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Add dynamism to your images with sunlight streaks

As a nature photographer, I always love to work with natural light as much as possible. There are a few exceptional situations, yes, like, when there is a sheer lack of enough light ( working with macro subjects, more so, in the darkness of the night ) or when there is a need to creatively add in more light. Other than these, I always prefer working with natural light, which definitely, is the light from the sun.

Whenever I travel, I keep craving for dramatic lighting situations. I am a sucker for situations where-in the light starts streaming through resulting in thick visible streaks cutting across the frame. Every time I encounter a situation like that, I just cannot help but stop myself and look for some subjects to make an image.

Winter morning in Bhutan

For the sunlight to stream through, there needs to be some kind of a defragmented ( with gaps in-between ) obstruction in front. The most common ones are clouds, of course, and tree lines. Early mornings or late afternoons are the best times to look for such lighting when the light is balanced and soft enough to be able to make an image.

The image above of the Thimphu valley in Bhutan was made on an early, winter morning. While on a hike looking for birds, this wonderful sight presented before me. Sunlight was streaming through the clouds and descending into the valley below. The statue of Buddha on the far right of the image was getting lit by this diffused streak of light, calling out to be photographed. The scape was quite vast and a true wide-angle lens wouldn’t have done justice as I wanted the eye of the viewer to be drawn to the Buddha statue. So, I took out my 50mm prime lens and made this image, underexposing a bit to get the depth in the streaks, at the same time not overdoing it so has to have details in the shadows.

The one below was at the Ngorongoro crater, early in the morning, as we were finishing up on the formalities at the entry gate, to begin our descent to the crater below.

A tech note: In such dramatic lighting situations, owing to the very high dynamic range, cameras may not be able to capture all the details in the dark and the bright areas accurately. So, using the in-camera ‘bracketing’ is one of the best ways to achieve optimum results. Taking three images back to back, with exposures of -1EV ( under by 1 stop ), 0EV ( metered ) & +1EV ( over by a stop ) and blending them in post-production is an efficient way.

The two images above were captured as single shots though. However, bracketing is a sure-shot way of making better images.

Bracketing works for subjects which are stationary. Landscapes like those in the above couple of images weren’t going anywhere or nothing significantly moving. Hence taking three different images wouldn’t have been a problem.

However, when it comes to wildlife, the animals or the birds etc. don’t usually stay put. They keep moving. Bracketing in this case becomes complicated. Here, one has to rely on getting the best balance between the highlights ( brighter areas of the scene ) and the shadows ( darker areas of the scene ) in a single image. Then, in post-processing, you will be able to pull out the details effectively.

Here’s an image of an elephant herd moving along the horizon, one late evening, in Masai Mara. The light was so beautifully streaming through the clouds and falling on the herd. I had to ensure that the light streaks were visible however the sky shouldn’t be too bright. The elephants and the foreground were going to be dark, but I still wanted to bring out some detail to be able to show them distinctly too.

200mm, f/4.0, 1/2500s, ISO-200, EV= 0

Here’s a similar one with a herd of wildebeests moving along in a file. Again, the clouds created this dynamic scene. A slight difference here was that this scene was very close to sunset and the sunlight streaks were quite a bit far away from the foreground and the Wildebeests. So, as you see, a +ve exposure compensation was needed to bring out the details in the foreground and at the same time not to blow out the streaks and the other highlights.

78mm, f/3.5, 1/800s, ISO-200, EV= +0.33

This kind of scene works well in black & white too. Here’s an image of an elephant herd on the grasslands of Serengeti. Since the main focus in these images are going to be the relatively darker subject and the bright light, black & white definitely is effective.

105mm, f/5.6, 1/4000s, ISO-400, EV= -1.33

It gives a bit of depth to the scene, by popping the clouds and energising the light streaks.

200mm, f/5.6, 1/2500s, ISO-400, EV= -1.33

In summary, sunlight streaming through and spreading across a landscape is one of my personal favourite moments to encounter and photograph while on my jaunts. It can add some fantastic dynamism and pop to your images. It results in some beautiful memories, experiences and images that you can cherish. Venture out in the early hours of the morning and late hours of the noon and keep a lookout for such moments.

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