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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

Here, the sun is just out of the frame, but it's creating a rim-light effect on the scene. Notice how the scrub brush in the foreground has depth and dimension and the cactus shapes are clearly defined.
Reflected backlight, which is then further reflected toward the camera from the surface of water, is a combination that I look for. In this case, the silhouette of objects directly between the light source and the camera's perspective becomes graphic silhouettes, while objects oriented to catch the light pick up its warm hue and blend with blue skylight above across the contours of the subject.

We're all accustomed to seeing silhouettes against intense backlight, and their striking graphics can make or break a photograph. The key is to make sure silhouettes "read" well, with a clean outline that simplifies and emphasizes the shape. Unless you're creating an abstract design, it's important to compose silhouettes so they're instantly identifiable to the viewer. For example, a prominent silhouette of a saguaro cactus that fails to read well as a cactus—due to merging with overlapping black shapes—can tend to diminish the communicative power of the image. Silhouettes appear to flatten out, so when one black shape compresses against another, the result can be confusing.

Rim light is another aspect of backlight that can bring life to an image. In this case, a subject illuminated by a direct light source behind the subject and just out of frame will define its edge and help separate it from the background. In special cases, when the air is very clear and when the subject is just the right distance from the camera position, hiding the sun directly behind the subject will result in a halo of diffracted rim light. Done correctly, the entire outline of the subject can sometimes be illuminated. Or, you can opt to let the disc of the sun peek around an edge, stop down the lens to ƒ/16 or ƒ/22, and create a starburst that's prominently defined against the shadow side of the subject.

Eagle Falls, Lake Tahoe, California. By scouting this location and knowing where the sun would come up, Black was able to position himself perfectly to create the previsualized backlit image.
Timing Is Everything
It all comes down to anticipation—being aware of opportunities and prepared to capture the effects you want from dynamic and fleeting light at just the right moment. Understanding the pace and sequence of changing light on the landscape makes it possible to anticipate with surprising accuracy the set of lighting opportunities we might be presented with in any given situation—front light, sidelight, backlight, bounce light, blue/cyan skylight, the natural softbox of overcast skies, the gentle warmth provided by a cloud glowing pink after sunset and so on. It's amazing how a little thoughtful planning can focus your creative vision and eliminate numerous variables that otherwise would divert you from making the images you seek.

The photograph of Eagle Falls at Lake Tahoe is a good example. I knew I wanted to make an image of the sun's first rays kissing the waterfall, but rather than simply showing up before dawn, I scouted the location in lousy light the prior afternoon. I started out by finding the bearing to the point on the horizon where the sun would rise the next day and thought through the way the light would stream over the lake to play across the cascading water in the foreground. The decisive moment, in this case, was to catch the sun just high enough to barely illuminate the little kick of water in the extreme foreground—thus completing the illumination of that band of the waterfall—but not so high that intense sunlight would wreck the delicate balance of detail, color contrast and tonality. This awareness enabled me to visualize the finished composition, identify a precise camera position and tripod height, and select the lens and filters I would use. Lens flare was a concern once again, so I decided to try to make my exposure when the sun was partially hidden behind a tree branch, cutting the intensity of direct light on the lens enough to eliminate flare. This image was made using 4x5 Fujichrome Velvia film, which made it necessary to use two filters—a 3-stop graduated neutral-density and a mild warming filter—to execute the image, so avoiding flare was of particular importance.


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