Thinking about photography and light as a combination and many immediately think of golden hour. It is a truly stunning time of day; the hour after sunrise or before sunset when the sun is low, casting long shadows and bathing everything it touches with a stunning rosy light. However, it is far easier said than done to photograph during this time. Not only do you have to find a subject, you also have to hope they are positioned in the light and not sheltering in the shade. Despite the struggles, many photographers swear by only heading out to photograph during this time. For me, I cannot help but find this restrictive and I’d hate to imagine how many photographic opportunities and sightings I would have missed out on by limiting myself solely to golden hour.
The reality is that you can photograph at any time of day – it is simply about knowing how to work with different types of available light. In order to understand how different light conditions will affect my camera settings I find it simpler to break it down into different times of day.
Dawn and Dusk:
Possibly the most the challenging time of day to photograph. The light is too weak to use fast shutter speeds without exceptionally high ISOs or heavily underexposed images. However, the light is too strong to use spotlights for any advantageous results. Personally, I use this time to be creative and experiment, often by playing around with slow shutter speeds. If your subject is moving, try showing its motion by either blurring the subject’s body (known as static blur) or by blurring the background your subject is against (known as motion blur). For those new to these terms they are achieved by doing the following:
Static Blur – holding your camera still and allowing your subject to move through the frame leading to a sharp background and blurred subject
Motion Blur – following the movement of your subject with you camera, in an effort to keep the face/eye in focus but the body of your subject and background blurred
Both are difficult techniques to master and require a steady hand and lots of experimentation. You will need a slow shutter speed but the exact speed can be difficult to determine as it will vary subject to subject and by how much motion you would like to capture. Start within a range of between 1/20 and 1/60 and adapt from there. Despite their difficulty (I still only get a couple of successes out of what feels like hundreds of attempts), they are great fun and will really push your photographic technique and creativity.
Equally, if motion just isn’t your thing then that’s ok too, you will just need to look out for a very relaxed subject that is relatively close to you. These subjects will be much more obliging at staying still long enough for you to get a sharp image using a slightly lower shutter speed and higher ISO. Just remember to brace your camera well against yourself or something such as a beanbag or tripod to help stabilise it. This will make it easier to get a sharp image. Knowing your camera’s noise capabilities (which is best learnt through practice and experimentation) will help you determine how high of an ISO you can use before your image becomes unusable.
Sunset/Sunrise and Golden Hour:
My absolute favourite time to photograph. During this time, placing yourself between the sun and your subject is ideal as it is in this position that your subject will be bathed in that stunning light. However, positioning like this is not always possible. If the sun is behind your subject, look for rim-lighting and silhouettes. This can often lead to very dramatic and atmospheric results.
However, a word of caution when it comes to photographing during this time. It might be called golden hour but at times can feel like the golden 15 minutes. This is possibly the most important time of day to be watching your settings closely. The light will change rapidly, almost minute by minute at times meaning you will have to be constantly aware of the sun. As it falls, you will find that your shutter speed will also have to slow down, whilst your ISO number slowly rises.
Middle of the Day:
The bright light available in the middle of the day can initially seem like a great time to photograph as on the face of it you can use faster shutter speeds and lower ISOs. However, this is when the sun is at its highest creating shadows which are harsh and directly below your subject. This can make it very difficult to expose well for your subjects as the top of your subject is often bright and white (over-exposed) whilst the lower parts of your subject can appear dark and black (under-exposed).
This ultimately means we are losing detail in our subject. As a result, its often the part of the day when I photograph the least. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t photographic opportunities available. Looking for subjects in shade where the lighting is more consistent can be a great alternative as can purposefully playing with silhouettes by underexposing parts of your scene.
A time many people write off photographically but that with perseverance and patience, can be one of the most exciting times to photograph. The nocturnal world is very different to its daytime sister. Within the natural world, certain species are either more active at night or not seen at all during the day making night-time a wealth of opportunity to photograph in. However, your strong beacon of light, the sun, has gone and its place, a far weaker spotlight or other light source. This means that your shutter speed will slow right down, and your ISO will rise dramatically.
A steady hand and big dose of luck becomes essential to your photography now. I personally find that I typically aim to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/100 or less with a wide-open aperture and even working with those low numbers, my ISO will still be at least 3200. Therefore, it becomes about being selective with what you choose to photograph. I want a subject that is close to me and relatively still. Slight movement is fine, there are still opportunities to play with motion blur and panning during this lack of light, although running subjects will be almost (but not quite) impossible to capture effectively.
But it’s not all hard and fast. These are guidelines to follow but they shouldn’t be taken as gospel. This is because time of day is not the only consideration when determining your camera settings. The weather also plays an important role. For example, photographing during the middle of the day in bright sunshine might not be ideal, but what if its overcast?
Clouds act like a giant soft box over the sun, softening and diffusing the light. This gives far more leeway when photographing wildlife, effectively allowing you to photograph all day. However, on these days watch your ISO carefully. If the clouds are darker, you may have less light and need slightly higher ISOs whereas if they are bright clouds you may need a lower ISO.
And finally, look at where your subject is positioned. Is it in shade or sunlight? The answer to this will change your settings and how you shoot. In shade, you will need a higher ISO or a slower shutter speed depending on how your subject is behaving. If it moves from sunlight to shade or vice versa, be ready to change your settings and quickly in order to continue making the most of your photography.
But ultimately, it is about being aware of light and how it is changing around you, and how this will affect both your subject and your camera settings. After all, regardless of what type of photographer you are, the very essence of photography is about capturing light. By watching the light around you and evaluating whether you need to adjust your aperture, shutter speed, ISO or even a combination of all three, you will be in the best possible position to capture images at any given time or opportunity. Unfortunately, wildlife does not adhere to our schedules, it does not care which light it looks best in, so we cannot control at what point they will appear.
My last bit of advice would be to know your ‘safe’ settings for different light conditions. Know what you need to order to freeze what you are seeing. This will allow you to bank safety shots at every sighting. From there you are free to play and experiment without the fear of missing out. By doing this you will continuously learn and develop, giving you more possibility to photograph no matter what light you are in.