Compare these two images, both of the same swarm of mating ants:
What’s the difference?
The lighting, of course. In the first image I stood facing the rising sun so that the insects’ translucent wings glowed, while in the second I moved to shoot the swarm from another angle, the sun hitting them from the side. A much plainer result, to my eye.
Managing light is the most important aspect of photographic composition. Entire books (as well as some fantastic blogs) have been written on the subject. I can’t compete with that level of detail in a short blog post, so let me instead distill the topic down to this:
To take better photographs, a good start is to think about light.
As we can see from the flying ant example, the direction the light comes from dramatically changes the mood of an image. But there’s more to light than just direction; the intensity also alters the photo’s character.
The top beetle photo was lit with a pair of plain flash heads. The second was done with the same gear and same settings except the flash was diffused through tracing paper. The diffuse light softens the colors but removes the harsh glare and strong shadows.
In 2007 I spent a day shooting Pseudomyrmex acacia ants in Panama. I tried lighting the ants in different ways.
Here’s a silhouette done in natural light, in the field, with the ants in the shade of their tree:
Closer in, with a diffused flash from the front and above:
And with one flash head held behind the thorn, to light the ants from the back, with the other turned up just enough to give a faint fill from the front right:
That evening, in the comfort of the hotel room, I rigged a miniature studio from a cardboard box and some printer paper. A flash bounced off the inside of the box gave a smooth light on the thorn nest:
Same subject, different lighting, to very different effect.