While light is critical to all areas of photography, it has its greatest impact in nature photos, especially when photographing landscapes.

This photograph is all about the light and how it ‘plays’ with the mist rising from the water and the grasses and trees on the river bank. Getting the exposure right was essential for the balance in the shot.

The word ‘photography’ was created from the Greek roots ‘photos’, which means ‘light’ and ‘graphé’, which means ‘drawing’. So, by definition, ‘photography’ is the art of drawing with light. While light is critical to all areas of photography, it has its greatest impact in nature photos, especially when photographing landscapes.

Mastering the use of natural light effectively requires some experimentation with the subjects you choose and your shooting angles. Fortunately, you seldom find the light is so bad you can’t find some way to get a decent shot. In this chapter we provide some helpful tips and show some examples of the light-related choices you need to make.

‘Golden’ hours for landscapes

There are two times of the day, popularly known as the ‘golden’ hours, when the sun is at the best angle to produce the soft, warm light and long, soft shadows that add a special quality to landscapes. They cover the period 15 to 30 minutes before sunrise up to roughly an hour after the sun has risen, and the period 15 to 30 minutes before sunset to about 30 minutes afterwards.

There are times when shooting in the middle of the day is advantageous, as shown in this shot where the main subject is the group of interesting cirrus clouds. The road creates leading lines that take the viewer’s eyes up to the clouds and it’s not distracted by foreground details and short, almost invisible shadows.

This doesn’t mean good photographs can’t be taken outside of those time slots; just that it’s more difficult to avoid harsh lighting and short, black shadows on sunny days. Subtle lighting usually reveals colours in the scene in their true tones and makes your images more natural looking.

Pay attention to the direction of the light. Sunset and sunrise light are similar, but not identical because they come from different directions. Shadow directions can be structural elements used to direct viewers’ eyes to critical parts in a scene.

Interestingly, light is normally clearer around sunrise than at sunset because the warmth of the sun during the day heats up the land and stirs up tiny particles of dust and moisture to create haze. Haze absorbs the blue wavelengths so light around sunset is also redder.

Utilising light

Use your camera’s histogram display to ensure all the tones in the scene are recorded. Histograms that build up at the ends of the base line indicate the brightness range in the scene is greater than the sensor can record. Tonal values in these areas are ‘clipped’ to black or white.

Shooting raw files along with the JPEGs can capture a wider tonal range and give you more flexibility to edit your shots. If your camera includes an HDR (High Dynamic Range) shooting mode, try it out – but be cautious as some settings can deliver unnatural-looking results.

Your camera’s histogram display shows you when the subject’s brightness range is wider than the camera’s sensor can record. Histograms like the one shown here indicate both shadows and highlights are being ‘clipped’, which means details are not being recorded.

Many great shots are taken with the light behind the subject – known in the trade as ‘backlighting’. Backlighting is more challenging than the traditional practice of shooting with the light behind you.

Handled well, backlighting can bring out contrast in a scene, highlighting textures and emphasising the edges of objects. However, there’s a risk of introducing flare artefacts and veiling flare that degrades the shot.

This classic example of aerial perspective shows the landforms becoming lighter in tone with distance from the camera. It was taken in the northern highlands of NSW in early December; hence the warm tone resulting from dust and moisture in the atmosphere as the sun was setting.

Backlighting can also be a great way to show aerial perspective, the phenomenon created by increasing haze density, which lightens and softens the profiles of structures as they recede from the camera. The Blue Mountains west of Sydney owe their name to the presence of volatile oils in the air that evaporate to form a haze on hot days.

A classical inland sunset shot taken in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia with the sun partly obscured by cloud. Its intensity was reduced to the point where it could not damage the image sensor or produce flare artefacts.

It’s best to avoid shooting directly into the sun in most situations as it can damage your camera’s sensor and will almost certainly produce flare. The only time a direct-to-sun shot should be undertaken is when the intensity of the sun’s light is reduced by a band of cloud or thick haze near the horizon. Some nice shots can be produced in such situations.

This shot was taken just after sunrise when there was a thick haze of moisture and dust close to the horizon. Note the way the light picks out the edges of sand dunes in the foreground to reveal silhouetted vegetation.

Wildlife is also more active early in the morning; birds in particular begin their ‘dawn chorus’ shortly before the sun rises. This is a good time to set up your camera to capture shots in the early morning light – and, if you shoot video, record a wonderful soundtrack.

Late afternoon is another good time for wildlife photography, particularly for shooting animals. If you go on safari in Africa, it’s normal to go on game drives across the sunset period, ending up with ‘Sundowner’ drinks and snacks out in the field. Some drives continue after dark to take in hunting times for ‘Big Five’ predators like leopards and lions.

African safaris usually organise game drives for viewing and photographing wildlife in the early morning and late afternoon, when animals and birds are most active. This picture shows a typical game drive vehicle (top right), a shot of a young cheetah on a kill near sunset, and an after-dark shot of a leopard capturing and killing a porcupine – all taken on the same drive.

Use the time while you’re waiting for targets to decide which camera and lens settings you’ll need. Exposure values are normally dictated by light levels – and you’ll probably need to decide how high to let ISO values go when shooting in low light levels and at night.

Spot (or partial) metering gives you the best exposures for portraits of animals and birds, while centre-weighted average or evaluative metering are best for scenes, including groups of animals. Make sure stabilisation is engaged if you’re hand-holding the camera – and disengaged if you’re using a tripod.

Overcast days can be great for bird portraits as the lighting is softer and brings out the subtleties of colours and textures. Use a long telephoto lens at its maximum aperture to separate the subject from the background.

These three photographs of tiny fairy wrens were all taken on an overcast day with a 150-500mm lens using its maximum aperture. All three shots were taken at the full 500mm focal length with its maximum aperture of f/6.7. The top two were cropped to about a quarter of the original frame size, while the lower shot has very little cropping.

Bright sunlight can make gauging exposures difficult, particularly when subjects are lit against dark, shaded backgrounds. If you expose for details in light-toned feathers, the shadows and black areas in the subject block up.

Capturing a raw file usually records more subject details in the shadows, which can be brought out with post-capture processing. If you only take JPEGs, you’ll end up with a result that is almost impossible to edit because insufficient data was recorded, as shown in the illustration on this page.

Spot metering on the white features of this white ibis ensured plenty of detail was recorded. However, shadow details were so under-exposed they blocked up to black in this JPEG image file. Recording a raw file at the same time would have captured a wider range of tones in the shadows and these could be brought out with post-capture editing.


Because they are mostly stuck in one place, plants give you more time to experiment with lighting than animals and birds. It’s also easier to set up backlit shots, which can be particularly effective when you don’t want your light to appear flat. However, you need to position the camera carefully to avoid flare – particularly if the sun is within the boundaries of the frame.

Re-positioning the camera so most of the sunlight was blocked by branches made the difference between a flare-affected shot (top) and one that was usable (below).

Closer shots of leaves and flowers can also benefit from angled lighting and the use of longer lenses. You need to move the camera when photographing a plant in situ or rotate the subject if you’re shooting a cut-off section of the plant.

This close-up of part of a bush was shot with a 180mm macro lens. Compositionally, it would have been better to avoid the out-of-focus area on the left of the shot; but that would have changed the angle of the light, which is the main feature of the image.

Take plenty of shots to explore different lighting conditions – and different ways to approach them. Don’t be afraid to go out in inclement weather, provided your equipment can handle it. Some very attractive images can be captured when there are raindrops on foliage.

Look after your own comfort as well. If you’re planning to hike, make sure you have suitable footwear – which is comfortable. Take plenty of water and wear sunscreen and a hat in summer. When it’s cooler, lightweight layers allow you to adjust your clothing efficiently.

Research the area you plan to visit beforehand to discover the likely directions of sunrise and sunset so you have some idea of where it’s best to go and where you’re most likely to find potential subjects. Also check out logistic issues like where to park your vehicle, what permits or permissions might be required and any time constraints (opening and closing times).

Useful links

Low light tips

Make the most of available light

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Nature Photography pocket guide

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House