with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Basic Nature Photography Chapter 2 – Light Makes All the Difference

Writing with light. This is the translation of the word “photography” from Greek. Light literally writes across the film during exposure. Light is the soul of photography. It is critical to capturing the color, form and expression of a subject on film. The artistic language of photography uses expressions representative of color and light. We even discuss our camera lenses based upon the amount of light they permit through to the film. For many photographers, “seeing the light” and all its characteristics is the most important skill to develop.

Light has several characteristics for the nature photographer to consider. The direction the light falls upon the subject is important, as is whether the light is direct or reflected. We will also consider the quality of light, its color and mood, and its magical ability to elicit an emotional response. We will help you “see the light” – to recognize the variations of light and how to work with them, as well as how to plan for it. We’ll also offer advice on how to tackle the unique challenges, and show you some tricks for working with different natural lighting situations.

Light Direction

Example of side light on big horn sheepDepending upon the source of the light and which side of your subject is illuminated, the direction of the light influences the texture and appearance of your subject. The direction of light is the path the light takes to reach the object.

Front Light

Front light illuminates the face of the subject. It comes from behind the photographer and shines on the front of the subject. Front light is good for details and colors, but since it washes away most shadows and definition, there are no shadows to give shape or depth to the subject. It tends to appear flat and two dimensional. If enough of the background is included in the image, front light can cast strong shadows behind the subject, adding a sense of dimension and depth to your image by separating it from the background. Front light is good for photographing people, landscapes, closeups, and many other subjects. The flash mounted on the top of your camera projects a strong front light.

Side Light

When light illuminates the side of the subject at a 90 degree angle, it is usually called “side light”. It creates deep shadows and adds texture and depth to your subject. It works well with round subjects such as the human face or a ball, and adds dimension to your image by casting shadows to the side of your subject. As the shadows are strong and obvious, their strong graphic nature can become part of the image rather than just an accent. Usually found during the morning and afternoon hours of the day when the sun is lower in the sky, textures are accentuated more with side lighting, though the shadows may overwhelm delicate or softer textures.

Example of side light on baby big horn sheepSide lighting casts long and often dramatic shadows, so sometimes the shadow play becomes the subject itself. Look for opportunities to work with the shadows of subjects for interesting new perspectives of the familiar.

Another type of side light is top light, which illuminates the top of your subject. Again, it can create strong graphic plays with shadows, but it is notorious for creating strong shadows under the eyes. Found during the middle of the day, top light is not recommended for most animals and humans, as the dark shadows under the eyes make them look old and tired. Top light works well when you want the top of a subject lit while the other parts fade into a shadowed background.

Quarter Light

Example of quarter light on burrowing owlQuarter light, similar to side light, is also called three- quarters light. Occurring during the same time of day as side light, the sun is at a 45 degree angle to the back or front of the subject, illuminating half way between side and front or back. Quarter light is considered a flattering light as it gives definition to the shape, making round objects appear round, while allowing the shadows to become a part of the subject itself. It shows detail and definition, providing a subtle definition of depth. It is an excellent light for photographing people, animals, closeup subjects, landscapes, and many subjects which require shadow for definition but not strong shadow lines.

Back Light

Example of backlight on grasshopperBack light is lighting with the source behind the subject, the opposite of front light. The back of the subject is illuminated. The light is usually pointing towards the lens of the camera. Back light creates a halo effect or rim light, giving an aura to your subject. Translucent subjects, or subjects with translucent edges, do well with backlighting. Grasses, flowers, insects, plants, some animals, and even people make for interesting backlit subjects. It makes translucent subjects glow as the light passes through the subject. By Example of backlight on an avalanche lilycreating a strong silhouette, the light outlines the subject with a glowing illumination. When you create a silhouette with your subject, make sure that the silhouette stands out from the background and that it is easily recognizable.

Reflected Light

When light from the sun hits a light or reflective surface, it bounces off and illuminates other objects in its path. You will find this reflected light in alley ways between buildings and in canyons where the sun hits one side of the canyon wall and reflects into the shaded side. The reflected sparkles of light from the surface of a lake or river dance among the plants and trees along the shore when the sun hits at the right angle, usually early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Using a photographic reflector, you can also reflect direct light onto a subject artificially.

Reflected light is colored by the reflecting surface. If it is a warm, golden color, it will reflect warm, golden light. A white or silver color will reflect a white, silvery light. The light is softer than direct light, creating a flattering source of light with fewer harsh and intense shadows. Macro photographers often work in low-light conditions, and use reflectors to direct light onto their subjects. Nature photographers enjoy this effect in tight canyons such as in the slot canyons in Arizona.


Light Direction
Either using artificial light or working throughout a day, photograph one subject using the different light directions mentioned. Take notes and compare the results. Which light direction does that subject most benefit from? Do this again with at least three other different subjects to understand how light direction changes their shape, texture, and the story.
Reflected Light
Light can be reflected from many different sources. The color of the source can influence the subject’s color, too. Look for subjects to photograph which are near a “reflective” surface such as a building wall, stone wall, or another surface. Photograph the subject when it is illuminated by the reflective surface (the sun hits the surface and bounces onto your subject). In your notes, describe the quality of light that is coming from the reflected surface onto your subject. Does the end result match what your eyes saw?

Light Characteristics

The characteristics of light are the elements which distinguish one kind of light from another, and affect the color of the light, as well as the impact of the light on the subject. Light plays with emotions. It can lock your attention onto the subject, invoking memories to make you feel sadness, happiness, compassion, heartache, or just wonder and awe.

The colors of the light are created when the light passes through the atmosphere. Depending upon the interference, sunlight changes colors. On a clear day, when the sun is near the horizon, the light passes through the most layers of atmosphere. Blue light gets filtered out, leaving the direct light, a warmer, red tone. When the light is directly overhead, it passes through the least layers and it is a whiter color. When the light passes through clouds, it becomes diffused, casting a softer light dependent upon the thickness of the cloud cover. When the light is blocked by another subject, the subject is then in shadow. Let’s look at the specific characteristics of light a nature photographer encounters.

Time is the Difference

Example of sunset light on mountains
The difference between these two pictures is about 30 minutes. The top picture features the shadows from the setting sun and the lower picture shows the soft light just after sunset. Light makes all the difference in the look and feel of a photograph.
Example of sunset light on mountains a few minutes later

Warm Colored Light

Research has shown repeatedly that people respond better to warmer colors than they do to cooler ones. Warmer colors are red, orange and gold. Cooler colors are blue, purple, gray and white. Nature photographers tend to work more with “warm” light than cool light, or they add warming filters to enhance the warmth of the image.

Warmer colors tend to be found when the sun is near the horizon, at sunrise and sunset. Called the “magic hour”, nature photographers are drawn to the few hours before sunset when the sun casts a golden glow on everything. The nearer the sun is to the horizon, the more intense the colors usually are. Different levels of pollution in the sky also enhance these colors, as the particles in the air act like a filter. Sunset and sunrise are also great times for photographing wildlife. Not only are the colors on their fur or skin rich with warmth, the animals tend to be most active at this time of day.

Warm colors lend a variety of emotional responses to an image. The warmth of sunset light on a subject can evoke memories of youth and days past. The afternoon light gives a healthy, glowing color to many subjects, inspiring feelings of success, excitement, richness, passion, and joy. Warm colors are happy and peaceful when used with cheerful subjects such as smiling children playing in the last rays of sun or a cat curled up in the last spots of afternoon warmth.

Cool Colors

Example of cool light on icy streamCool colors tend to put off “warm” feelings, but they are also dramatic when used to enhance appropriate subjects. Cold subjects, such as icebergs, a glacier, or ice and snow, do well when rendered with cool light. Our expectation is that these scenes will be cool in color. We also know that twilight and night is cooler, so these images are welcome in the cool, blue tones. Many people tend to feel “blue” and moody in the evenings, so look for photographic opportunities to express sadder, more melancholy subjects with light found during twilight times.


Twilight occurs for about an hour before the sun rises and for an hour after it sets. It is the time when the sun lights the sky while it is still over the horizon. Twilight is usually colored cooler pastel colors like blue and violet to pink. The shift from the gold and orange to indigo tones as the sun sets is magical and brings a different, almost mysterious quality to the color of the light.

Monotone in coloration, twilight is the epitome of shade, the final touch of light upon the earth. Its tones of blue and gray evoke sadness, sorrow, sometimes a peaceful and quiet feeling. We know that night is near, a time for rest and renewal for the next day.

Night Light

Night photography can be very exciting and very time consuming. It requires long exposures due to low light levels, but it can also create some wonderful effects. At night, there may seem to be no source of light. Lights at night are subtle, and can be found in the stars, the moon or with unusual sky lights such as aurora borealis or meteorites (meteor showers).

Light from the moon casts a cool, blue tone on landscapes. When lit by the light of the full moon, objects lose definition, even under long exposures. They seem to be the essence of monochromatic, black and white extremes with few shadows of gray. Photographing a snow-covered scene under a full moon can be particularly moody, as the snow reflects and spreads the cool light. These images can be very haunting, almost surreal, lending mystery and a threatening fear of the unknown.


Baby blue eyes flowers photographed in shade to enhance blue colorShade tends to be blue in tone and is most easily found on bright sunny days. Shadows are blue, as they are illuminated by the blue sky instead of the sun. Blue-toned shade enhances cool, blue-colored subjects such as snow, ice, blue flowers, and water. If you want a subject to appear “cold”, photograph it in the shade. Blue is a color of sadness and sorrow, and subjects photographed in the shade can evoke these emotions, unless the subject is blue in color. Then the color is enhanced and we often feel excitement and stimulation from the vibrant colors.

“The shadow’s the thing. Outside shadows are blue, I read, because they are lighted by the blue sky and not the yellow sun. Their blueness bespeaks infinitesimal particles scattered down infinitesimal distances. Muslims, whose religion bans representational art as idolatrous, don’t observe the rule strictly; but they do forbid sculpture, because it casts a shadow. So shadows define the real…”
Annie Dillard

Magic Light

Photograph of aurora borealisMagic light is usually caused by weather conditions, such as storms, which influence the amount and direction of light as well as the color of it. Gentle white puffy clouds can become dark and dramatic with the change of light caused by the weather. Storms bring gray and ominous tones. Crepuscular rays bring hope and brilliance. Rainbows offer hope and wishes come true. Fog creates a sense of isolation and loneliness. The Aurora Borealis, or Northern lights, is created by the charged particles from the sun interacting with the atmosphere to present swirls of green, blue, and sometimes red. Rarely seen, they are mystical and almost spiritual.

Example of crepuscular light coming through the storm clouds in the mountainsMagic light often happens suddenly, causing the photographer to race around in a desperate attempt to capture the magical moment. At the first sign of a storm or shift in weather conditions, anticipate the potential of the light to cause rainbows, fog, or crepuscular rays. What subjects are around you that will do well under these various lighting conditions? If you think a rainbow might appear, what kind of scenic or subject matter could use a rainbow in the background? If crepuscular rays of light may break through at any moment, what will it illuminate and what lens do you need to capture the “god-light” coming down from the heavens? By anticipating the potential scenes, you can prepare yourself by pre-selecting the lens you need and being ready to capture the scene when it happens. Practice searching for equipment in your camera bag while keeping your eyes on the quickly changing light in front of you so you can be ready when the moment comes.

Diffused Light

Weather conditions often diffuse the light. Overcast skies, clouds or fog can scatter and diffuse the light, causing few or no shadows on the subject. This allows natural textures and color to come out, and the light spreads evenly over the subject. After learning about the qualities of diffused light, think twice about dismissing a photo trip due to weather. Smart photographers are out photographing and loving the clouds, mist and rain.

Example of a marmot in soft but not diffused lightDiffused light is beneficial for all kinds of nature photography. It allows the natural colors of the subject to glow, removing the bright highlights direct sun can cause. Forests glow with their own natural colors and vibrancy without the sun washing the colors away or creating “hot spots” in the image. Closeup and macro photographers love diffused light for these very reasons, emphasizing the subject without the distraction of bright or reflected light hot spots. Diffused light eliminates these problems.

Example of marmot in fog lightDiffused light also comes in different intensities from the softest effects from high overcast clouds to the dark, misty effects of fog. Fog creates mystery in your scene, whether seen from above as part of a landscape, or from within as the fog swirls around your subject and blurs the background into a white-gray nothingness. Mist and rain also create a soft focus effect, giving a scene a romantic feel, creating dramatic and sensual images.

Emotional Light

When we think of creating emotion through photography, we often think of pictures of people – crying, laughing, dancing. Through the imaginative and creative use of light, we can create powerful images and influence emotions by provoking feelings of happiness, sadness, threat, excitement, the memories of youth, special moments, shared experiences, and new discoveries. Images and the effect of light can relay more than just the visual, stirring memories of the senses of touch, sound, smell, and taste.

Light Takes Time

As we have seen, light comes from many sources, each with a distinct color. Take time to watch the light change during the day and notice the color of the light as it changes on different subjects. Photograph the same subject at different times of the day and watch how the colors change and how the film records the color changes. Compare it with what you actually saw. Take notes or keep a journal record of your studies. It takes time and a lot of work and research for a photographer to “see the light” and learn how to capture it on film.


A Day Study
Choose a subject or scene and photograph it during the day from early morning (pre-dawn) to after the sun sets. Watch how the light changes on the subject or scene during the day as you photograph it.

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