Winter light, side and back



There are few greater opportunities for dramatic lighting within your photographs than a good winters day. Wildlife photographer, Craig Jones on how to capture the best winter photographs...

There are few greater opportunities for dramatic lighting within your photographs than a good winters day. During the winter months the UK as part of the Northern Hemisphere is at the closest point to the Sun, these days are shorter and the Sun is low in the sky giving some of the best light a photographer can wish for. On the shortest day of the year, known as the winter solstice, the Sun is at the lowest point within the southern sky. During the short winter days the Sun does not rise exactly in the east, but instead rises just south of east and it sets south of west.

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Each day after the winter solstice, which occurs on around 21st December, the Sun's path becomes a little higher in the southern sky. The Sun also begins to rise closer to the east and set closer to the west until we reach the day when it rises exactly east and sets exactly west. This day is called the equinox. In the spring we have the Spring Equinox the opposite to the winter equinox around 21st   March. With this knowledge in tact you can make best use not only of the light but the shorter daylight hours in which wildlife has to conserve as much food as physically possible to survive the extreme weathers of winter. Its one of the best times for light throughout the seasons. Being able to use this light on offer with transform your image and I hope to simplify is within this post.

Photography is the art of taking or making photographs, it is the creation of images by exposing film or a computer chip to light inside a camera.  The word photography comes from Greek words meaning to write or draw with light.  Sit in the same position for an hour in the morning or evening and you'll see just how quickly light changes. Dawn and Dusk are truly the best times for light that often yield the most pleasing conditions in which to photograph in. With softer, angled light winter can offer the photographer endless opportunities for dramatic images of wildlife. But also for animal activity, with colder conditions and shorter days where the sun does really rise as high throughout the day.

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There are few greater opportunities for dramatic lighting within your photographs than a good winters day.

Lighting can transform an image, adding a beautiful atmosphere within the photograph with loads of impact to the main subject. Great care must always be shown not to point the lens directly at the setting or rising sun as it will damage your eyes. The lens must be clean and free from smears and dust, and sometimes the effects of flare can add a lot to the image so don't throw the images away until you get them home and reviewed them on your computer. The direction of light will dramatically affect the way shadows fall in a scene within nature or on a subject.

Back lighting can give your subject a strong outline and add a great atmosphere to your image with a great deal of impact at the same time. Allow where possible you're subject to be the main feature of your photograph with the use of simple composition with the sun directly behind it. The best times for back lighting to be at its best is dawn and dusk when the sun is low in the sky, creating the warm colours and glow from this wonderful time of the day. If the shape of the subject is easily recognizable through its strong outline it will make for a beautiful photo. This form of lighting provides the most atmospheric illumination and the greatest sense of depth, it can give your images an air of mystery when used well with a great deal of impact.

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The correct exposure for backlit shots can be tricky so you will have to experiment with darker and lighter exposures in order to get the desired effect and overall feel and mood of the image you want. Use single selected focus point and spot metering where you can take a reading from the subject's body and set the exposure in camera. Dealing with the ever unpredictable subject of wildlife though the subject may not allow you the time to take a reading for the perfect exposure. And always try to keep the affect of lens flare down by keeping out of direct sunshine as much as possible when taking the photo.

'Back-Lighting' which gives your subject a strong outline and adds a great atmosphere, with a great deal of impact to your image also, it's counterpart 'Side Lighting' emphasizes a great deal of texture from the use of light highlighting your subject from the side, and when put to use in your image carefully it can produce a wonderful and dramatic image again with bags of atmosphere, giving the image a three-dimensional feel. A word of warning though from my own personal experiences 'Side Lighting' gives you the best results when the sun is low in the sky eg. Sunset, Sunrise.

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Side Lighting does not work very well if the background is really cluttered or messy with lots of detail and other things going on so keep it as clean as possible, the idea is to isolate the light against your subject with a clear background illuminating your subject from the side bringing out all the texture in the feathers or fur at the same time creating a great deal of depth to the image. Always expose for the sunlit side of your subject, even at the cost of losing some shadow detail.

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The way you use light in Wildlife photography is very important for the overall effect you are wishing to capture, Side Lighting is really effective when shooting close up portraits of wild animals and birds. The contours of the face are really well revealed, the texture of the fur and feathers really stand out a great deal more due to this mode of lighting. Try when possible to use the widest aperture you can on your telephoto lens rendering the background blurred, creating a smooth backdrop to your image.

Use 'Side Lighting' alongside 'Back lighting' as a part of your everyday Wildlife Photography, from the garden to the air, creating two very different images through the use of natural light which is at its very best during sunrise and sunset, illuminating your chosen subject from the side or the back in the case of 'Back Lighting'. Winter light and the conditions can offer you some wonderful images. Always remember when working with wild animals they come first and at dawn and dusk the last thing you want to do is to impose yourself to quickly or scare the animal you're wishing to photograph in these lighting conditions. Its also very important to know that calories are burned off more quickly during the winter most so fieldcraft and respect have to be the first priories of any photographer as if the subject has to move to avoid you and this carries on there's no telling the animal will be able to recoup those "spent" calories and energy avoiding you which in terms means your action may result in the premature death of your subject should it struggle to find enough food.

Craig Jones

Winter is a testing time for all living animals but with those conditions and the light it offers, respecting the wildlife around you first and foremost and the rewards of beautiful images will be yours. I hope this blog post has helped, I have tried to simplifier the art of side and back lighting during the winters months and I hope its inspired you to just get out there and put into practice what I have told you, good luck and thank you.