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The Edge of Light
(© Ian Plant) My favorite style of shooting is against the light (known as “contre-jour”). Contre-jour lighting occurs when you point your camera directly toward a source of light, whether it be the sun, a street lamp, or a relatively bright portion of the scene. This effect causes the subject to be backlit, increasing contrast and obscuring subject detail. Typically, the result is an image with a stark, graphic quality. Simple shapes and forms are emphasized with contre-jour lighting, and subjects are reduced to their essence.
Contre-jour lighting helps render a subject in a more abstract way then seen by the eye, as is the case with this photo of a great egret. The subject itself is mostly in silhouette. With just a fringe of light on the bird’s wind- blown feathers, this photo is less about the bird, and more about the shapes, colors, and interplay of light and shadow. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 5DIII, 700mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/800 second.
Including a light source, such as the setting sun in this image of a dense rain forest, can add an eye-catching visual element to the composition. Because of the strong, contrasty light, shapes and forms emerge from the interaction of light and shadow, which would have otherwise been lost in softer light. Olympic National Park, USA. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/30 second.
For the image of a charging bear below, strong backlighting of water droplets during the middle of the day results in a scene with excessive contrast. I choose to let the bear go into silhouette, retaining detail only in the fringe of its fur and the backlit water drops, resulting in a graphic, simplified, and mysterious presentation. Even though this is midday light, which conventional wisdom suggests is useless for nature photography, shooting contre-jour proves nonetheless to be effective. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, USA. Canon 5DII, 400mm, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2500 second.
A silhouette is created when a subject or scene is presented as dark against a lighter background. Silhouettes often occur when shooting contre-jour, but careful exposure may be necessary in order to render the silhouetted subject as black. For this image below, I juxtaposed a relatively bright street with a narrow dark alley; I waited for an old man to walk through the alley before triggering the shutter. As he approached the end of the alley, he was rendered in silhouette by the brighter street beyond. Fes, Morocco. Canon 70D, 44mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/8 second.
Shooting contre-jour at sunrise or sunset can prove to be very colorful. Here, I photographed a trio of elephants kicking up dust as they walked. The dust caught the warm light of the setting sun, giving the scene a bold look. Etosha National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DIII, 311mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/640 second.
Contre-jour photography can present a number of technical challenges, as exposure must be very precise, and lens flare is often a problem. I think you’ll find that contre-jour makes you think harder about your compositions, but it also makes it easier to see your subjects as abstract shapes, colors, and forms—which is the key to unlocking your full potential as an artist. So the next time you’re out taking pictures, start thinking of creative ways to shoot into the light!
You can learn more about the creative use of light, color, and exposure in my ebook Chasing the Light.