Wildlife Photography with Maximum Impact: Outdoor Lighting and Contrast

How To Capture Wildlife Photos That Pop!

by Jim Zuckerman

Great Grey Owl, British Columbia, Canada
Great Grey Owl, British Columbia, Canada
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

Wildlife Photography According to Jim Zuckerman

As I teach in my online class on Wildlife Photography, there are five types of lighting that you have available to you when photographing outdoors. Light can illuminate a subject from:
  1. the front,
  2. the side,
  3. the back,
  4. a three-quarter angle, or
  5. within, where a translucent object seems to glow from within.
In the accompanying photo, you see an example of three-quarter lighting. Note how this light adds interest and drama to this Great Grey Owl portrait.

Giraffes in Namibia
Giraffes in Namibia
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

Contrast Reduction When the Sun is Low

When the sunlight is low to the horizon, contrast is reduced. Contrast is significantly lower than when the sun is higher in the sky. The lower the sun is to the horizon, the lower the contrast will be. This will allow both the shadows and highlights in your wildlife photography to have a pleasing degree of detail.

Look at the shadowed side of the great gray owl's face above and you can see detail in these shadows. This picture was taken about forty five minutes after sunrise. Had I photographed this one hour later, the shadow on the face opposite the sun would most likely be black or close to it.

Wildlife photography at its best - Moose in the Snake River
Wildlife photography at its best - Moose in the Snake River
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

Natural Light for Beautiful Wildlife Portraits

A wedding photography friend of mine once suggested to me that I travel with two strobes instead of one. He successfully uses two flash units when he shoots weddings, and his entire orientation to photography is dealing with high stress, fast moving situations in dark interiors. A second flash adds dimensionality and life to a shot in these kinds of situations.

Most of the wildlife photography I do when I travel, however, is done with available light. I prefer the natural look that ambient light gives, as long as I can choose the type of lighting. I try to avoid direct sunlight during the middle of the day, for example. Shade is so much more attractive for outdoor portraits because, as I mentioned above, it retains the subtle light and dark relationships on your subject. Flash, even fill flash, tends to eliminate or reduce those subtle details.

This photo of a moose is a good example of both complimentary lighting and shallow depth of field. (You can learn more about both of these topics in my Wildlife Photography online course here at BetterPhoto). If I were to have used flash in this instance, flat lighting on the moose and artificial catchlights in the eyes would have ruined the lovely moody quality of this wildlife portrait. I love the way both the foreground and background of this photo turned out - and I owe a lot to the natural light that was available at that moment.

About Wildlife Photography Expert Jim Zuckerman

Jim Zuckerman has traveled to over 60 countries in his search for the perfect photograph. He specializes in nature, wildlife, travel and stock photography.

Jim also teaches several outstanding online photography courses here at BetterPhoto.com, including:

About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Photography Instructor: Jim ZuckermanFew people are able to spend most of their time pursuing their passion in life. I'm one of them, and I feel blessed to have had a love affair with photography since I began taking pictures.

In 1970, I decided to abort my intended career as a doctor in favor of photography and have never regretted it. Photography has enriched my life more than I can tell you. My career has taken me to over 60 countries, and I've seen and photographed wondrous things.

I specialize in wildlife and nature, international travel, and digital effects. In addition, I also shoot nudes, photo- and electron microscopy, children, and other subjects that stimulate my visual or emotional sensibilities.

For 25 years, I shot a medium format camera, specifically the Mamiya RZ 67, for its superior quality. When I would lecture, Id project the large, glass mounted transparencies, and it was really an incredible experience to see the brilliant color saturation and resolution of these slides. However, I went digital in 2004 because the technology finally equaled or surpassed medium format. I now shoot the Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera with a variety of lenses.

I am the author of 12 books on photography. My work is sold in 30 countries around the world, and my images have appeared on scores of magazine and book covers, calendars, posters, national ads, trade ads, brochures, and corporate promotions.

For many years I've led photography tours to exotic places. These include Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Burma, Greece, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Spain, Morocco, and Peru.