All nature photographers love natural light, and I’m no exception; when the natural light is good, I’m all for it! Those of you who know my work also know that I regard flash as an invaluable tool for the rainforest photographer. But sometimes neither natural light nor flash will do the trick. Maybe you need more coverage than a single flash will provide or, conversely, perhaps your flash will give too much coverage if you want to highlight only a single part of a scene. So, what do we do when we just can’t get what we want with the sun or our flash? Below I offer some tips on how to think outside the box when it comes to lighting sources for nature photography.
When doing night photography, most landscape photographers try to avoid artificial light sources. Nonetheless, artificial lights such as streetlamps can be a great way to do “light painting.” While doing a commercial job for Casa de Tranquilidad luxury villas in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica, I wanted a different, nocturnal shot of the main house that gave a tropical feel. After walking around for a while to find a good angle, I was able to work with some of the property’s security lights to produce the image above, which I think is pretty cool. Most importantly, the client agreed!
Another potential source of light pollution for nocturnal landscape photography is vehicle lights. I took pains a few years ago to line up with Polaris in order to get a circular effect for this star trail shot with palm trees in a cattle pasture in Costa Rica’s Cano Negro area. My idea was to paint the tree trunks with a flashlight, which I did. During the long exposure, however, numerous vehicles kept driving by on this remote rural road. I’ll bet more cars drove by during my 20 minute exposure at midnight than did during the whole day! I thought they had ruined my shot but to my surprise my flashlight was woefully weak, and it was the vehicles that provided just the right amount of light for the effect I wanted.
Now armed with a bit of confidence in vehicle lights, I didn’t panic when a van parked on a side road near the Pacific Coast beach where I was photographing stars. My plan had been to do a long exposure and walk over to the island with the palm trees (luckily it was low tide) in order to light it up with some flashlights I had. When I saw the vehicle, however, I was excited to be able to go for a shorter exposure in order to render the stars as points rather than trails, which I thought would be more effective. I did start to panic, however, when the van’s occupants got out and started to build a bonfire! Soon, though, I began to see that the smoke added a very cool, galactic-looking element to the image. Without the bonfire, the image would have been OK. With it, the image became one of my favorites. I printed this one at 30x 45 inches at my Missouri Botanical Garden exhibit a couple of years ago, and the Bethlehem feel of the image in the middle of a rainforest exhibit was a big hit with visitors. I did still use my flashlight to paint the sand in the foreground. The moral of the story — always have a flashlight, a van and some matches in your camera bag.
Costa Rica has some amazing frogs, and none is more popular than the red-eyed tree frog. Most photographers automatically go to flash as their light source for photography of nocturnal critters. I certainly subscribe to that approach in most cases, but one of the lodges I visit on my photo tours has a rule against using flash for the nocturnal red-eyed tree frog. The question of whether using flash on nocturnal animals has any negative effect on the subject is an open one, but when I visit a lodge, reserve, or park for photography, I think it’s best to observe their policies. So, I began using flashlights to photograph the red-eyed tree frog; indeed it’s one of the techniques I’ll be teaching during my May 2012 macro photography workshop here in Costa Rica. In addition to making it easy to follow the rules, flashlights have the benefit of allowing the photographer to have great control over the light source. My good friend Jose Lopez (a very good photographer and the driver and second guide for my company Foto Verde Tours) held the flashlights perfectly for me to be able to capture this image.
While out photographing with my good friend Fab Tessaro, I again put the flashlight idea to use on this nocturnal emerald glass frog. In this case, the choice to use flashlights over flash was due purely to aesthetics, not to any no-flash policy. By using three flashlights (Fab held 2, I held 1 in my right hand and the cable release in my left hand), I was able to get the glowing look that I wanted for this image. Don’t worry — I haven’t switched to Nikon! In order to speed things up, Fab and I took turns sharing equipment and for no particular reason decided to use his gear.
Flashlights are also great as fill or accent lights in the daytime. Indeed, I think this is one of the most effective but underused lighting methods in nature photography. In the example above, I found a nice composition of this tank bromeliad and its two purple flowers. Nonetheless, though this is the “technically correct” exposure, the image just wasn’t working for me. The diffused light in open shade was nice but the purple flowers themselves just didn’t pop. I needed the surrounding area to be darker.
Cutting the exposure by 1.3 stops (note the difference in shutter speed between this and the previous image) did the trick. The leaves and bracts surrounding the flowers look great. But now of course, the flowers themselves also are underexposed. Flash could be an option, but I wanted the extra light only on the flowers and not the surrounding bracts and leaves. Even with some sort of snoot attachment for my flash (which I didn’t have on hand), the light spillage into other parts of the image would have ruined the effect I had in mind.
Now we’re talking! By working with the global underexposure and adding just a dash of light from a maglite flashlight, which are great because you can adjust the beam spread, the flowers now pop out beautifully from the surrounding leaves and bracts.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Next time you’re out in the field, I invite you to look for some uncoventional sources of lighting, be it a streetlamp, bus headlights, fire, or a flashlight.
If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.