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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.

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.
Egret, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Florida
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.


  • 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
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.

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