Why and How Controlling the Natural Light in Nature Photography

You are a photographer. You know that you must use light to take your photographs.

But have you ever wondered why you should use it and how.

In this article, I will give you some food for thought.

This photograph taken during the rut season shows on time I saw the 'Light'.
This photograph taken during the rut season shows on time I saw the "Light".

The Little Story of this Blog Post

It is always interesting to tell a short-lived story to properly lay the foundations of an article to situate the context.

This story that I lived takes place in Dombes in June 2019. Patricia A. is a faithful participant of my nature photo workshops. She became a real friend. We often understand each other in half-words because we have shared many extraordinary moments on the ground.

It is 11:00 a.m. I will start a presentation on photography as is the custom during the workshops. Patricia left since 5 a.m. She should have returned around 10:30 am. I have no news. I will start my presentation for the 5 other photographers when she arrives silently in the common room.

She is silent. She walks lightly. She is elsewhere. Her gaze is strange. Nobody says anything. Usually, she always arrives in a rush and always heads for her computer. This time, she does nothing usual. It's strange.

I'm afraid she'll tell me bad news.

I ask her how she is and if she had a good morning on the pond where she went to make photos with a floating blind.

She is looking at me. Her eyes shine. I expect the worst because I have the impression that she will cry.

She almost whispered, “I saw the light!”. Then "I understood what you wanted to tell me all these years”. She concludes "I have made more than 2,000 photos".

I understand immediately. I smile. I am happy for her. I just let her rest and take her time. I will give him a summary of the presentation and give him my personal notes. She is in a moment of grace. I cannot steal from him that magic moment that so few photographers have experienced.

Patricia is one of a small number of photographers who one day saw this magic light. They lived an extraordinary moment. After this experience, nothing will ever be the same again.

I have been fortunate enough to experience this emotion many times in my career. It is always a highlight that I never forget. It's totally indescribable. Only people who have experienced this moment can understand.

I believe that it is from this moment that we understand what “photographing” means.

Why Controlling Light in Nature Photography

In photography, light is your medium. It is for this reason that it must be understood.

Light highlights the different elements that can be used in a photograph.
  • Light defines shapes.
  • Light defines lines.
  • Light creates textures.
  • Light determines colors.

When I created a nature photograph, I strive always to control these 3 elements in order:

  • The décor.
  • The natural light.
  • The photographic elements.

Light comes second. Controlling it is essential to write correctly photographically. Its goal is to highlight the centers of interest by creating contrasts and models. They will create the famous 3D effect that I sought after permanently

A Little Bit of Etymology

The etymology of the word photography comes from two roots of Greek origin. The prefix photo means "who uses light". The suffix spelling means "which results in an image".

Natural Light is Necessary but not Sufficient

Following this etymological analysis, you would think that photography comes down to good management of light natural.

I thought that in nature photography, light is not sufficient.

I place this always the decor in my scale of the components of an image.

Light is a necessary condition for creating a beautiful nature photograph, but it is not sufficient. Without a well-chosen decor with a strong impact, a nature photo remains poor, without much interest.

This is certainly not true in other photographic fields. But as I do not master them as the photography of nature, I will avoid giving my opinion.

The Purpose of Natural Light in Nature Photography

Natural light sculpts and colors the various elements of a nature photograph.

It is different according to the hours, the seasons. In addition, the choice of the point of view can completely change its rendering on the scene.

I advise you to always favor the light at the beginning and end of the day because the sun is low. It is at these moments that the best contrasts are obtained. The low-angle lighting creates plays of light and shadow. These shadows create relief around the photographic element centers. This is what gives depth to the photo.

In photo language, it is said that a zenith sun crushes the scene. The absence of contrast and modeling makes the centers of interest seem flat.

You must know how to harness the heat of the lights. The morning lights are cold. The evening lights are warmer.

Playing with lights can completely change the nature of a scene.

Light Direction is Essential

The presence of natural light on a nature scene is not sufficient. You have to consider its direction.

If the sun is behind you, then the stage will be flat in terms of volumes.

If the sun is facing (it is the backlight technique) then the centers of interest will be in silhouettes which are also called shadow puppets. The scene becomes suggestive.

If the sun is on the side then the textures, the details and the volumes will be better restored. The shadows give relief. You should not hesitate when it is possible to change your point of view to get the best result.

In my photographs of nature and in particular animal scenes, it is this last method that I privilege.

If the sun is cloudy then it will give more softness with less marked highlights and low lights.

How to Use a Camera to Capture the Light

Cameras have 3 main modes for measuring natural light. Other modes are starting to appear, but they are only variations of the 3 basic modes.

Matrix Measurement

In some camera manufacturers, this measure is also called evaluative.

This measurement considers almost the entire scene to be photographed. This is an average of all the lights photographed. It is the most standard, efficient and common mode to use.

It is not suitable for very contrasted scenes. The photographed scene must be very evenly lit.

The Central Weighted Measurement

To this extent, it is a surface close to the center of the image that is valued. It is finer than the matrix measurement. It is to be used when the light is not evenly distributed over the entire image. The calculation of the measurement also considers around the predominant central surface. In wildlife photography, this interesting measure when a large animal is photographed while it occupies the center of the image. The coat, plumage or skin will be perfectly exposed. It should be noted that most cases offer the possibility of modifying the size of the central surface. This size is given in millimeters.

Spot Metering

This is the most difficult measure to manage because the area analyzed is very small. The slightest shake can cause the scene to be over or under exposed. This measure is particularly suitable for birds with white plumage. It is enough to measure the light on the plumage to have details. The rest of the scene will be dark, but the bird will be perfectly exposed.

Most cameras today perform spot metering at the point of focus. A few years ago, this measurement was made in the center of the image.


A good mastery of natural light and essential to create creative and interesting photographs. Good management creates volumes and reliefs that will give a 3D effect to a photograph. But it takes time and experience to tame it and know how to use it wisely.

I wish you one day to know the emotion of meeting " the Light". After that moment, nothing will ever be the same again when you shoot.

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Article published on Friday, December 27, 2019 . Written by
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