Explore for light, above all else, for great nature photography

I’ve long taught my journalism students to think of photography as “painting with light.” The camera doesn’t record the subject matter you see in the viewfinder. It captures the light that is reflected off it.

Indeed, the elements we compose into our final images exist because of and within the light. Without it, color and form are pretty much irrelevant. Many of the greatest nature images ever captured lacked color altogether. Think Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. In fact, without light, color doesn’t exist. (More on that in a second.)


Direct, mid-day sun usually isn’t optimal lighting, but that’s not to say it can’t ever work. These cutleaf toothworts were shot at 3 p.m. on an April day in the Hoosier National Forest. — Nikon D600; Micro Nikkor 60mm, 2.8 — f/22; 1/250 sec.; ISO 640

The forms we discover and capture in nature result from the interplay of highlights and shadows, which are the consequences of light.

So, when we are exploring the forest floor for brilliant wildflowers or the horizon for a magnificent vista, we are actually exploring the light, which contains several basic qualities that we nature photographers must consider when setting up our shots.

Among them are Brightness, Color and Direction.

Brightness: The old adage that open shade holds the best light is still valid, as intense, bright light produces harsh images with often unacceptable contrast levels. Washed out highlights, deep, dark shadows and little in between.


Late-evening light is warmer than mid-day light. The sun is farther away from the Earth, and the atmosphere filters out the shorter, blue light waves, allowing the longer reds to reach our subjects. — Nikon D600; Nikkor 24-70, f/2.8 — 2.8; 1/320 sec.; ISO 160

Bracketing down a stop or more during exposure on bright days can reduce the highlights and give you more control when editing. Bringing shadows up is far more effective than taking highlights down.

And in the Digital Age, photo editing software makes light intensity more manageable. I find cranking down the Highlights and Whites and adjusting the Contrast can take the edge off the most contrast-y of pics.

Color: Color is, in fact, a property of light, which is actually a range of physical waves from infrared (long) to ultraviolet (short).

Colors are warmer when the sun is furthest from the Earth, early morning and late evening for example, because the atmosphere filters out the shorter blues waves, allowing more reds to reach our subjects.

Direction: Light direction is a quality that nature photographers readily employ to dramatic effect. In addition to producing richer colors, morning and evening sun casts shadows that create lines and forms that attract and hold the eye. Direct, midday sun seldom produces drama, though it can in spring and fall when the sun is further from our subjects and colors are therefore richer.

Direct, angled and back lighting produce diametrically opposed effects on the same subject. My eye is always drawn to backlit subjects.


Artificial light may feel unnatural, but sometimes it’s the only way to capture the colors and forms that lurk in places the sun never reaches, like this sandstone formation at Portland Arch Nature Preserve. — Nikon D600; Nikkor 70-300, 4-5.6 — f/3.2; 1/200 sec; ISO 800

Sometimes, there simply isn’t enough light on a scene or subject for the image you want or need. And while artificial may seem inherently antithetical to the idea of nature photography, sometimes you must resort to it, either to get the image at all or to add effect.

My old Nikon Speedlight has brought more than one shady sandstone bluff or sunless deep woods to life. I carry a small flashlight for, on rare occasions, added shine on the forest floor.

I also add light using the Brightness tool in Photoshop.

So when you are climbing a lookout tower, hiking a trail or patrolling a creek bed with your DSLR fixed firmly atop your tripod, explore and use the light, and you’ll be all right.

Steven Higgs is a partner in Indiana Nature Photography and author of A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana: 119 Places to Explore, published in April 2016 by IU Press. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More.