Backlight Basics: Shoot Into The Light

Outdoor Photography

While I lead my photo safaris to the Serengeti, participants constantly hear me say, “It’s All About The Light.” It could be a clear crisp sunrise or sunset, side light that illuminates a gorgeous acacia tree, bright overcast conditions that bathe a regal male lion perched on a kopje or early or late front light. What it all boils down to is the quality of light is a primary factor that determines the success of a photo. To bring your photography to the next level, it’s essential you understand how light impacts the subject and learn how to read it. There are four predominant directions of light: front, side, top and backlight. They all present challenges. The focus of this week’s tip is backlight. It’s the least often used as its challenges are difficult to overcome. However, when used properly, backlit images have a tremendous amount of impact and pop off the page. Here are some backlight basics to help you master this type of light. 

Backlight is intriguing and exciting. When utilized, a backlit subject’s perimeter can glow with a rim lit halo of luminance. If the subject possesses translucent qualities, the effect is enhanced as it appears to be lit from within. If lined with fur or tiny hairs, a glow around the outer edges appear. Another purpose is to silhouette the subject to emphasize its shape and form. 

Exposure Challenge

Take a meter reading from an area behind the subject comprised of mid tones. In a situation where the primary silhouetted subject occupies most of the frame, it becomes imperative. You want to avoid overexposure of any delicate warm tones and highlights. If the meter reads the large black silhouette, it will tell the camera to open up the exposure and provide an “incorrect” reading for the scene. You need to be smarter than the camera and override its technology. If you don’t, the result may be a gray silhouette with an overexposed background. When in doubt, bracket to be safe. Consider the technique of spot metering to zero in on a mid tone to avoid the dark area of any silhouette.

Backlight basics

Flare Challenge

If the sun shines directly into or onto the lens, the chance of adding flare spots is greatly increased. The use of a lens hood becomes essential to reduce the odds this will occur. But sometimes this isn’t enough. A good way to check for flare is to use the depth of field preview button to stop down the lens. This will reveal if flare impacts the picture. If it’s detected, do what’s necessary to shade the front element to eliminate it.

More Ways to Reduce Flare

Wide-angle lenses show more flare since the front element is often large and the angle of view is wide. The greater the telephoto power, the less chance flare impacts the image. Try to avoid stacking filters. I’m a proponent of using a high-quality clear filter to protect the front element but realize that each additional filter that’s added, a higher potential for flare occurs. Make sure you keep all filters that must be attached as clean as possible. A smudge is a kiss of death. It attracts flare like a paper clip to a magnet. Finally, if the sun can be partially hidden by a natural or man-made element in the composition and you can still attain the desired backlight effect, try to obscure the sun, which lessens flare’s negative impact.

Backlight basics

Sun On The Horizon

When the sun is on or near the horizon, there’s a greater chance haze, pollutants, smoke or moisture partially blocks its intensity. If you want to include the sun in your image, try to make your photos when it’s as close to the horizon as possible. Additionally, because atmospherics reduce the sun’s intensity, it’s quite possible you can maintain color and detail, which opens foreground shadow detail. When it’s very bright, the contrast range is too great.

Backlight basics

Spraying Water

A backlit subject I love to photograph is spraying water. Each drop takes on translucence and sparkles like a jewel. Other subjects that are favorites are classic natural and man-made land and structural formations. While this week’s tip on backlight basics is illustrated with wildlife subjects, think about all the iconic shapes of Arches National Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the peaks of the Grand Tetons and more. If you’ve yet to dive into these backlight basics, fear it no longer and give it a go. There are many potential images that await the eager photographer.

To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

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