Light and Color - Close Up Photography in Nature (2014)

Close Up Photography in Nature (2014)


Light and Color

“John, what happens when you shoot images using mid-day bright sunshine?” I was asked this simple question by well-known Michigan nature photographer Larry West while I was a student at his 1977 summer field workshop.

Hoping to impress my very knowledgeable instructor, I began: “The high-contrast light makes it hard to capture color and detail everywhere in the image. Mid-day sun is a harsh light and creates dark shadows because the overhead sun is high in the sky. These are distracting shadows that are unflattering and often conceal important shadow detail. Moreover, while the shadows are too black, the highlights may be ‘blown out,’ thus destroying important detail in the highlight areas. Additionally, bright sun has a very neutral color and many of my outdoor subjects are enhanced by the warm golden colors of early and late day when the sun is low in the sky. And besides …”

At that point, Larry just smiled and interrupted my answer, which obviously would never end, by quietly saying: “Bad light makes bad pictures!”

And how correct Larry was!

My lengthy and not-so-insightful answer merely described the “mechanical” effects of unflatteringly bad light on the image. Larry did a much more effective right-brain summary of the issue by implicitly suggesting that a serious photographer is wasting time by shooting in lousy light.


Hollyhocks grow in our garden. To add interest, we showered the flowers with a handheld sprinkler. The water drops show up best when the early morning sun backlights them. Unfortunately, the dense flowers block the sun too much, creating black shadows. Nikon D4, 200mm, f/13, 1/160, ISO 100, Cloudy.


Barbara uses her flash to open up the shadows after first setting the natural light exposure. The short flash duration freezes some of the water drops. Nikon D4, 200mm, f/13, 1/160, ISO 100, Cloudy, automatic flash with the Nikon SB-800 using the SU-800 Wireless Flash Commander.

I have come to realize that to be a successful photographer, one must first learn to see the light. If I use my time, effort, and resources to shoot only when the light is favorable, I dramatically raise my percentage of “keepers,” enhance my professional credentials, utilize my time and money more wisely, improve my artistic self-satisfaction immensely, and most important of all, my students learn much more. Even as I write this, while leading a photo tour at Kenya’s Samburu National Park, I continue to follow Larry’s advice. Here, I counsel my students to shoot intensely during the first two hours of morning light and the last two hours of the day, when the sun is low in the sky and the light is golden. For the little shooting I do here for myself, and for any of my own shooting for that matter, I won’t even bother to shoot any images in lousy light.

After all, they would promptly be dumped into the computer’s insatiable “bit bucket” depository of discarded images, so why bother taking them? This may be even more important for our students. Barb and I have conducted nearly forty African photo tours, and we’ll hopefully teach more. Most of our students are here for a one-time event, so Barb and I are duty-bound to do everything we can to help them capture exceptional images during their limited time. As Larry West knew so well, fine images are made most easily in superb light.

Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks. I promised earlier to be honest in this book, so here goes: Many photographers believe that they can see the light. Their feelings are honest, but unfortunately, many are naive. What they see is only whether there is enough quantity of light to shoot—not whether the quality of that light is worth a hoot. And light that is not worth a hoot doesn’t even make good images of owls! However, even some pro photographers occasionally attempt to make images in poor light. Today’s computerized darkroom can help improve many lackluster images, but the process is wearisome, often technically problematic, and sometimes not aesthetically wonderful. Doesn’t it make better sense to simply shoot the same subjects, but only when the light is splendid? Let’s look at some of the factors important to outstanding light shooting.


Think of a gorgeous orange Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly gracefully posing on a colorful flower. Can your close-up shot be accomplished without light? Hardly! Some shooters argue to use only “naturally occurring ambient or available light,” but can you make an image with unavailable light? Neither can I. Only the light illuminating your butterfly can be focused by your lens and captured by the millions of pixels of your camera’s sensor. And that light has important—no, not just important, but critical characteristics. One crucial parameter is color. Did your high-school science instructor teach you about Roy G. Biv, a mnemonic for the color spectrum of visible light? The sequence, from low color frequency to high, is Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. These colors of light impinge on the camera’s sensor to form the millions of tiny reservoirs of electrical charge that record the butterfly’s colors and send them through the camera’s inner workings. After much electronic manipulation, the light ultimately forms your image. If the colors of the light reflected from your butterfly are drab, you will get a drab butterfly image. If the colors, intensities, direction, and contrast of the reflected light are lovely, then your butterfly image might just become a prize-winner! Paraphrasing a perhaps not too diplomatic former U.S. president who said, “It’s the light, stupid!”


Calm and bright overcast is an ideal time to photograph large groups of flowers like this colony of Indian Paintbrush. Calm is crucial because there is no way to stabilize each of these blossoms with Plamps. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 17-40mm lens at 20mm, 1/4, f/16, ISO 200, Cloudy.


Color is but one of the four important qualities of light.

Collectively, they are:





Let’s explore them one by one, and in some detail.


A fancy word describing the quantity of light or how much is available. The amount of light, whether ambient light, light supplied by the photographer such as a flash, or a combination of the two, determines what can be photographed at the desired ISO settings, the desired shutter speeds, and the desired apertures. On an overcast morning, the dim light can be problematic when shutter speeds must be lowered to the point of introducing wind-blown subject movement, when the aperture must be opened to some lesser and undesirable depth-of-field, or when the ISO must be raised into a high noise region. If, for example, you must lower your shutter speed to, say, 2 seconds, it can be tough to anticipate a 2 second period when the prevailing wind will not wiggle your flower and blur your image. The odds are against you. But if the dim light brightens by just 3 or 4 stops, a faster shutter speed can be used and your luck improves. Obviously, the dim light makes for dim viewfinder images and difficult focusing, but when you have enough light, you can happily use the aperture you need for your desired depth-of-field, the shutter speed you want for arresting subject motion, and a low enough ISO to avoid visible noise in your image shadows. Adequate light is happiness!


Returning to the subject of color, have you ever wondered why the sky is blue? The answer lies in the different ways in which different colors of light are affected as light rays travel at various angles through the earth’s atmosphere. Light has different colors because of differences in what’s called “wavelength.” Let it be said, though, that blue light has a different wavelength and therefore has a different behavior than red light. As the sun changes its position in the sky, its light travels through the air at different angles, and the various colors of light are differently affected. One result is a blue sky because the atmosphere tends to reflect the shorter wavelengths of blue light rather than the longer wavelengths of red, orange, yellow, and green light.

The light conscious photographer is acutely aware of blue sky. While the blue skies can surely be pretty, the blue light falling on the earth can be a photographer’s headache. Let’s consider what we call “open shade.” Open shade exists when our subject is in the shade, but under an open blue sky. The blue light falling on the subject gives a blue cast to all of the colors of the subject. That blue cast degrades all the warm colors—the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns. In blue light, our orange butterfly is less orange and our yellow flower is less yellow. The blue light compromises the warm colors. Even otherwise neutral colors will take on a blue colorcast.

If the subject is not under open blue skies but is under white clouds, the blue colorcast is less pronounced, though it’s still present and generally an irritant to photographers. Often the alert photographer can compensate for the blue light by careful selection of white balance settings in the camera, or especially if shooting RAW files, by adjustments in post-capture RAW conversion. Moreover, when in a shaded setting in a forest, the blue light from the sky and the green light reflected from the trees and grass can mix to a distinct blue-green color. Generally such complex light colors can be controlled by using the Custom white balance capabilities of the camera or perhaps by post-capture editing which is possible to some degree with JPEG files and to nearly any degree with RAW files.


Auto white balance doesn’t work well in close-up photography because the subject often fills the frame. This orange tulip doesn’t appear anywhere near its proper color because Auto white balance is unsuccessfully compensating for the preponderance of orange light reflecting from the tulip. If you shoot RAW, the colors are easily adjusted later with software. But, if you want good-looking in-camera JPEGs, then Auto white balance often fails. Nikon D3, Nikon 200mm, 1/50, f/20, ISO 200, Auto.


We both shoot Large JPEG plus Large RAW files for all of our close-up images. Therefore, Barbara uses the Cloudy white balance to compensate for the excess blue light in the overcast light to keep her orange tulip warm in color. All shooting data is the same as above, except the Cloudy WB is used rather than Auto white balance.

Most cameras, and perhaps all cameras commonly used by serious shooters, offer several presets of white balance selections along with a few variable selections. The presets of the Canon 5D Mark III include Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Flash, Tungsten, and White Fluorescent Light. The variable choices include Auto, Color Temperature, and Custom. Your camera may offer different choices, but most likely they are similar ones that merely go by a different name. We will look at the choices most likely to be used by the close-up photographer.

White Balance Setting: Automatic

If a subject has a colorcast to it because of the color of the prevailing light, the Automatic white balance (AWB) selection will attempt to remove that colorcast and render the image as if it were shot under white light. Sometimes the Automatic white balance system can’t cope with a complex mix of light colors. A common example is the blue light of the sky mixing with the green light reflected from trees. The AWB system doesn’t compensate well for both, leaving the image with an unwanted colorcast.

Photographers shooting RAW files have a decided edge here. JPEG files come out of the camera ready to go, but they only allow minor color correction in post-capture editing. RAW files allow far more color optimization. RAW files come straight out of the camera and may appear dull and flat. They become usable images after a software editing process called “RAW conversion” has been used. One shooter I know, whose name I won’t mention, was thoroughly alarmed by his first new results using his new expensive first digital camera. He was very close to tearfully shipping it back to the vendor and going back to film, before he came to understand the characteristic of RAW files! During RAW conversion, the data contained in the RAW file is converted into one or more of several standard image formats, and in the process can be edited easily in many ways, including changing the colorcast, or white balance, to suit the photographer’s aesthetic desires. So much latitude is offered the RAW file user that some shooters operate with complete disdain for white balance control because they know they can change it at will in post-capture edits. Ignoring white balance admittedly removes one more item from the list of things we have to think about when shooting, but Barb and I counsel otherwise, believing that one should always do the best possible job with the camera and thus minimize computer editing.

Incidentally, a RAW file itself cannot present a visible image. It’s solely a bunch of digital numbers capable of being converted into an image. Thus, when a RAW file is “viewed,” either on the back of a camera or in a computer, it’s only because the RAW file contains an embedded JPEG file that is used for viewing.

Barb and I don’t use Automatic white balance, preferring to choose a white balance setting appropriate to the color of the prevailing (dominant) light. By selecting the optimum white balance choice, the image looks more colorful on the back of the camera and on our computer. Since we shoot large RAW files and large JPEGs simultaneously, using the appropriate white balance choice reduces the need to edit the JPEG files, making them easy to use quickly for slide programs. In John’s case, he sets his Canon cameras to the Landscape picture style, which instructs the camera to increase the color saturation and the sharpness of the JPEG files, making them better for immediate use without additional software tweaking. Admittedly, doing this affects the histogram display slightly. The histogram’s rightmost data will touch the right wall of the histogram a tiny bit sooner than if a Standard or Neutral picture style is used, but the difference is small.

While RAW file shooters can comfortably use Automatic white balance most of the time, both JPEG shooters and RAW shooters must take care when doing close-ups. The reason is that so often when shooting close-ups we largely fill the image frame with a single color. For example, if a bright red flower occupies most of the frame, the poor camera doesn’t recognize a red subject, and assumes it’s a neutral-colored flower basking in strong red light. The Automatic white balance system will try to compensate for that assumed bright red light and will produce a spoiled oddly colored image.

Aside from our close-up concerns, many a beginner has been disappointed by sunrise and sunset images when they forget to move the camera off the AWB mode. In AWB, the camera decides that the red subject means illumination by red light, and the camera removes the colorcast, much to the irritation of the forlorn photographer.

White Balance Setting: Sun or Daylight

The color of the mid-day sun is well-known. It’s a neutral light that reveals colors more accurately than any other light and usually provides pleasing colors. However, the neutral color of sunlight is limited to mid-day. At dawn and dusk the sunlight is red. Why red, you ask? Honestly, not only does the sunlight get red at the extremes of the day, it gets red also at extremes of latitude, such as the northern hemisphere’s Alaska and the southern hemisphere’s Falkland Islands. Sunlight gets red at those times and places because the sun hovers low in the sky. This means the sunlight must travel a greater distance through the lower atmosphere before reaching our eyes than does sunlight coming from above us. It so happens that as sunlight passes through the atmosphere, the dust particles and moisture molecules attenuate the higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) of the sunlight—the cooler blues, indigos, violets, and greens. When those cooler frequencies are more attenuated, the residual sunlight reaching our eyes has a greater percentage of the warmer colors remaining—the reds, oranges, and yellows. The sunlight thus exhibits the strong red-orange cast that gets so many photographers out of bed before dawn and keeps them out way past dinner!

Yes, golden-red sunlight can make beautiful images. JPEG shooters, however, must remember to turn off AWB and use a fixed white balance. Additionally if your camera allows custom WB settings, something very high, like 10,000K, will enhance the warmer colors and can produce dramatic sunrises and sunsets. Returning to our close-up pursuits, Barbara and I find that backlighting with the sun’s warm colors can produce terrific results!

Irrespective of the gorgeous sunrise/sunset images frequently available, sunlight isn’t always the optimum light. Sunlight from a mid-day clear sky is a very harsh high-contrast light that can cause offensive black shadows in our pictures unless the subjects are front-lit so that the shadows fall directly behind and are invisible to the camera.

White Balance Setting: Cloudy

Whenever the sky is mostly covered by clouds, we routinely recommend the Cloudy white balance preset. An extensive but reasonably thin cloud layer gives the bright overcast that is sometimes considered “God’s Diffuser.” This can be the ideal lighting for many subjects because of the absence of undesirable shadows when the light is coming from every which way at once. Through clouds thick or thin, the light is scattered by water droplets and takes on a significant bluish color. The Cloudy white balance setting of the camera will add some yellow to the image and reduce or cancel the undesirable blue light. Keep in mind that the Cloudy white balance is probably the most versatile single setting for outdoor close-up work. We use it more often than any other.

White Balance Setting: Shade

On a sunny day, whenever you are photographing in the soft light of shade, the light has a strong blue color. This occurs when clouds block the sun or other obstacles such as trees, mountains, or perhaps a tall building. Much of the light when shooting in shaded conditions is blue because the subject is illuminated by the scattered blue light from the sky. To compensate for this excess of blue light, use the Shade white balance setting, which adds yellow to the image and mitigates the preponderance of blue light. Nature photographers commonly shoot under shady conditions, so this white balance choice will be one that is used frequently.

White Balance Setting: Flash

Flash generally produces a color of light that is similar to that of the mid-day sun, but it may have a slightly blue color. Some flashes are made with a little yellow filtering over the flash tube to reduce the blue cast. The behavior of the Flash white balance setting is much like that of the Cloudy white balance setting in that a little yellow is added to the image to mitigate whatever blue may be present. So, when flash is the major source of light, be sure to use the camera’s Flash white balance setting.


Grasshoppers can be photographed on cool mornings when they are sluggish, if you move slowly, and use a longer focal length lens for more working distance. This grasshopper is in the shade with an indigo blue sky above it. Open shade is excessively high in blue light, which is not suitable for this warm-colored subject. Canon 7D, 180mm, 1/2, f/16, ISO 100, Sun.


Compensate for the excess blue light created by the blue sky by setting the Shade white balance. The camera adds yellow to the image and thereby reduces the blue colorcast.

If you are using a mix of ambient light, with a lesser amount of flash, perhaps when using flash as a fill light, then the better white balance would be that which compensates for the major ambient light source. A good example would be shooting a flower growing in a shaded area and using fill-flash to open up the shadows. If the ambient light, the light of the shaded area, is the main light, then Shade white balance is the way to go. And moreover, don’t get too fixated on the nuances of white balance. As we’ve said before, JPEG users can always make limited white balance changes in post-processing editing and RAW users have total flexibility over the white balance effects (the color) of the final image.

White Balance Setting: Custom

Here’s an option that critical shooters can use to accommodate complex multi-colored lighting. Remember, though, that it’s useful mostly to the JPEG shooter with limited post-capture editing capability and to those RAW shooters who want to do everything in the camera and not in post-capture editing. Other RAW shooters depend on the RAW file’s extremely wide flexibility for post-capture color control.

Consider a white flower growing in a green forest on a cloudy day. The light coming from the clouds has a high blue content, giving everything a blue cast. If that were all, you would set your WB to Cloudy, which would add some blue-canceling yellow to the image. The problem, though, is that the light also passes through, or reflects from, the green chlorophyll-filled leaves, which adds a green cast. The yellow added by the Cloudy WB setting would not itself compensate for the green cast, but it will affect the apparent color of the greens by making them more yellow-green. If, however, one were to set the Custom WB properly, the multi-colored cast can be largely neutralized.

To describe the process of setting Custom WB, I’ll use a Canon 5D Mark III, although virtually all serious DSLR cameras offer a similar methodology. If you’re going to use Custom WB, be sure to read your camera manual carefully. Here’s how I use it with the Canon 5D Mark III.

✵Place a sheet of unlined white paper in the same light as the subject.

✵Fill the center region of the viewfinder with the paper. Add 2 stops of exposure compensation to make certain the white paper comes out white and shoot the image.

✵On the Shooting 2 menu tab, highlight Custom white balance and press the Set button. The image of the white paper is displayed on the rear LCD, and in the upper left corner the Custom icon appears.

✵Press the Set button. A confirmation screen asks whether you want to use the white balance data from this image of the white paper. Select OKAY and press Set. Unless the camera is already set to Custom WB, a second screen reminds you to do so.

✵Press Set and then press the shutter button half-way to dismiss the menu. The camera will use the white balance data from the white paper to neutralize any colorcasts in subsequent shooting until you change the WB setting.

✵Be sure to remember that the camera is now compensating for the color of the light that illuminated the white test paper. If subsequent shooting involves a change in lighting, the white balance will be inaccurate. Shoot another shot of the white paper that is illuminated by the light to create the new Custom WB for the light conditions.


These iridescent Ring-necked Pheasant feathers make wonderful patterns. This taxidermy mount is placed in the shade to avoid the contrast of bright sun. This creates a witch’s brew of multiple colorcasts. The feathers are predominately red-orange in color and the light is high in blue content. When you have multiple colorcasts, the best way to handle it is to shoot RAW and adjust the colors with software or use Custom white balance because it can neutralize more than one colorcast at a time. Auto white balance does a poor job. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 100mm, f/18, 2 seconds, ISO 100, Auto.


The Custom white balance produces far more realistic colors. I photographed a white piece of paper in the same light as the pheasant. Then I selected the image of the white paper and set Custom white balance. The camera “looks” at the image of the white piece of paper and creates a custom white balance to compensate for all colorcasts. The shooting data is the same. Only the white balance changes between images. Instead of Auto WB, Custom WB is used.

The above procedure might seem to be complex, but it really isn’t. It’ll become second nature after you have done it a few times. However, I seldom use it, and Barbara rarely uses her Nikon’s equivalent system. Why? We routinely capture both a high quality JPEG and RAW version of every image we shoot. It’s more efficient to select the closest non-custom WB setting and make final corrections later. JPEGs easily handle minor color corrections. If a large color correction is required, then we use the RAW file and convert it using the RAW conversion software in Photoshop. Even my free Canon Digital Photo Professional software works fine for converting RAW images.

However, we still do advise those who shoot only JPEGs to use the Custom WB most of the time to capture superb color in their images that require little or no color adjustments later. We would do this, too, if we shot only JPEGs and didn’t have the RAW file to work with when needed.

White Balance Setting: Color Temperature

This white balance setting allows the shooter to tailor the camera’s white balance setting for any specific color of ambient light, even some light not accommodated by the routine white balance settings. The use of this setting is problematic in the sense that it requires the use of an expensive color temperature meter. Barbara and I see no call for this capability in close-up work. In landscape photography, however, we do sometimes set our cameras to 10,000K to produce dramatic red sunset or sunrise images.

White Balance Setting: White Fluorescent

Subjects illuminated by fluorescent lighting are often difficult to shoot because of the unpleasant green cast of that light, and the additional problem that the light’s color changes with the aging of the lamps. We recommend that where feasible, you shoot those subjects under window light or with flash, or with a mix of both. In other words, avoid using this type of light unless there is no other option.

White Balance Setting: Tungsten

Tungsten lamps are the common incandescent lamps that emit light with a strong red cast. This white balance setting attempts to compensate for that red cast, although as with fluorescent lighting, it’s much better if you can use window light or flash, or a mix of both.

The Most Useful White Balance Settings

We have already mentioned the blue light of a bright cloudy day. However, the bright low contrast light of that cloudy day is generally excellent for close-up photography. The use of the Cloudy WB setting will add yellow to the image to compensate for the blue. If the subject is in the shade, then using the Shade WB setting will add even more yellow to compensate. Early or late in the day, when the low sunlight is high in red, orange, and yellow content, the Sun or Daylight white balance will better match the light.

Thus, the Cloudy, Daylight, Flash, and Shade white balance settings are by far the most useful for close-up photographers when shooting outdoor images where JPEGs or RAW and JPEGs are captured. For those who shoot only RAW files, Auto WB works fine with the understanding the colors will be optimized later when the image is processed.


Having rambled on over the color of light, let us look at one of the other important light parameters—the direction. Front lighting, side lighting, back lighting, and diffused lighting each have a major effect on our photographic goals.


Light direction is crucial in close-up photography. Front light is probably the most used light direction, but often it isn’t the best. This delicate Western White butterfly displays its attractive pattern nicely with front light, but the texture in the wings is missing. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, f/18, 1 second, ISO 100, Sun.


The natural light exposure is darkened by 1/3 stop. A Canon 600 EX-RT flash is held above the butterfly to skim the light across the wings. This weak side light creates soft shadows that emphasize the texture in the wings. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, f/18, .8 second, ISO 100, Sun, Canon 600 flash.


The Canon 600 EX-RT flash is held above and behind the butterfly to rim it with light to better reveal its shape. See how the flash nicely highlights the tiny backlit hairs on the butterfly and some of the leaves. Though many photographers love front light, side light and back light generally produce more interesting images. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, f/18, 1-second, ISO 100, Sun, Canon 600 flash to light the butterfly from behind.

Front Light

Front light is light that shines most brightly on that part of the subject facing the camera. Photographers of a century ago were often constrained by low film sensitivity to shoot only when the sun was over their shoulder, thus producing front lighting. Even today, more images are shot using front light than any other. Front light is good for revealing color and detail in the subject and good for causing objectionable shadows to disappear because they fall behind the subject. Front light also illuminates a subject with often desirable low contrast light. Although front light is frequently effective, we believe it is used far too often because side lighting and back lighting often produce more interesting images.

We’ve already paraphrased a well-known politician by saying, “It’s the light, stupid!” It’s the light that displays the shape of the subject, the texture of the subject, the color of the subject, the different tonalities of the subject, and everything else about it. In frontal lighting, shadows are few and subjects can appear two-dimensional. Their shape is hidden. Shadows are important to show shape in many subjects, flowers being a good example. Moreover, frontal lighting hides texture. The scaling on the butterfly’s wings is far less visible when obscured by low-contrast front light. Whether a novice or more advanced shooter, you’d be wise to always consider the direction of the light.

Side Light

Side light is the best light to use if you wish to reveal the texture of a subject. Subjects like feathers, leaves, butterfly wings, and many other flat surfaces that have considerable texture can be dramatically portrayed by using side lighting. Yet side light does not work so well with subjects having considerable depth. A frog, mushroom, or tulip may all cast harsh and distracting shadows when using side light. Of course, such shadows can be easily mitigated by diffusing the light with a reflector or by fill-flash.

Back Light

Dew-laden spider webs and dragonflies, a yellow aspen leaf or fern leaf, frost on the windowpane, delicate flowers, and the thin wings of butterflies, all produce splendid and dramatic images when illuminated from the back. Back lighting is terrific when illuminating any subject with small hairs because the lighting makes the hairs glow, and that highlights the shape of the subject. It’s also the best lighting for translucent subjects of all types because of the way the back lighting highlights subject details. It will take some thought and a good deal of practice to achieve these dramatic results.

Light coming from behind the subject is often high in contrast. If a subject is not translucent, then the camera’s view of the subject may be in deep shadow with little detail. It’s also important to remain alert for objectionable lens flare and the resulting fogginess that can occur from a light source in front of the camera. Prudent aiming of the camera or use of the “hat trick” might eliminate or at least reduce flare, but if using the hat trick or some variant thereof, make sure the hat is not in the frame! Hat trick? Just hold your hat out in front of the camera to block the sun from directly entering the lens.

We have noticed that many beginning photographers shy away from back lighting, or perhaps just have never added the idea to their kit of photo tools, but don’t avoid back light. You will find your image collection markedly improved when you use it in those situations where it without a doubt works well. Take the time to experiment!

Diffused Light

Most of us have at one time or another been irritated by unwanted harsh light. Its high contrast with dark and detail-hiding shadows is troublesome. Sometimes we can diffuse the light with a portable diffuser, or we can move our subject into the diffused light of shade, or even generate some shade. Portable fold-up diffusers are readily and inexpensively available. At times, a wide and cooperative friend comes in handy to shade flowers, insects, and other small subjects. Sometimes one can just sit, wait, and enjoy the outdoors until a helpful cloud wanders under the sun.

Low contrast diffused light is excellent for subjects with lots of depth because it comes from all directions and “wraps around” the subject. It’s good for flowers, frogs, mushrooms, insects, and lots of other subjects, especially when the sunlight is bright, but still highly diffused by clouds. Diffused light is easy to manage, and its effects may be optimized by adding some shadowing with electronic flash or inexpensive fold-up reflectors. As with any light, or for that matter any technique, just beware of overusing it to the point your image collection is in a proverbial rut.

Modifying the Light Direction

By way of illustration, let us talk about butterflies. Bronze Coppers, Monarchs, Black Swallowtails, and other species sleep on the vegetation in weedy meadows. The early morning golden sunshine finds many a photographer using front lighting when shooting these insects. When they use excellent technique, they certainly capture pleasing images, but often a little deviation from the ordinary can significantly improve those images. Again, consider back light. When shooting the butterfly from its shaded side, being cognizant of lens flare of course, the back light will highlight the rim of the butterfly’s wings and its body, and perhaps light up the translucency of the vegetation upon which the insect is resting. But, it’s likely that the shaded side is too dark and needs a bit more light. This is easy to do! You can use a white or silver fold-up reflector, or even better at this time of day, a gold fold-up reflector. Holding the reflector at this angle or that will give you complete control over the light.


Alpine Spring Beauty bloom near the top of Colorado’s Mt. Evans in late June. Like most alpine flowers, they grow close to the ground to avoid the freezing effects of the cold wind. The bright sun creates harsh shadows that are distracting and hide the flower’s color and detail. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, f/18, 1/80, ISO 200, Cloudy.


John blocked the sun from hitting the flower. Shading the subject is a simple and highly effective way to control excessive contrast. Shading does change the color of the light by making it bluer and increases the exposure time—in this case by 1.7 stops. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, 1/25, f/18, ISO 200, Cloudy.

If you aren’t carrying reflectors with you or are all out of hands to hold everything, a little flash illumination can do the job. Just use appropriate flash exposure compensation when in an auto flash mode, or appropriate power level ratio when in manual flash mode, to satisfactorily illuminate the dark side of the butterfly. And if you attach a light-yellow gel over your flash to better match the early morning sunlight, you are a clever photographer indeed!

Using back lighting to highlight rim detail and translucency while adding light to the shadowed sections of the subject is an effective lighting technique we call crosslighting. The back light comes from behind the subject. The light we add to fill in the shadows created by the back light comes from the opposite direction. These two light sources essentially cross at the subject location. Be sure to use it!

Finally, this: I’ve extolled the many virtues of back lighting at length, and while I shun “rules” in photography, preferring to call them guidelines, there may be one thing that truly deserves to be a rule: If it’s translucent, back light it!

Shadows Reveal Shape

Diffuse light does a fine job of preventing harsh shadows in a subject, but some shadowing is generally necessary to show the shape of a three-dimensional subject. Yes, we can easily shoot a wildflower with the virtually shadowless diffuse light of a very cloudy day, but sometimes a little shadow can add some pizzazz to the image. It’s easy to do, too. Just use a reflector to slightly brighten one side of the flower and expose to retain the detail on the brighter side. The opposite, or darker, side now has some soft shadowing that helps to emphasize the shape and suggests three-dimensional depth. Reflectors do a good job here.

Another approach is to light one side of the flower with flash. With the flash exposure compensation control (our preferred method), or with power ratio control of the flash in manual mode, add about 1 stop of light to one side of the flower. While reflectors are okay, flash offers considerably greater control of the lighting ratio. We’ll be covering flash more extensively in Chapter Five, but here are some elements of the contrast enhancing procedure:

✵Set an exposure to underexpose the flower by about 1 stop. That means that the brighter tones of a trial histogram will be a stop or so to the left of the right-hand edge (sometimes called the wall) of the graph space.

✵Set the flash exposure, using as we’ve discussed either the flash exposure compensation feature with automatic flash or a power ratio controlled manual flash to increase the exposure by a stop. This will now move the histogram data to the right, i.e., to the preferred ETTR position.


In any ordinary scene and its image there are two major kinds of contrast, color contrast and tonality contrast. Color contrast is the difference between colors, for example, blue and yellow, but it is tonality contrast that interests us here. Tonality contrast is a measure of the difference between brightnesses of a hue, for example, between light gray and dark gray, between white and nearly white, nearly white and not so nearly white, light green and dark green, dark magenta and light magenta, and so on.

Though the elements of a subject themselves have a contrast between the lower-tonality (darker) areas and the higher-tonality (lighter) areas, different lighting conditions can greatly modify the contrast. Consider a mushroom. The contrast of that mushroom under very diffuse light is quite low. The lightest part of the mushroom may be only a stop different from the darkest part, so the subject contrast, sometimes called its “dynamic range,” is only 1 stop. Now, however, let’s put the same mushroom into the mid-day sun. The harsh sunlight brightly illuminates the crown of the mushroom while casting a black shadow onto its background and under the mushroom’s cap. The tonality difference between the brilliantly lit crown and the deep dark shadow may now be 5 stops or more, a significant problem for the mushroom shooter!

Along with ruinous high winds, excessive contrast can spoil a close-up photographer’s day, but we have already mentioned a couple of controls we can use to address the problem. Let’s take a look in more detail!

Controlling Contrast


A wildflower illuminated by harsh sunlight coming from one side will have dark shadows on the other side. The contrast between bright and dark areas can easily exceed 3 stops of light. This may not be enough to make the shadows completely black because the blue light of the sky can operate as a fill light, but 3 stops is certainly enough to make unpleasantly harsh shadows with loss of detail.

One of our controls is the reflector. In adequate ambient light, a simple reflector can bounce enough light onto the subject to not only mitigate contrast but to actually rim-light a subject.

Reflectors are convenient and inexpensive tools that we used for a large amount of our work for years, although the recent evolution of sophisticated wireless flash technology has made flash more and more important in contrast control.

Reflectors are offered by many sources. We successfully use those by Photoflex, although one of our more rebellious students happens to prefer Lastolite reflectors because of the convenient handles on some models. Either way, these are the so-called pop-up reflectors that are contained in a small zippered bag, erected for use, then folded back up to store. They come in several sizes, selected according to the size of the largest subject you are likely to use them for. They also come in several surfaces, white, silver, gold, soft-gold, and others. Barb and I generally use a 32 inch Photoflex combination system called a MultiDisc 5-in-1 reflector. It has gold, silver, white, soft-gold surfaces and a diffuser all in one package. The soft-gold is great in the early morning or late day sun, the white is best at mid-day to avoid any colorcast, and the silver gives a crisper brighter light. We find the solid gold surface can make our images too gold in color.


The golden early morning sunshine backlights this Hoary Comma, but creates some harsh shadows. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, 1/4, f/20, ISO 100, Sun.


Using a reflector, the sunlight is bounced back to the butterfly. We call this crosslighting because the sunlight comes from one direction and the bounced light strikes the butterfly from the opposite direction. Light crosses at the subject’s location—giving a nice backlit effect while keeping the shadows from going too dark. Shooting data is the same as the image to the left. The only difference is the light that is added with a reflector to minimize the shadows.

Since they say you can’t get something for nothing, I’ll reveal some of the negatives of reflectors:

✵When the ambient light is low, a reflector may not have enough oomph to do the job.

✵It’s one more accessory to remember to bring and to carry. Some shooters carry folded-up aluminum foil of various colors while some glue aluminum foil to the back of stiff cardboard. These home-made reflectors work fine.

✵Branches, grass, stones, tripod legs, etc., often interfere with the best placement for achieving the desired lighting effect.

✵It must be held in place, often necessitating some kind of clamping, support, or that most expensive of all photographic accessories, a spouse (kidding—sort of).

✵It must be held still to avoid movement of the lighting and movement of the still air. Moving a reflector even a little will stir the air and cause delicate or wary subjects themselves to move, resulting in unsharp images.


Contrast problems nearly always plague mushrooms because their caps act like a hat to create dark shadows. You can use flash, or in this case, a reflector to bounce light under the cap of the mushroom to reduce the dark shadows and reveal more color and gill detail. Canon 5D Mark II, 180mm, 2 seconds, f/18, ISO 250, Shade.


A gold-toned reflector easily bounces light under the cap of this mushroom to lower the contrast. Canon 5D Mark II, 180mm, 2 seconds, f/18, ISO 250, Shade.


My interest in photographing nature arose while attending college over forty years ago—but who’s counting. I was shooting wildflowers for a biology class project when I discovered that the bright ugly sunlight was vastly improved by passing it through a bed sheet. I learned that a nearby military surplus store sold white nylon parachutes about 9 feet in diameter. They were called motorcycle covers. Not only were they perfect as diffusers for my own project, my entrepreneurial instincts also impelled me to buy them for $10 each and sell them to other nature photographers for $20 each, a quick doubling of my money. The store soon discovered my gold mine, and changed their description from motorcycle cover to “photographic diffuser.” They raised the price to $50, effectively terminating my profitable business endeavors.

I used those parachutes often for shooting wildflowers and mushrooms when photographing toward the ground. It was a setup where I threw the parachute over me, over my tripod, over my camera, and hence over my subject. It diffused light, blocked wind, and held determined biting insects at bay. The parachute offered multi-purpose benefits, but one day working at roadside, I was interrupted by the local authorities. They reasoned that anybody hiding under a white sheet in the field was clearly a person of interest. I defended my 4th Amendment rights by explaining that I was merely photographing flowers. The cops concluded anybody that crazy can’t be dangerous, and so they wandered off. I can still hear them snickering as they left.

The overhead sheet gambit fails when shooting parallel to the ground as the sheet tends to wander into the frame. However, a couple of stakes or light stands will sort out that problem. Ensure that the sheet or parachute diffuses the light on both the subject and the background to avoid excessive contrast. If you’re lucky, you might find that your background is in shade and only your foreground must be diffused. Also remember that while the sheet will certainly diffuse the light, it will also attenuate the light, often causing as much as 3 stops of light loss if the sheet is thick enough.

Some shooters go so far as to use a white tent of the appropriate size. They remove the bottom of the tent and place if over the subject, providing a highly diffuse light on both foreground and background. Even if the light is already diffuse on a cloudy day, they use the tent anyway. It blocks wind and keeps the mosquitoes away.

Diffusers, like reflectors, are available in many sizes, shapes, and makes. We prefer Photoflex diffusers just as we prefer their reflectors. Review the market for what is best for you—don’t be limited by our choices.

For a wrap-up, let me say that diffusers and reflectors are inexpensive, convenient, and very effective for small subjects. Every close-up photographer should be adequately equipped with each.


We’ve already mentioned using some object (or person) to cast a shadow over a harshly illuminated subject. Let’s now discuss it in greater detail. Selecting a camera position that properly composes the subject while still allowing the shooter’s body to completely shade the subject is very effective. A minor problem to the JPEG shooter is that the light thus shadowed is slightly blue, but that is quite inconsequential to the RAW file shooter.

Instead of bringing shade to the subject, it’s often possible to move the subject into the shade. Barb and I frequently erect a stake or an electric fence post in a shaded area, very carefully clip the blade of grass or twig on which our cold-immobilized subject is perched, and move the subject into the shaded area. The blade of grass or twig is held by a “flexible grab-it” tool, the well-known Wimberley Plamp, of which we have several.


This attractive pattern of multi-colored stones lies on the beach of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The bright sun, though, creates extreme contrast among the rocks and tends to dry them off which hides their true colors. Canon 5D Mark III, 100mm macro, 1/10, f/16, ISO 100, Sun.


Solve the contrast problem easily and quickly by shading all of the stones in the image. Use a handy cup of water to wet the stones to keep them colorful. Shading these stones increases the exposure time by 1.3 stops—no problem on a tripod—and the Shade WB is set to compensate for the bluer light. Canon 5D Mark III, 100mm macro, 1/4, f/16, ISO 100, Shade.


Sally Lightfoot crabs are colorful residents of the Galapagos Islands. Bright sunshine creates ugly shadows on the sand underneath it. Canon 7D, 300mm with a 25mm extension tube to make the lens focus closer, 1/250, f/10, ISO 320, Sun.


This Sally Lightfoot crab is hunting for food on a cloudy day. The light has inherently less contrast when diffused by overhead clouds. Canon 7D, 300mm with a 25mm extension tube to make the lens focus closer, 1/200, f/4.5, ISO 400, Cloudy.

Often, we are photographing our insect subjects in an early morning meadow, and we gravitate toward the eastern edge of the meadow. Why east? The eastern edge is last to receive the warming rays of the rising sun, thus lengthening the time our insects remain lethargically chilled. Not only is the light diffused by the trees to the east, they can do a good job of blocking the wind.

Barbara and I always endeavor to be kind to our subjects. We ask our students to do the same. Even our generally rebellious student, Al Hart, who is helping to edit this book, agrees with us on this one. When done photographing butterflies and dragonflies, move them back into the sunshine so they can warm up, become active, and get on with their lives. With caterpillars and spiders and other insect life that doesn’t fly, be sure to return them to the plants from which they came. Many insects eat only certain species of plant life and will perish if not returned to their required food source.All subjects deserve to be unharmed and released in their natural environment ASAP!


Once again, we paraphrase that famous former politician by reiterating, “It’s the light, stupid!” Not that Barbara or I are stupid, and our readers are not, and you’re certainly not, and even our rebellious student isn’t. Indeed, any photographer who knowingly and deliberately becomes aware of the light to take advantage of its color, its harshness or contrast, its direction, and its cumulative helpful effect on the image is certainly one smart photographer.

Remember, the art of seeing the light is more than knowing when there is enough light in which to shoot. Photographers who really see the light are able to instantly decide how to mix light direction, color, and contrast to enhance the beauty of their subject and capture enchanting images.


The Wooden Shoe Tulip field is tremendously photogenic at the peak bloom in mid-April. This splendid group of blossoms was growing in a display box with the flowers planted tightly together. The bright overcast and perfectly calm weather conditions at dawn provided the opportunity to sharply focus all of these tulips. The closest blossom was only a few inches from the lens. To get all of them sharp, a series of images was taken in which the focus was slightly changed between shots. Helicon Focus software combined sixteen images into one final composite. Canon 5D Mark III, 16-35mm at 35mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/30, Cloudy WB.


Ecuador boasts over 150 species of hummingbirds, including this Green Violetear photographed with flash at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge near Quito. Barbara uses her Nikon 200-400mm lens at the closest focusing distance to fill the frame with this acrobatic small bird. Nikon D3, 200-400mm at 260mm, 1/250, f/20, ISO 200, Flash WB, four Nikon SB-800 flashes set manually at 1/16 power.