Key Lighting – waiting for that moment to create pure magic

Andrew Beck Andrew 1 Comment

If you’re reading this and wondering what Key Lighting is all about then perhaps this description from Wikipedia will help you:

The key light is the first and usually most important light that a photographer, cinematographer, lighting cameraman, or other scene composer will use in a lighting setup. The purpose of the key light is to highlight the form and dimension of the subject. 

Then again, maybe it won’t.

As wildlife photographers we work with natural light and, apart from the use of flash, rely entirely on natural light when photographing a scene. Whilst the vast majority of wildlife photography takes place under pretty uniform lighting conditions, with the holy-grail of light being the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset, the rest of the time the light tends to be a bit too harsh and uniform to create anything truly special.

Whilst that is true for the vast majority of the time, there is something special that happens when you have scattered cloud cover. Breaks in the cloud cover provides key-lighting at various intensities across the landscape, with patches of bright light highlighting only certain parts of a scene whilst the remaining cloud cover casts the rest of the scene into shadow.

Sitting and waiting for the right moment when that patch of light falls perfectly across a feature in a landscape or wildlife can create magic.

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Glacier Front in Svalbard

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Elephant Bull on Lake Amboseli

Whilst this sort of effect can be enhanced in Lightroom by selectively burning (darkening) areas in an image, nothing beats the real thing.

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 Elephant Bull, Amboseli

Being aware of how the light is changing and anticipating the odd break in the clouds is one thing and, lets be honest, you don’t have too much control over the variables at play here. Looking at how the light is falling and changing your position to ensure that you maximise the impact of the scene is something that you can do at any time of the day.

In the example below, I requested our boat guide on our Chobe Photo Safari to drift slightly downstream in order to loose the bright white calcrete river banks that were initially in the background and replace these with the deep, dark shadows around the beside of a thicket. This provided the ideal backdrop for this young Chacma Baboon and accentuated the golden morning light that he was so eagerly soaking up on a chilly winter morning.

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Chacma Baboon, Chobe River

In our digital photography courses we teach guests that the human eye is drawn to the sharpest, most easily recognisable, brightest or most contrasted point in a frame. Key-lighting deals with this last variable, contrast. By using the natural tones of light in a scene and accentuating the contrast between them you can really take your images to the next level.

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Elephant Bull, Amboseli

Tips for Maximising Key-Lighting

  • Pay attention to your backgrounds and look for areas which will provide maximum contrast between your subject and the background
  • Pay attention to the light and the movement of clouds
  • Try to anticipate breaks in the cloud and look for opportunities to capture scenes with key-lighting
  • I typically underexpose by -2/3 EV for scenes with key-lighting to accentuate contrast between darks and brights


Andrew Beck

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