Rick Hobbs Photography

Wildlife/Nature/Outdoor Photography

Photo Tips

Reading the Light

When photographing any subject whether it is wildlife, a beautiful scenic, flowers, streams, or your family members, the lighting is probably the most important element to making an image with impact. Of course, you need a subject that is interesting and a good specimen, then it is all about the lighting.

In fact, you are actually photographing the light and the subject just happens to be in the viewfinder. The lighting will impact a photograph so much that it is often the deciding factor on how much you like an image.

As a test, you can pick a subject that does not move, set your camera on a tripod, take a picture once each hour from dawn to dusk, lay the pictures out in the order they were taken and you will quickly see the difference the lighting makes. Now consider that weather can change the lighting from day to day and you soon realize the important role that lighting will have on the outcome of your images. There is a huge difference between jumping out of the car to take a shot in the middle of the day and actually waiting for the light to get right before creating an image.

When reading the light for a photograph you should evaluate three things - the Quality - the Quantity - the Direction.

Gray Wolf

The Quality of light is critical and is why most photographers prefer the early morning and late afternoon light which is much softer and pleasing on the subject. The mid-day light on a sunny day is very harsh, stealing the color and texture from your subject, leaving you with hard shadows and glare everywhere. That is why most photographers get up early and stay late to photograph while using the middle of the day to scout their subjects, get some work done, or take a nap.

The Quantity of light is equally important. As discussed above in the middle of a sunny day there is just too much light for good photography. On the other hand, if it is cloudy/dark your images will look very flat and lifeless. Below we will discuss the Direction of light as well as several different types of lighting and pros/cons of each.

Eastern Screech Owl


The Eastern Screech Owl shown above was shot with basic front-lighting. This is when the light is coming over your shoulder and shining directly on the subject. The subject is evenly lit and the shadows are generally behind the subject.

Pros - the subject is well lit and you can easily stop the action such as flight or an animal running.

Cons - the light does not add any impact or drama to the subject - it simply just lights it up - functional yet boring.

Snow Leopard


The Snow Leopard shown above was shot with side-lighting. This is when the light is hitting your subject from the side. The subject has areas that are lit as well as areas that are in shadow. In this example, the face, chest, part of the legs, hips and tail are lit up while the shoulder, side and parts of the legs, hips and tail are in shadow.

Pros - the subject usually has enough light on it to stop the action and the lighting is more dramatic and interesting. Going back and forth from light to shadow and light to shadow requires the viewer to spend more time looking at the image to see everything.

Cons - for this type of lighting to work well you need to make sure that key areas of the subject are lit such as the head or face for example. This can be difficult to get just right in a quickly changing environment. Also, you want to be able to see some detail in the shadow areas - not just black space.

Great Egret returning with nest building material


The Great Egret shown above was shot with back-lighting. This is when the light is hitting your subject from the back. At sunrise and sunset I use it to create colorful shillouettes while during the day I use it for rim lighting to make certain areas stand out more than others.

Pros - the subject usually has enough light on it to stop the action and the lighting can be much more dramatic and interesting.

Cons - because all the light is coming from behind your subject it is difficult to see much detail on the front of your subject.

Great Horned Owl


The Great Horned Owl shown above was shot with cloudy/bright-lighting. This is when thin clouds act as a giant diffuser in front of the sun. The subject is evenly lit and shadows are non-existent.

Pros - the even lighting means you do not have to worry about distracting shadows on your subject, or background, and you can potentially shoot all day if you do not get the sky in your images.

Cons - because the light is even it is not very dramatic and you usually do not have enough shutter speed to stop dynamic action.



The Hummingbird shown above was shot with flash-lighting. One or more flashes can be the only light source such as when photographing hummingbirds like in this image (3 flashes) or when working inside a studio. Also, you may be able to use fill flash to remove shadows and control the lighting on your subject if you want it to be different than the existing natural light.

Pros - With multiple flash units you can create your desired lighting effects. Also, you may be able to use fill flash on a cloudy/dark day or if your subject is backlit and you want to see more detail.

Cons - the flashes have a limited reach and limited area they can light up. Ideally, you do not want the photograph to look like a "flashed" picture so it takes practice to learn how much flash to use so the final image looks natural.

Gray Wolf in Yellowstone


The Gray Wolf shown above was shot with spot-lighting. Spot-lighting is rare but when it happens only a spot (hopefully your subject) is lit and the rest of the image is in shadow. In this example, the trees blocked all the remaining light except for one spot and thankfully the light landed on this wolf finishing an elk carcass in Yellowstone.

Pros - very dramatic lighting.

Cons - the light has to hit the perfect spot for it to work.

In conclusion

I may not have covered every conceivable type of lighting, and I did not discuss reflectors, but I hope this helps. Unfortunately, you can not always get every subject in the perfect light. However, by understanding the lighting you do have, coming back on a better day or time, or by moving around a bit to get the lighting you want for the shot, you can significantly improve your chances of getting a great image.


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