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Backlight can impart many different looks to a landscape. It can emphasize a strong silhouette, it can rim light a subject with a strong outer glow, it can enhance the look of fog or mist, it can create shafts of misty light, and it can provide a sun star as the sun ever so slightly peeks from behind a portion of the subject. It presents a unique quality of light that is often overlooked by landscape photographers. It presents challenges, but the rewards are worth the effort. Subjects must be judiciously chosen. The more you realize which ones work, the more you’ll add dramatic images to your files.
Backlit landscapes are mostly shot early and late in the day when the sun is close to the horizon. An added benefit to shooting at these times is the light is warm and adds tones of red, yellow, and orange to the image. These colors enhance the look in comparison to the cooler blues you get mid day. Shape and form of the subject become important as most texture and detail is lost when shooting into the sun. But as with all guidelines, there are exceptions. Autumn colored leaves are great to shoot even in the middle of the day. Backlit leaves take on a glow as if a switch was turned on from within and creates a special translucence and powerful image.
Should you choose to include the sky in your backlit landscape, contrast issues present a challenge. A graduated filter helps tame them and detail can be recorded in the foreground. A graduated color filter will impart its hue to the sky which may add interest. Another alternative is to process your RAW file to produce two images whereby one nets good foreground detail and one nets good sky detail and blend them in Photoshop using a layer mask. High Dynamic range blending also works. Programs like Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix are at the top of the list.
Flare is another issue with which you need to contend. To control it, a lens shade is essential but sometimes you’ll need more. The bottom line is you have to cast a shadow over the entire front element of the lens without recording the object that creates the shadow. I have taken many an image of a beautiful landscape with my hand or hat in the corner of the frame. To prevent this, place the camera on a tripod so you have one hand free to work the shutter while the other uses something to cast the shadow. Look through your viewfinder concentrating on the corner of the image where you have the object and make sure it doesn’t appear. Use the Depth of Field preview button and the bright spots will show up more easily..