Using Backlight in Nature Photography - Digital Photography School
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Using Backlight in Nature Photography

Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Backlight is when the sun is directly in front of you lighting the back of your subject.

Shooting a backlit scene is more difficult technically but that is no reason to shy away from what can become a dynamic and energizing image.

One of the strengths of backlight is that it emphasizes shape so you will want to find subjects with strong shapes.

In this image of Antelope Canyon in Arizona, it would be hard to distinguish the shape of this part of the canyon wall had the sun not been high in the sky.

Because it was mid-day, the light went straight down the slot canyon lighting up the canyon walls. I was at the bottom of the canyon shooting straight up, so my subject was backlit.

Lobster Cove Lighthouse

I always think of this image as the shot I almost didn't make. It was an after thought. My intention was to get down to the beach for a seascape and I was disappointed that I couldn't find a way down. As I went back to the parking lot feeling defeated I looked back and thought "I just have to capture that sky regardless of how boring those buildings are." When I looked at the photo on my computer afterwards I learned my lesson that an image only needs one really exciting element. I was able to bring quite a bit of detail out of the shadows in post-processing.

Egret, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Backlight creates the rim light you often see in portraits but this effect works on wildlife too.

In this image of an egret the majority of the light was coming from behind the bird, causing the feathers around the edge of the bird to glow, but there was still enough ambient light to capture detail in the front.

When there is not enough ambient light to capture the details in the foreground you can use fill flash or a reflector.

The part that can be technically more challenging when it comes to backlit scenes is getting the proper exposure. If you have your camera set to evaluative metering it will take into account the entire scene and try to determine the best exposure. This works great when you have a fairly evenly lit scene, but when you have a scene with high contrast it doesn’t work as well. Your camera can’t meter for both the bright areas and the dark areas at the same time.

The solution is to switch to a different metering mode, such as spot metering, so you can tell your camera which part of the frame is important to you. You can choose to meter on the darker area to maintain detail in the shadows and let the highlights go completely white as I did in the photo of Antelope Canyon above. Or you can meter on the bright part of the scene and let the shadows go completely dark to create a silhouette.

Mono Lake Silhouette

One of my favourite techniques is to create a starburst effect in a silhouette image when the sun is still above the horizon. To do this, position yourself so that the sun is partially hidden behind an object and use a small aperture, like f/22.

Arches National Park, Utah

When the sun is in your frame it’s a good idea to use your live view on your LCD monitor to protect your eyes rather than looking through the viewfinder, especially if you are using a telephoto lens.

Lens Flare
Be sure to watch for lens flare when you are shooting directly into the sun. Lens flare is when the light hits your lens directly and reflects inside the lens causing bright streaks or polygonal shaped bright spots with rainbow colours to appear. This is not necessarily a bad thing but if you don’t like it you will need to shade your lens with a lens hood or your hand. Shading your lens is not usually possible when the sun is in your frame but you can reduce the lens flare by positioning yourself so the sun is partially behind an object.

Tips:

  • Find a subject with great shape.
  • Change your exposure mode to spot metering.
  • Point your camera directly at the part of the scene you want to exposure for and use the exposure lock feature on your camera to set the exposure (check your camera manual to find the exposure lock function on your camera). Then you can recompose and press the shutter half way to set the focus while the exposure remains locked.
  • Use a small aperture to create a starburst.

Once you master the art of setting the exposure for a backlit scene you will open the door to new possibilities by looking into the light.

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Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • Scottc

    Great photos! Though the article seems to describe other angles of light as well as backlight, the metering advice works nonetheless. I’d also suggest local metering, depending on the subjects position.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5820896216/

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    The pictures are gorgeous and I have to give this a try!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2013/01/sunset-colors-palampur.html

  • http://www.soumennath.com Soumen Nath

    Amazing use of backlight.
    Opens up a entirely new world in photography techniques.
    I have not known anything more except silhouettes.

  • Barry E. Warren

    Great Photo’s Anne, the on at the canyon really gets me. The way it captured the light.

  • http://www.joe-elliott.co.uk Joe Elliott

    Great photos there, I nearly had the chance to use this technique the other night at a gig. The artist I was shooting had pretty awful lighting but after 3 songs, these amazing bright backlights came on. I so wanted to get the artists silhouette would have been a great shot.

    Thanks for this great technique…

    Cheers
    Joe

  • Michal France

    Nice advices! I really like the silhouette you made. I love to make pictures against sunset or sunrise. Thanks!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8369485323/in/set-72157632491559309

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8369484023/in/set-72157632491559309/

  • http://www.guigphotography.com/# Guigphotography

    Love this effect, especially for silhouettes. Great tips!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/6732386239/in/photostream

  • http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.de/ Thomas Schmidt

    Really great photos, Anne!
    I love shooting against the sun to create silhouettes or halos. But I have experienced that you need a clean camera sensor and lens when doing this, because with high aperture values and the sun in front of you every single dirt particle becomes clearly visible, like I posted in my blog.
    http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.com/2012/11/aperture-and-light-sources-experiment.html
    Regards
    Thomas

  • http://champastreetproductions.com Joseph

    This is one of those areas that I always say I ‘invented’. Meaning, I had no idea how to do it until I accidentally came across it one time while I was shooting and then was able to go back and look at the metadata and piece together what I did :) These are my favorite types of learning experiences. Yeah, you could look it up and follow the instructions but reinventing the wheel has been such a valuable experience for me.

    Thanks for the article! I’ve been doing a photo a day this year and got a nice, subtle starburst the other morning as the light was shining down the street. http://pinterest.com/pin/538532067911493539/

  • http://ruthyates.photomerchant.net RUTH Yates

    Thank you great info, her is a photo on shot recently when on holidays.http://ruthyates.photomerchant.net/galleries/landscape/ui/62444356550fddbfbdad70

  • http://tahoesux.com S.L.

    Thanks- great tips for tricking the exposure. I’ve often struggled with high contrast landscapes (like really bright skies with awesome dark vegetation and rocks). I’ll play with your suggestions.

  • Johnna
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/msranjith/ Ranjith

    Not recent shot, but a decent one which i could pick up from my flickr

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/msranjith/7987005758/in/photostream

  • http://www.EyeOnEnvironment.com Laurie MacBride, Eye on Environment

    Great article, Anne, thanks – and I’m glad you included the tip of using Live View when the sun is in your frame. We all need to protect our eyes!

  • http://rlotierphotography.zenfolio.com Ray

    I had an Egret fly by me while I was photographing some Ospreys. I knew the sun wasn’t in my favor but decided to shoot anyway, thinking maybe the backlight would produce an interesting result. I was really pleased when I got home and looked the image on my computer!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rablot/7562103788/

  • Madhukumar
  • Govindarajan

    Lovely article. Backlit photography was a discovery for me and I’ve been loving it ever since. Here’s one I captured recently.

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151231632584249&set=a.10150442363899249.351710.648049248&type=1&theater

  • http://www.debsnelsonphotography.com Deb Snelson

    Beautifully written and illustrated Anne! Thanks!

  • Lowden Stoole

    Great tips, well explained! Look forward to putting them into practice.

  • vinod mali

    Great tips/advise..thanks

  • http://www.clicktoshoot.com/ Chandan Kumar Singh

    Good tips…. something that a lot of people don’t really focus on, but it really makes a difference to your nature photos.

Some older comments

  • vinod mali

    April 1, 2013 01:39 am

    Great tips/advise..thanks

  • Lowden Stoole

    January 29, 2013 08:23 pm

    Great tips, well explained! Look forward to putting them into practice.

  • Deb Snelson

    January 28, 2013 10:08 am

    Beautifully written and illustrated Anne! Thanks!

  • Govindarajan

    January 27, 2013 10:48 pm

    Lovely article. Backlit photography was a discovery for me and I've been loving it ever since. Here's one I captured recently.

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151231632584249&set=a.10150442363899249.351710.648049248&type=1&theater

  • Madhukumar

    January 25, 2013 07:39 pm

    Nice tips. Thanks
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/98795956@N00/8413776508/in/photostream

  • Ray

    January 25, 2013 12:53 pm

    I had an Egret fly by me while I was photographing some Ospreys. I knew the sun wasn't in my favor but decided to shoot anyway, thinking maybe the backlight would produce an interesting result. I was really pleased when I got home and looked the image on my computer!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rablot/7562103788/

  • Laurie MacBride, Eye on Environment

    January 25, 2013 12:40 pm

    Great article, Anne, thanks - and I'm glad you included the tip of using Live View when the sun is in your frame. We all need to protect our eyes!

  • Ranjith

    January 25, 2013 12:09 pm

    Not recent shot, but a decent one which i could pick up from my flickr

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/msranjith/7987005758/in/photostream

  • Johnna

    January 25, 2013 10:53 am

    Beautiful shots and helpful information. Thanks!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/11335535@N06/1404439373/in/set-72157623538250557/

  • S.L.

    January 25, 2013 10:12 am

    Thanks- great tips for tricking the exposure. I've often struggled with high contrast landscapes (like really bright skies with awesome dark vegetation and rocks). I'll play with your suggestions.

  • RUTH Yates

    January 22, 2013 12:05 pm

    Thank you great info, her is a photo on shot recently when on holidays.http://ruthyates.photomerchant.net/galleries/landscape/ui/62444356550fddbfbdad70

  • Joseph

    January 22, 2013 12:18 am

    This is one of those areas that I always say I 'invented'. Meaning, I had no idea how to do it until I accidentally came across it one time while I was shooting and then was able to go back and look at the metadata and piece together what I did :) These are my favorite types of learning experiences. Yeah, you could look it up and follow the instructions but reinventing the wheel has been such a valuable experience for me.

    Thanks for the article! I've been doing a photo a day this year and got a nice, subtle starburst the other morning as the light was shining down the street. http://pinterest.com/pin/538532067911493539/

  • Thomas Schmidt

    January 20, 2013 03:17 am

    Really great photos, Anne!
    I love shooting against the sun to create silhouettes or halos. But I have experienced that you need a clean camera sensor and lens when doing this, because with high aperture values and the sun in front of you every single dirt particle becomes clearly visible, like I posted in my blog.
    http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.com/2012/11/aperture-and-light-sources-experiment.html
    Regards
    Thomas

  • Guigphotography

    January 20, 2013 02:32 am

    Love this effect, especially for silhouettes. Great tips!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/6732386239/in/photostream

  • Michal France

    January 19, 2013 09:49 am

    Nice advices! I really like the silhouette you made. I love to make pictures against sunset or sunrise. Thanks!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8369485323/in/set-72157632491559309

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90949112@N02/8369484023/in/set-72157632491559309/

  • Joe Elliott

    January 19, 2013 09:22 am

    Great photos there, I nearly had the chance to use this technique the other night at a gig. The artist I was shooting had pretty awful lighting but after 3 songs, these amazing bright backlights came on. I so wanted to get the artists silhouette would have been a great shot.

    Thanks for this great technique...

    Cheers
    Joe

  • Barry E. Warren

    January 19, 2013 03:20 am

    Great Photo's Anne, the on at the canyon really gets me. The way it captured the light.

  • Soumen Nath

    January 19, 2013 02:32 am

    Amazing use of backlight.
    Opens up a entirely new world in photography techniques.
    I have not known anything more except silhouettes.

  • Mridula

    January 19, 2013 02:13 am

    The pictures are gorgeous and I have to give this a try!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2013/01/sunset-colors-palampur.html

  • Scottc

    January 19, 2013 01:42 am

    Great photos! Though the article seems to describe other angles of light as well as backlight, the metering advice works nonetheless. I'd also suggest local metering, depending on the subjects position.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5820896216/

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