics by softening harsh textures. There is a feeling of mystery when the fog is caught moving in and out of the trees or around a mountain base. Fog creates a sense of mystery and loneliness; a sense of isolation.

To meter for fog, overexpose by one-half to a full stop for a natural look. If you want the fog to appear grayer or darker, adding more mystery and sinister tones, underexpose a bit.

Direct Light Tips

Direct light is bright sun light on a sunny day with few or no clouds in the sky. Direct light is perfect lighting for reflections on water or in windows. For architectural or tourist photography of buildings, direct light, especially front light, is excellent for capturing the reflections of other nearby buildings, trees, flowers, or subjects within the glass windows of the building. The fall colors of the trees are reflected in dancing colors on the surface of a stream running under them. Play with smooth, moving, or rippling effects on the water to capture a variety of abstract reflections.

Shade Tips

Open shade has a definite blue cast. Open shade means the subject is in the shade but still open to the blue sky. The subject will take on the color reflected from the sky. In a deep forest, the subject in the shade takes on the green light of the surrounding forest, as the blue sky is concealed behind the thick foliage.

Blue colored glaciers in AlaskaLook for subjects which benefit from the coloration. Glaciers reflect the blue of the sky, enhancing their cold quality. Think of cool temperature sensations. Blue flowers look bluer in the shade. Gray rocks take on a blue tones. Shade can be used as a soft light which can show details in the subject. Use it in combination with direct (morning/evening) light from a reflector to get contrasting colors of pink or gold and blue in the same frame.

To counter the effects of shade, you can “neutralize” it with a warming filter. An 81B filter works well to counter the cool, blue tones. Most nature photographers prefer warmer colored subjects, as does their audience, so to add warmth to an image found in the shade, use a warming filter. The most popular warming filter for nature photography is the Cokin 81B. It puts just a little more warmth into the shade.

Silhouette Tips

Man in silhouetteOne of the most dramatic techniques of light and photography is the silhouette. Silhouettes create dramatic outlines of your subject. They work best when combined with a lovely sky and background. Silhouettes get their name from the small black paper cutouts made popular in the 18th century by Etienne de Silhouette, a French author and politician, who made these gifts for friends and relatives.

To create a silhouette, meter off the sky first and then the subject. Determine the difference in the exposure. For a bold black silhouette, the background should be four or more stops brighter than the subject. Meter for the background and adjust accordingly.

Choose subject matter easily recognizable by the viewer. The human figure makes for a clearly defined and recognizable silhouette, but also consider other shapes and outlines like trees, grasses, flowers, buildings, and animals.

Midnight Sun Tips

Midnight sun effect on snowy sceneWhen can the sun look like the moon? When photographed in the middle of the day and underexposed. The more the camera meter is adjusted towards underexposure, the less light is recorded on the film. When extremely underexposed, the only light recorded on the film is the brightest spots of light. The sun is a bright spot of light. With a strong foreground such as a mountain or forest, severe underexposure creates a dramatic silhouette. If the sun is included in the frame, the dark image can easily be mistaken for a moonlit scene.

When the foreground is water, not only does the sun resemble the moon, the sun’s sparkling reflection on the water becomes twinkling stars. It is a very exciting technique caused by underexposing by two or four – maybe as many as six – stops of light.

Starburst peeking over hillsideSeveral companies manufacture and sell starburst filters that will cause any bright point spot to record on film as a multi-pointed “star”. These filters work because of fine scratches on their surface that cause the light to distort. Unfortunately, the starburst filters also cause a degradation of overall image quality for the same reason. The good news is that you don’t need a special filter to get this affect. You can create starbursts in your image by closing down the aperture of the lens to its smallest opening. The aperture of a camera lens is not a perfect circle. It is made up of layers of metal blades which create small corners in the “circle” of the aperture, similar to an octagon. Intense bright spots such as a bright spot of light in a drop of water or the sun coming through the trees travels past the aperture and flares out along those “corners” or points. This creates the star effect, a very exciting addition to a scenic.

The Big Sun

Ball sunset over treesOne of the most popular photographic subjects is the setting sun. The sun is near the horizon, hovering above the landscape, and it’s big and orange or red and so pretty. When you get your film back, though, the sun seems to be nothing more than a small orange point of light lost in a frame of colorful clouds. How do you get the big sun effect that you see so often in photos in the magazines?

The secret is to use a lens with a large focal length. Focal lengths of 500mm or 600mm, or bigger, are needed to make the sun seem as big as our eye sees it. Use a teleconverter, if you have one, and a very sturdy tripod. To make the sun seem even bigger, photograph it next to some object to give it scale, like a faraway tree or mountain or windmill. The large focal length lens will magnify the tree so that the viewer seems to be standing nearby. The lens will also magnify the sun by the same amount. The result is that the sun will seem as big as the tree, and together they will fill the frame.

Night Light Tips

Star trails and low light images are exciting and easy to take. It just takes time and patience, and a few good tips. Begin by taking one or two fully lit exposures at the beginning of your roll of film. After you have exposed for your night images, if you have film left, make sure you take more fully lit exposures on the end of the roll. This helps the film processor line up the film on the machine for cutting. Black film with low light images is hard to cut and mount when you don’t know where one begins and the other ends.

Night and low-light situations require long exposures. A tripod is required to hold the camera steady for exposures that can last hours. A cable release isn’t necessary, but it does help, especially if it features a shutter lock. Unless your camera is specially equipped to handle exposures lasting hours, set the shutter speed to bulb and use a stop watch, timer, or alarm clock to time your exposures.

Star Trails

Star Trails with tent lit by flash in foregroundStar trails can work alone in the sky or with a dramatic foreground such as trees or a mountain. It is not necessary or useful to make a meter reading when photographing star trails. Simple choose a dark location with a good view of the stars, set up the camera on a tripod, load 100 ISO film, open the lens to the maximum aperture, and start the exposure. If the foreground subject is close enough, illuminate it briefly with a flash or fire light to add drama to the image. Depending on the amount of “streak” you desire, exposure times may range from one hour to all night. Start experimenting at 4 hours. A wide angle lens requires longer exposure time, as the wide perspective captures short lines in the sky. A longer focal length may require shorter exposure times, as they magnify the lights in the sky. Polaris, the north star, is located directly above the north pole. All the stars in the northern hemisphere will appear to circle this star if you include it in the photograph, while it will remain a motionless point of light. Putting the north star in a corner or the center of your viewfinder will create a curved or spinning “trail” of stars on your film. The longer the exposure, the longer the lines of stars across the film. The shorter the exposure, the shorter the lines or “trails”.

Photographing from high elevations, such as a high mountain range, often presents excellent clear sky opportunities free from pollutants, if the weather cooperates. Pick a season when you will be likely to have a cloudless night, and pick an evening with no moon. This limits most night photography adventures to only a couple nights a month. Depending upon the exposure time, you can try photographing on nights when the moon rises very late in the night, closer to morning. Be sure to close the shutter before the moon rises.

To focus on the stars, turn off the autofocus and manually set the lens to infinity. Infinity is not found by twisting the lens to the end. Infinity is marked on the lens barrel and should be set at this point.

Long exposures for star trails can eat up batteries. It is recommended to put in fresh ones before you start, especially with new auto-everything cameras that hold the shutter open electronically.

Moon Shots

A popular “trick” is the large moon illusion or the Harvest Moon. Earth’s nearest neighbor always looks bigger when it hovers over the horizon because of the proximity to foreground objects and the distortion due to atmospheric conditions, which causes greater magnification as the light passes through the most layers of atmosphere. Photograph the full moon on the night before or the morning after the full moon for the best effect. This is best because the moon appears full and hovers above the horizon while there is still some light on the landscape. You have a better chance of getting an exposure with detail in both the moon and the scene itself. On the night of the calendar full moon, the moon will wash out to a white orb because of the difference in exposure values. Take the shots before the sun has completely set. Like sunsets and sunrises, meter to the side of the moon and not on the moon itself. Use exposures which are short in duration – 10 seconds or less is recommended to create a nice, crisp moon.

Moon over Yosemite National ParkLonger exposures will create an egg shaped moon, or a blur across the sky. If you can’t wait for the harvest moon effect, a long lens will also flatten the perspective of the moon against the landscape and the moon may appear closer and larger.

As with sunsets, creating a “larger” moon in the background behind a subject is possible by using a shallow depth of field from a large aperture to blur the moon, giving the illusion of a large moon. Again, meter for the subject and not the moon. Or create a silhouette with the moon acting like an aura of backlighting behind the subject.


Moonlight can act as a cool light on landscapes and scenics. Combined with the last light of the setting sun, or rising sun, it can be cool and warm in the same image. Normally, it has a cool feeling like shade. Meter off the moonlit areas, or, if desired, underexpose to accentuate the dark feeling (usually by 1/3 to 1 stop depending on the brightness of the moon and the clearness of the air).

Artificial Light

Light comes from natural sources, which is usually preferred for nature photography, but when you don’t have any natural light, or it is insufficient, there are a few tools you can use to bring light to your subject.

Flash Light

Flash from on the camera or off the camera can illuminate the subject with a bright light. Some see flash as “artificial” and others as necessary for photographing natural subjects in low light. The light from electronic flash is typically bright white, though may be changed through the use of filters set over the flash. The amount of light coming from a flash may be controlled manually on the flash or automatically through the camera and metering system.

Direct Flash

Example of camera flash used on a fern to make black backgroundDirect flash illuminates a subject with bright white light. It is highly effective with fast subjects as it “stops them in their tracks”. It is also good for closeup work when the light levels are low or the subject is moving. Stopping a flower dancing in the breeze with a beetle on it requires the use of flash to stop the action. When flash is the only source of light, as in caves and at night, it is a requirement.

Example of fern in natural lightOne noticeable characteristic of flash is that it can illuminate the foreground and the subject but black out the background. This can either separate the image from the background or cause the background to appear artificial. Direct flash can also influence the colors of the subject or overwhelm them with the brightness of the white light. Bright colors may appear more brilliant and subtle pastels may be washed out.

Fill Flash

Fill flash adds illumination without overpowering the subject. It allows the background to remain “normal”. Fill flash can provide a “catch-light” in the eye of the subject, making it appear alive and interested. Fill flash occurs when the flash is less intense than the ambient light. Fill flash has a limited range and intensity and allows the natural colors of the subject to be illuminated.

Other Artificial Lights

There are many forms of artificial light, all taking on distinct colorations. Our Light Show workshop offers more detailed information on how to photograph and see the different forms of light. For more information on photographic light, please check the book list at the back of the notes.

Planning For the Light

The “magic” of light and good photography is something worked for and planned for, not usually something just stumbled upon. Many methods are available to assist you in “planning for the light”. The use of any or all of these will help plan and arrange your time to be in the right place at the “right” time.


Examples of photographic calendarsPlanning involves preparation and scheduling. Many calendars are available which list the different phases of the moon. If you are photographing tide pools or shore birds, tides are critical information. Planning on the full moon, calendars help you plan your trip or outing accordingly. Other calendars feature “almanac” information regarding seasons and weather conditions, such as predictions based on past history for the start of a rain or storm season. These can also help you plan for light under different weather conditions in places where this information is available.

Computer programs

Many programs are available today for a variety of computers which will not only provide phases of the moon and sunrise and sunset times, but allow for charting the course of the sun and moon across the sky in your “neck of the woods”. There are “online” programs for weather reports. Programs are also available for star charting for photographing star tails.

Watch the Media

TV, radio and newspapers all provide weather reports, often on an hourly basis. Check with them for the latest weather reports for the area you are exploring or traveling. Some media agencies will also feature a call-in phone number for the most up-to-date information.

Consistent Weather Patterns

photograph of maps and compassLearn about “consistent” weather patterns in the area you are exploring. Many places offer typically one weather pattern or distinctive weather quality: Florida is typically humid and warm. Israel is sunny. Seattle and London are cloudy. Phoenix is good for lightning. Other places offer another kind of predictable weather. Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park, Washington, along with other high altitude mountain ridges, is well known for constantly changing weather; one minute sun and the next snow.

Weather Watching

There are many books and videos available to help you learn weather watching. This is especially helpful for hikers and climbers, as the weather in the mountains can quickly change from peaceful to deadly. It’s important to learn how to tell what the weather is doing and going to do. Learning to watch and predict the weather helps you plan to be in the right place for the right light.

Look outside

It may seem obvious, but you should look outside. Weather reports may list storms and rain on the news while outside is sunny and warm. Or the reverse could happen. Look outside and see what it really looks like.

Light Accessories

Here are a few of the light accessories we use to create our nature photography images, carrying them with us everywhere we go.

Diffusing Screens

A diffusion screen softens harsh light – creates a cloudy day feeling. It also cuts about 2 stops of light. Consider using with 81A or 81B warming filter to warm up the image. A diffusing screen cuts the amount of light but does not affect the color of the Example of using a diffusion clothlight. Chiffon allows a lot of light through and ripstop nylon allows for more diffusion. White is the color of choice in fabrics. Using some form of frame and prop holds the cloth away from the subject and leaves hands free to work the camera. Or have a friend hold the cloth for you.


Like filters, reflectors can enhance your subject by providing more light to the subject and focusing the light on your subject. They can also add color to your subject and create a sparkle in the eye of animals. Reflectors can be anything from a white piece or paper to a reflective fabric. They direct the light onto the subject and work like fill flash to light the side away from light source – the side in shadow.

Example of using a reflectorThey may be used to create side lighting for use with a diffuser or to block the sun and create shade. Use them as supplemental lighting to alter the color temperature of the light. Using a gold reflector adds warmth and a golden light to the subject and can make it glow. A silver reflector adds a cool white light, and other colors can be used to shine onto the subject.

Reflectors work well for closeup work and small, still subjects, and can add light in low light situations. They are also popular for photographing people, especially for “lighting up” or filling in a dark shadow on the face. The effect of the shadow is still visible, but the difference between the light side of the face and the dark side is now closer to even.

Changing Light: Filters

Examples of filtersWe should use filters like we use spices when we cook. We are not changing the flavor of the food, just enhancing it. Use filters wisely and carefully. Filters enhance, affect and change the image we see through the lens. When the human eye looks into shade at an autumn leaf, it sees the warm, red colors of fall. The camera and film sees a cool blue tone. A filter can correct the image to appear as we “perceived” it. But, as with spices, too much of a good thing may distort reality.

Polarizing filter
Polarizers dramatically darken the blue sky and removes glare and reflections. They also act as a neutral density filters that reduce the light from one to three stops. Rotating the filter adjusts polarization to prevent unpolarized components of light from passing through (thereby darkening the sky or removing reflections) while allowing the polarized components to pass. These work best when at a 90 degree angle to the sun.


Examples of the differences between using a polarizing filter on highly reflective subjects such as glass, or in this case, water on kelp along the sea shore. The first picture shows the lack of a polarizer shows the glare from the water and reflective surface and the second image with a polarizer shows the kelp, eliminating the reflective glare.

Without polarizer
Example of not using a polarizing filter
With polarizer
Example of using a polarizing filter

Polarizers work best on reflections, not just on water or windows, but on leaves, rocks and in rivers and can enhance the color on bright-colored subjects. They remove the reflections and increase the “purity” of light on a subject, allowing the “real color” to come out.

Warming filter
Effective for warming a “cool” image, a warming filter can enhance a sunset or sunrise or add warmth and color to flowers, especially those with red and orange tones. They intensify natural colors to make them more brilliant. Warming filters come in a wide range of “warmth”. The 81B is a standard and popular warming filter.
Graduated Neutral Density
A graduated neutral density filter is “half” of a filter. The neutral coloration on the plastic or glass is found on one half, and gradually fades out to clear on the other half of the filter. This allows the natural light of the lower part of the filter to stay the same and Mountain photographed without neutral density filterthe brighter “upper” part of the image to have bright tones “neutralized” or brought to a closer tone level to the Mountain photographed with neutral density filterlower part. If the sky is too bright, compared to the foreground, the photo will lose all detail in the bright areas. You can see this in the photograph to the left. It is wonderful for sunsets, mountaintop scenics with a dark foreground, and in any situation where the contrast between the brightest and the darkest in the two halves on the screen overwhelm the film’s ability to “see” the tones. It can be used to darken the bright sky in the background or to darken the bright rocks in the foreground by using it upside down.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Example of graduated neutral density filterThe colors of a graduated filter can be found in:

  • Neutral (no color shift)Blue (for skies)
  • Tobacco (for sunsets)Sunset colors (for sunsets)

More Filters
There are many different kinds of filters which manipulate the light in your image. There are:

  • Color correction filters, UV or Skylight filters
  • Fog filters, Diffusion filters
  • Fluorescent light filters, Incandescent light filters

We could go on forever. There is a lot of debate about the use of filters and the “reality” of images enhanced by filters. Just remember that the use of filters is like using spice in cooking. Either you want a lot or a little, but you are enhancing the food, not just eating the spice.


Diffuse Light
Find a small subject and photograph it in the direct sun and again with a diffusion cloth.

Use a reflector to fill in the shadows of your subject or to change the light direction.
Using your different filters, and taking notes as you go, photograph different subjects to find out which filter works best with which subjects. With a polarizer, photograph some scenes with the sky a major part of the subject and use a wide angle lens and then a longer lens and evaluate the results.
Find a subject with a strong shape and photograph it as a silhouette by placing it against a bright sky, backlighting works best. Take a meter reading and set your exposure. Take a series of three pictures at your meter’s recommendation, and then underexpose by one and two stops.
Changing Light
Choose a subject and make a photograph of it during the morning and at various times during the day as the light direction and intensity change (a similar subject may be used if necessary).
Make a photograph which includes the sun as a starburst in your frame four different ways:
1. Set your lens to its largest aperture. Take a meter reading by aiming your camera so that the sun is just out of the frame. Manually set the shutter speed. Without looking directly at the sun, include the sun in your frame and take the first picture.
2. Bracket one stop underexposed (faster shutter speed by one setting) and make your second exposure.
3. Set your lens to its smallest aperture (f16 or smaller). Set the shutter speed the same way as for photo one. Make your third exposure.
4. Bracket one stop underexposed and take the fourth picture.


  • Angela
    Posted October 8, 2006 at 16:07 | Permalink

    I love this website!! I have to do a photography project for my middle school gifted class and all the websites I found about how to take good pictures are all for advanced phtographers. This websites breaks it down for literally anyone!

  • Donna
    Posted December 11, 2006 at 0:39 | Permalink

    Hi can someone help please. I have problems taking a photo of couples inside a building with the large window that looks over the lake. The scenery outside is wonderful. I would really like to be able to capture the scenery and also the couple and inside. I have a Nikon D70.
    Thanks for your time

  • Posted December 11, 2006 at 2:30 | Permalink

    It’s simple and you have a couple choices. One, take them outside in the same light as on the landscape and use a small aperture to get both subjects in focus.

    Two, if you are forced to work inside, then use fill flash, cutting back the flash to only partial power as not to blacken out the background. Your camera should have a fill flash mode. Check the manual.

    And do realize that when you have competing subjects, you don’t have a good photograph. An out of focus but slightly visible background is nice in a portrait, but a totally in focus background can seriously compete and overwhelm your subject. See our article series on Background Magic for more information on this.

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