Light, does it matter?

If you’ve read any photography books, seen any tip articles online or spoken to a photographer for more than 5 minutes you have probably heard them talk about light and how important “good” light is when you are taking pictures.

In the past, I have always thought that was rubbish and you can take a picture in any condition. I still believe this, to an extent. More recently my views have changed and I may have been converted to a light chasing maniac.

Due to this change in mind-set, it started me thinking about things I do now that I didn’t use to and how that has improved my photography and I wanted to share this with you. I have read these tips in many books and online, but a lot of them tell you what to do and do not go in to much depth around why you should do it. I will be approaching this by explaining why I do this and my experiences.

1. Getting low down

The tip here is to try to get as low to the ground as possible with the purpose of getting to the animals eye level or lower if possible. This will mean that you have to crouch, sit or even lie on the ground. For me this is very hard as I am a very lazy man! I find it a bit tricky to explain why this helps as the easiest thing to say is ‘it makes the picture look better’ but that isn’t much help so after some thought I came up with the following reasons.

- It makes the animal more imposing in the frame. With a view point that is lower than the animal, you can make the smallest of animals look really impressive.

- It helps you connect with the animal. Often you can look into the animal’s eyes on their level which also gives a perspective change that most people will never see.

- It helps with composition. It pulls the background further away from the animal, so you can get the background blurred out and make the subject stand out in the frame. It also can give you a nice clean horizon at the subject’s feet.

Personally, I think it always looks much better when you are low down. I hate shooting animals from above, as the image looks so disconnected from your subject. I find this hardest when shooting birds on lakes, as it’s normally very difficult to get low down to the waters level. Recently, I have been shooting red deer and I try to position myself below them, then I get them on the horizon with trees/sky in the background.

Below are two images that show the difference of getting low and not. I took the first photo whilst standing up and decided the composition could be improved.

I moved to the left, the deer was then looking directly at me and I crouched down to get a better position. In my opinion, the second image is much stronger. The deer stands out being more prominent in the frame, the background is clearer as you can only see the top of the trees and the horizon is now where the deer is standing instead of behind it.

Looking at both images I think the second has a better composition, but I’m a little too low as when the deer is looking at the camera you want to be at eye level. I’m just slightly below that. You can decide which one you like best.

2. Look at the background

The first tip is all about making the animal in your image look as good as possible which means that you will be concentrating on that animal, making sure they are in the right position, their eyes are open, in focus and so on. The next step I find makes the biggest difference, is looking at the background. The worst thing is getting your image into your editing suite and finding there is a big distraction in the background that ruins the image. Below is an example of not paying enough attention to the background.

As you can see in this image there is some metal in the background, I believe it’s a trailer for a boat which spoils the natural feel of the image and cuts right through the adult’s face. I think in a different position, I probably wouldn’t have been able to capture this image with the adult and youngster mirroring each other, but I shouldn’t have set myself up in this position in the first place. More recently, I try really hard to make sure I look at the background before I even start shooting. Although, positioning myself and correcting in some cases will mean waiting for the animal to come to you if they are moving around like these geese were. This can be quite tricky when as soon I see something I want to capture, I can get trigger happy and forget to think about things first.

There are two main things I try to do with the background and foreground to better my photos. The first is to have the background as simple as possible, with as little distraction as possible. Normally with my images, this will be trees or bushes and if you can get as close to one colour that is completely blurred this is perfect. Below is a good example of this.

The second thing, on top of having as little distractions as possible, is to use the foreground and background to enhance the image in some way. This helps create a natural frame in your image with elements that are blurred such as the image below.

3. Leaving space around the subject

This is quite a new one for me, as I used to be obsessed with getting tight portraits of animals, making sure that the animal was massive in the image with it filling as much of it as possible. I would even crop images to achieve this affect and sometimes I would definitely go too far. I have recently been looking back at old images that I edited and pulling the crop out slightly to reveal more of the surroundings. It lets the animal breath a bit in the image, which in my view, has improved a few of them from how I left them last time.

I think the change in this perspective has come as a result of me moving from photographing captive animals to trying to capture more wild animals. When taking photo’s at a zoo there are many manmade objects around the animals. Therefore, to capture a pleasing image you normally have to go tight in on the animal and concentrate on portraits. When you’re out in nature there isn’t much that gets in the way, letting you experiment with using the environment and including more of it in your image instead of having to keep it tight in on the animal to avoid ugly bars or walls in the picture.

This is a recent image I took and I have left quite a lot of space around the animal.

I think in the past I would have cropped or composed my image like the one below but I really like the space around the deer in the first photo. The second image feels too tight and you don’t get the space to see the deer gazing off to the left.

4. Trying to get good light

Here is where I try to answer the question I posed in the title. I hope to explain where and why my views changed. It happened while I was photographing the red deer. I have been doing this a lot, so I have seen a lot of different lighting conditions in the same location. On this particular day the light was changing very quickly as it came in and out of the clouds, which meant that I came away with lots of pictures of the deer. Some had lovely golden light illuminating the image and other images the light was very flat and overcast. Seeing the difference side by side in my editing suite I could see that even a photo that wasn’t particularly good is improved with good light. It can turn a good photo into a great photo and to produce great photo’s you need to make sure that everything in your composition is the best which includes the lighting conditions you are shooting in.

I would like to point out that I still think you can take photo’s anywhere anytime and come away with really good images but to keep improving and to try and produce images that could win awards, the light is key.

As you can see in the image below there is golden light illuminating the deer from the right hand side. It’s quite soft as it was late in the day and gives the image a nice glow.

I have removed the golden light in this image so you can see the difference it can make.

5. Shoot in Raw & edit

This tip is a little different as it’s not about the composition of the photo but I wanted to quickly mention it as it makes a big difference. Starting to edit my images has definitely made a difference to me and shooting in RAW format makes this possible. I’m not saying you don’t need to get the image right in camera, but if you are slightly off with the exposure, for example, this can be very easily corrected. If you don’t already, start shooting in raw and I would highly recommend getting some editing software, I use Adobe Lightroom, but there are many others out there.

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