The Beauty of Backlight

(© Joseph Rossbach) Back Light is one of my favorite lighting conditions to work under. Over the past couple of months I have been chasing the fall colors from the Tetons to West Virginia, leading several workshops along the way. The color this year was excellent and I was given the opportunity to work with some dramatic back light and interesting weather conditions on each location. While in the Tetons,  on several occasions, we were presented with dramatic storm clouds and breaking light late in the day. Back light is always a tough situation as we are dealing with tricky exposures, extreme contrast and lens flare. Below are three examples of landscape images captured using back light. For each of the images below, I will discuss the technical, creative decisions and field applications for capturing each one.

The above image is from one of North Americas most well known and beloved locations, Ox Bow Bend on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. This iconic spot is almost always shot at sunrise, but as you can see sunset is also a viable option for capturing a dramatic landscape image as long as clouds are present. On this evening towards the end of the tour, an afternoon thunderstorm provided the conditions necessary for clouds to be above Mount Moran at sunset. As the sun set below the mountains the magic began to happen. A clear western horizon allowed light to illuminate the cloud bank some ten minutes or fifteen minutes after sunset.  Instead of bracketing several exposures and creating an HDR image, I decided to let the land and relief of the mountain range fall in to silhouette, creating a stark and graphic image. The light in the sky was much brighter than the reflection in the calm waters of Ox Bow Bend. I used a 3 Stop Graduated Neutral Density Filter to hold back the exposure in the sky while exposing for the reflected light in the waters of the Snake River. Letting the mountains and land go into silhouette also placed more emphasis on the dramatic color and symmetry  captured between clouds and reflections.

On one afternoon, while out with the group in the Grand Tetons, dark and stormy skies brooded above the mountains creating dramatic conditions. The deep blue tone of the sky along with the shape and texture of the storm clouds provided the perfect backdrop to capture the Cottonwoods along the Snake River. The sun was peaking in and out of the clouds illuminating the vivid yellows of the Cottonwood trees. This is a single exposure. After finding a composition I was happy with, I patiently waited for the sun to reappear from behind the clouds flooding the scene with dramatic back light. I framed the image so as the sun was just out of frame above the Cottonwoods. The back light illuminated the autumn yellows of the leaves allowing them to glow against the dark brooding storm clouds. Because the sun was just above and out of frame, I was getting a fair amount of lens flare. I simply used my hat in conjunction with the lens hood to completely shade the front element of the lens and therefore removed any lens flare from the image.

As opposed to the image above, sometime lens flare can be used to one creative advantage.  Take this image from sunset at Lindy Point for example. As the sun was setting across the deep canyon of the Blackwater River in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, I was able to use the flare of the sun coming into the camera as a creative aspect in the shot. To create a ‘sunstar” all one must do is simply stop the aperture of the lens down to a small opening, say F16 or F22. Now that may sound quite easy, but in reality it is a little more difficult.  I waited until the sun was just on the horizon illuminating the clouds above the canyon, but just before it dipped behind the canyon walls. I stopped my 14-24mm down to F18 which allowed the sun to cast a dramatic sunstar out across the interior of the canyon. If the sun was a little higher in the sky, then the light would not have been as colorful and dramatic, a little lower and it would have disappeared below the horizon and been gone.  The extreme range of light necessitated two exposures, one optimized for the sky and the second for detail in the shadow areas of the canyon not receiving any light.  The two images were later blended in Adobe Photoshop for extended dynamic range. Interested in my exposure blending technique? If so, I have a tutorial available on my personal photo blog that is available to read.

You can see more of my work from this past autumn on the Recent Work section of my website.

If you are interested in attending a photo Workshop or Tour where you can learn to apply these techniques as well as many other to bring your images to the next level. please consider on of my many Instructional Photo Tours. More information is available on the Photo Tours & Workshops page on my website.