High Key Wildlife Photography without Additional Studio Lighting:

19th November 2015
A few months back I wrote about the “dark side of the force”, low key wildlife photography, so perhaps it is now the time to step into the light and do a piece on high key wildlife photography.

High key photography, or more correctly high key lighting was devised during the 1950’s with the aim to reduce the lighting ratio present in the scene. High Key lighting is usually homogeneous and free from dark shadows. In studio photography it is usually created by three light fixtures per subject, one providing light from the left, one from the right and one directly from the front. In studio conditions the subject is normally photographed against a white backdrop that is also bathed in studio lights to get a white, overexposed background.

How does one create this effect without all the additional lights and gadgets when on a game drive in the Kruger National Park, when photographing wild Marico sunbirds or while photographing wild Pied Kingfishers at one of the Zibulo hides?

Well the answer is actually easy – you wait for the right conditions and dial the correct settings into the camera.

These techniques also extend the time available for photography.

Those gloomy mornings when there is a lot of cloud around, will work quite well.

Mornings with low white clouds in the west and sunshine in the east during the golden hour work well and during the evening golden hour the clouds should be to the east and sunshine from the west.

These kind of conditions can easily lead to works of art, when the conditions is not very conducive to normal photography.

Usually, in these conditions, I will look for some or other background that is quite neutral and not too bright or too dark. Most of the time in wildlife photography one would attempt to exclude the sky completely, due to the fact that the sky, in these conditions, usually gets your camera’s light meter to expose for the sky, because the background comprises the largest part of the photo, which leaves the subject underexposed. It must be remembered that any light meter build into any modern camera is calibrated to provide an accurate exposure on 18% grey paper.

It is this feature that one exploits when low key and high key photographs are taken. In low key photographs the dark background is totally underexposed, in high key photography the background is totally overexposed. I find the easiest way to achieve this is by setting the camera to spot metering. However evaluative metering will achieve similar results in most of the conditions that you may encounter.

Okay, enough technical jargon. How do you do it?

On a trip to Kruger National Park, my family and I stayed in Mopane Rest Camp, famous for the large herds of Buffalo that usually frequents the area and the endless mopane shrubs that surrounds the Camp. The rest camp is situated almost half way between Letaba Rest Camp to the south and Singwedzi to the north. The area is named after the endless mopane shrub veld that covers most of the area, which makes game spotting difficult except for certain vary productive routes within the area.

I left camp early that morning on a game drive while Swambo and the rest of the family enjoyed a bit more shut-eye. At the T-junction where the road from Mopane joins the main road that runs from north to south, I heard the unmistakable chatter of sunbirds.

Adjacent to the road on the western side, I spotted various clumps of broad-leaved Minaret Flowers (Wilde Dagga) that was in bloom, the velvety orange flowers protruded above the horizon and low white clouds provided a certain exposure challenge. The sky was partly cloudy and the sun intermittently protruded between the clouds to the east.

Due to the white background I set the camera to spot metering, aperture priority, at aperture 5.6.

I scanned the area for a while before the first taker arrived. A mature Marico Sunbird male darted in from a nearby tree, expertly landing on the thin stem between the orange flowers, it hopped up the stem with the fleet-footedness of a trapize artist and started to sip nectar from the thin orange velvet flowers.

The Marico sunbird, a darkly coloured sunbird, was bathed in the golden morning light, with the white background that was provided by the white cumulus clouds above the western horizon. I placed the subject into the spot situated in the centre of the viewfinder and depressed the shutter. The result was a perfectly exposed sunbird against a completely white background, without any artificial background or light.

This effect can however also be attained on a gloomy day without sunshine - as is clearly evident from the photo’s of the Malachite Kingfisher and Pied Kingfisher that is published hereunder, where I did not have the luxury of sunlight shining on the subject. The techniques and settings is exactly the same as was discussed above.

Happy shooting!

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