LightingLighting is one of the most important topics in photography, and like Composition, one of the hardest to discuss. A high-end professional sports photographer I got to work with a few years ago told me over and over again, like a broken record at times, "It's all about the light Sandy."
Photography is a bit like sculpting with light instead of granite or clay. Wildlife photographers have to work with the existing light--what ever it is--in one sense. But the flip side of the lighting issue is the importance of recognizing good lighting conditions when they appear, and about taking advantage of them whenever possible. The most interesting lighting often happens early and late in the day. But not always. Beams of fluorescent yellow light streaking out between cracks in a bank of midday clouds and too many other such examples to list are the conditions you have to train yourself to see when eve they happen. Combined with a knee-jerk reflex to grab your camera when ever they do.
The photographer I mention above (I'll call him Ross but that wasn't his real name) carried a light meter--around his neck on a nylon string--at all times. I could see his eyes gazing one moment and then scanning left and right the next. He was thinking about shadows and light at all times. In mid conversation about something entirely unrelated he would often pick up his spot meter and take a reading, pointing it momentarily at an interesting highlight in the surrounding landscape. He'd do that periodically, even when he didn't have his camera. Ross was always thinking about light patterns, light intensities and light direction. I asked Ross about it and he said he was always guessing exposures, in his mind, and he liked to use his digital light meter to double check the other light meter in his mind's eye.
I got to work with Ross on a three day photo shoot related to fly fishing. Ross typically had every scene choreographed days in advance. For any given subject he would plan the location and time of day so the lighting would be ideal. That sort of advance planning isn't always possible for birders. Birders have to take their opportunities when they happen.
But birding photographers can think about weather and lighting conditions to some degree, by studying weather reports and by thinking about time of day. And then plan their photo safaris accordingly.
Harsh, bright mid-day sun is tough to deal with in both winter and summer. That doesn't mean I leave my camera at home on mid-day birding trips. But I seldom get my hopes either. The very best photos usually happen early and late in the day, when the sun's rays are less intense and more directional.
The opposite of harsh, midday sun is, perhaps, the soft mid-day lighting found on cloudy or smokey late summer days. Diffused lighting is generally a lot easier to work with than its glaring hard-shadows counterpart. But soft shadow-less images are seldom as dramatic as images made early and late in the day, when less intense but glowing and highly directional light creates bright colors, detailed shadows and moderate but not extreme contrast.
Photography is painting with light. It helps to think less about the subjects themselves and more about the current lighting conditions that bathe those subjects with the sun's rays