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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Take Control Of Backlight

Like facing into a refreshing breeze, backlight can flow through a scene to create depth, dimension and visual impact

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Sunrise at Mono Lake, California. As the sun rose above the horizon, this scene was transformed from quiet and flat to one of glowing colors and rich contrast.

The stars faded as darkness gave way to soft twilight. The eastern horizon cast its gentle glow across the landscape. Long wavelengths of light penetrated the sky overhead, defining a blue shadow cast by the Earth against the atmosphere, and then pushing it ever lower in the sky. Clouds and the east-facing mountains gathered hues of pink and orange that dropped gradually toward the base of the escarpment. Then, with a flash of gold, the disc of the sun broke the horizon and direct sunlight poured in. Contrast between highlights and shadows built rapidly as the sun revealed itself. Like millions before, this sunrise, in visual terms, was an evolution from simple to complex.

Within canyons, you can find a subtle form of backlight in reflective surfaces like water.
On this particular morning, in the crisp autumn air among golden grasses at Mono Lake, it occurred to me that many of my favorite photographs have an almost palpable sense of movement created by backlight. Like facing into a breeze, the light flows through the image—glowing through an autumn leaf, rim-lighting cactus spines or reflecting toward the viewer from the surface of water. All of these effects depend on light coming from a position somewhere behind the main subject.

The photograph of glowing rabbitbrush flowers that I composed that morning is a classic use of backlighting in the landscape. The sun is low over the horizon so the color temperature of the direct light is still warm, and the translucent nature of the grasses and rabbitbrush flowers makes them glow. I chose the camera position to layer the sunlit vegetation against shadows illuminated by cool blue skylight. This provides contrast of both tone and color to set off the highlight areas, enhancing the impression of depth and dimension. The trick was to avoid lens flare and loss of contrast from the sun in-frame and shining directly into my lens. Shading the lens with my hand as I normally would wasn't an option as it would have been in the frame, but luck was with me—a low cloud would become a natural lens shade as the sun rose behind it. Waiting for the sun to rise behind the cloud meant that it was also high enough to spill over Negit Island to illuminate the water vapor rising from the lake in the distance.

Crepuscular rays penetrate fog through oaks, Sonoma County, California.
Dissecting Backlight
Over time, I've grown to think of backlight not only in terms of direct light as from the sun or a strobe, but as any light source arriving from an angle behind the subject that plays an important role in determining the character of the photograph. Thinking of it this way has helped me dissect the various sources of light at play to make better-informed creative decisions in the search for situations and camera positions that make use of subtle backlight to create separation of color, form and tone. The light might be transmitted toward the camera through translucent objects or reflected off in the manner of a rock skipped off the surface of a pond—the light's path is deflected, refracted or diffused toward the camera rather than reflected back off the subject like front light.

One of my favorite forms of backlight occurs when light is reflected off a surface behind the subject, but just out of frame, then transmitted through leaves or other translucent materials. The balance between this transmitted backlight and overhead skylight is close enough for the effect to be subtle, and it maintains a shaded background against which the leaves achieve an elegant glow. It's an effect that can be easy to miss in nature unless you're really looking for it, but it especially sings in a photograph.


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