Thursday, February 7, 2013



To most people, been under the spotlight is to stand out from everything. In the visual arts, the term refers to the use of artificial light to make someone or something stand out from a scene. For us, it will take a whole different meaning. I like to invite you to go to the closest wooded area near your home, and spend at least 4 hours walking off the trail, or if all you've got is a park, well, look beyond the trail and pay close attention on how the sunlight breaks through the canopy onto the forest floor. Now, each of the sun ray that  gets through the canopy becomes a spotlight, however, in nature, been under the spotlight can be a matter of life and death, as light is an important component for photosynthesis, which is a key function in green plants' life.

I have been hunting spotlight pictures for a while in the cloud forest of Bosque de la Virgen, South of Caracas the capital city of Venezuela. I was surprised by the fact, that to a lot of trekkers and nature photographers, the subject has not attracted their attention. But as it turns out, once one grows awareness towards this natural occurrence, this source of light becomes an important subject for pictures about life and beauty in the understory of the forest. I feel it is very important for an image hunter to be one with nature. Opening our senses to our surroundings will help us feel what goes undetected to most. Pausing and studying a tiny spot of light reaching the ground may seem of little value, however, in nature, nothing is meaningless. So allow me to show you some information about the importance of been in the spotlight in a tropical forest.

I took out the color of these Peace Lilies to make a point. To show you wonderful kind of beauty found in the light range, between total darkness and outright brilliance coming from nature's spotlight, and once you learn to see it, your photographic subjects will increase exponentially during your photo outings.


People know that the sun travels above the sky from east to west every day. At day break and sunset, it is near the horizon, and at noon, it will me in the zenith of the sky and its ray will be shinning directly over head. The rest of the day the angles of light change by the hour and this will influence how nature's spotlight reaches within the forest.

The pictures above were taken at 16:15 at ISO 800, f/6.3, and 1/250. The were taken almost at the same angle, as the lily patch was at the same level in the slope of the hill where I found them. I tried to single out each inflorescence in a way that the background would be shaded. Then, I underexposed the flower to bring out the details in the white parts of the flower and the results were very pleasing. Note that there is no noice noticeable, the high ISO enabled me to take the picture without the use of a tripod and using a cable release on the camera to attain maximum sharpness. Though, I strongly recomend the use of tripods, I was not planning to do this series, so I left both things at home. The use of large lens openings allows for great bokeh and if the background is in the shade, darkening it in pos production gives beautiful results.

I am sure, that if you would take it upon yourself to photograph Spotlight in rural or urban settings, your portfolio would end up with a beautiful collection of photographs.


Most plants grow from the ground up. They start as seeds, then germinate and soon as this happens, their rudimentary leafs move towards sunlight as fast as they can. In the picture below, a seedling germinated between the roots of a forest giant. The spotlight fell upon it from the same direction, and thus, it was placing most of its growing effort towards the direction where the light broke through the canopy into the forest floor. For a nature photonaturalist aesthetics and content are importan, as her/his efforts most involve, the intended audience that will seek either a nice photograph or a photographic document for a publication.

In tropical forests, leaf color can be a key for the photographer who is seeking plant growth. And when one combines leaf color with spotlight occurrences, finding photo opportunities will get easier.


When one sets out to search for spotlights in the forest, don't restrain your search to ground level. Look up to the middle tier of the forest, as it is the connecting area between the understory and the canopy and many amazing things are constantly happening there. Backlit objects are a common ocurrence in this part of the forest. In fact, many vines make their life in this region, growing and very fast rates from one canopy gap to the other seeking spotlights as they grow. Unlike lianas and other woody climbers these vines never seek to grow above and the middle tier of the forest is where you can findthem. They use tendrils to fasten themselves from one plant to the other and provide the photographer with a keen eye the opportunity to make beautiful backlit photos.

Ferns faste themselves to tree trunks and grow to the middle tier seeking for their share of light. Their beautiful green colors makes them a wonderful subject to photograph. 

At times one has to walk around to get a good background to make you composition. I favour shadowy areas, however if one applies shallow DOF and wonderful contrasting colors to bring you subject out, it will enhance your pictures as a whole.


Creep up or spread out. These are two strategies that plants use to search for the spotlights. Phyllodendrums like this heart shapped climber circle around tree trunks on their way to the middle tier of the forest. They do this to optimize light gathering. 

Most climbers will flush greater numbers of leafs towards canopy gaps where light may filter through into the forest floor. Note how this plant is growing its leafs towards the opening in the canopy. By circling the tree trunk, any light that breaks through the canopy will encounter aleaf or a portion of one where
photosynthesis will take place.

Palms expand their leafs surfaces to increase the suface area exposed to the sun light. A tight crop along with a strong back light will be a great way to document this.

Dividing the leafs with alternating leaflets is a variation of the strategy used by palms that live in the understory of the cloud forest. Cropping tight may make more of an abstract representation on how palms grow, but the high contrast between the places where light penetrates and those in the shade allow, for an out of the bunch picture, of plant adaptations. 


Understory plants have gone, through millions of years of evolution, a way to cope and thrive under adverse conditions of light, therefore, been under the spotlight too long can be harmful to them. The Calathea, in the picture bellow, curls up when there is too much light, and ulfolds, when the conditions become favorable again.

So there are pros and cons to the exposure to nature's spotlight. For most nature photographers, researching the influence of lighting conditions in the understory may be an over kill, however, learning the most about the subject one is about to photograph makes a big difference, as making photos with a deep meaning is a challenge thay pays in the long run.


Plants in the understory blend in with their surroundings, however, when it comes to have reproductive success, they need to be UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT!
Heliconias, Calatheas, and Gingers need to attract polinators to their respective flowers. So they resort to visual cues to stand out for their animal partners. To do this, a lot of them are colored red,orange and yellow that are outstanding bright colors, when it comes to attracting diurnal pollinators. So it is very important for flowers and bracts to stand out and make themselves visible at great distances, as bird pollinators require visual cues to find their food sources.

The heliconia above and the Marantaceae bellow are good examples on how color and positioning the flowers under spotlights can benefit these understory plants pollinators.

I am sure that there are many other subjects that one could write about working with restrictive light conditions such as nature's spotlights. Furthermore, the spotlight subject can be transfered to the urban jungle where it will be a fascinating photography subject by its own right, however, I feel safer in the forest than in the urban jungle, and I am sure, that many of you out there, may feel the same way.


What happens when one finds an object or a frame, where the spotlight moves  ,because of the wind sets in motion the branches of the canopy changing the position of the light, as it penetrates into the forest floor.

A good example is this patch of peace lilies, and it may seem as a difficult problem to solve, however, the great thing of having a digital camera is that one can see the results of our clicks in an instant. This allows us to correct exposures, composition and so on, which one could not do with film cameras.

The sequence of pictures above were taken during a different shoot. I did have my tripod and the cable realease then. So turning my mind on to the possibilities rendered by the use of the digital darkroom, I did the following things: Set the camera to manual, desided to use an exposure that favored the highlights, turned on the Live View on my camera, so I could focus presicely on each of my subjects. Then I made the desired composition. And using live view I focused on the foreground for the first picture, and then repeated the same technique for the middle ground and background respectively, in order to get as much detail as I could, from each area. By having the camera mounted on a tripod to keep the same framing throughout the series and I clicked away as best as I could, to make the best of the moving spotlight throughout the frame. Later, I stacked the pictures in Photoshop which rendered the composite that you see above.

So to conclude, play with the light as much as you can and don't underestimate the little things in nature because thay can become a huge learning experience for any photographer.

Happy clicks, and see you soon.

Leopoldo García-Berrizbetia
Professional Photonaturalist

If you are interested in hiring my services in the areas of:
Ecotravel, Natural History Guided Tours, Nature Photography Workshops or Tours, Birdwatching Tours, Nature Travel Product Development, Nature Interpreting Trail Making and Nature Film Field Productions, please contact me at:

NAT-LEO FOTOPASEOS : 0058-212-624-9019
Mobile: 0058-414-246-2007

All the pictures were taken at Jardines Ecológicos Topotepuy, Caracas, Venenzuela,  where I do most of my workshops.

For nature photography workshops, guided tours, school nature walks, company events and birthdays call Jardines Ecológicos Topotepuy

Office: 0058-212-961-1242 / 0058-212-961-6770 / 0058-212-963-1242
or visit their webpage at:

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