Nature photographers talk a lot about the importance of quality light, but how important is it really when making an image?


Unlike a lot of professional photographers, I didn't own a camera until I was in my late teens. When I eventually took up nature photography, I felt I had a lot of catching up to do, so I picked up as many guides, manuals and magazines as I could get my hands on and amongst the plethora of advice and tips on capturing the ‘perfect’ image, was a theme you’ll no doubt be familiar with – the golden hour.

During the hour (or so) immediately after sunrise and just before sunset, the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. Golden light seems to enfold rather than shine down upon us, illuminating areas that would otherwise be cast in shadow. The moment is fleeting and given how busy our lives are, it’s easily missed.

Of course, midday sun can be quite spectacular, but when it comes to images of wildlife, I’d guess that the majority of photographers favour the light of the golden hour. Making an image in dramatic light not only compliments the subject, but somehow highlights how difficult it can be to make an image of the subject in the first place. Combine an engaging subject with a good composition and exquisite light and your image is elevated ten-fold.

I recently spent an intense couple of weeks getting to know and photograph a local family of badgers. I knew the location had potential, but with limited time to harness the right light, I had to work quickly.

Consider this image - one of the first I made when I was happy the badgers would tolerate the sound of my shutter.

On the night this image was taken, clouds on the horizon obscured the sun before it reached the critical point. The result was a flat, fairly standard image – guidebook fodder so that you can see what a badger looks like. There’s certainly no hint of ‘specialness’ to hint at the difficulty I had in finding this hairy little creature!

A couple of evenings later, the forecast showed clear skies into the night. Still, it was no guarantee - a thin, stray cloud can be enough to disperse the light and prevent the rich colours from reaching the ground. As luck would have it, the sky was completely cloudless - it was on!

Positioning myself downwind and looking into the sun, I was able to produce this image.

The difference is huge.

Back-lighting from shooting into the sun created a rim of high-contrast wherever there is was an edge – in this case, the outline of the badger. The hair, eye-lashes and whiskers all shone with a warm, golden-orange glow, leaving me with the technical challenge of under-exposing the image to combat what my camera thought was nothing more than shadow.

I know which image I prefer. How about you?