Backlighting Wildlife

For dramatic effect, be open to alternatives to traditional front lighting
Backlighting a little blue heron
A little blue heron in its white, juvenile phase lifts off from a lagoon in Fort Myers, Florida.

Backlighting refers to the positioning of light behind your subject, such that your subject is located between you and the source of light. For the purposes of this article, the source of the light is natural: the sun.

You may have read that the sun should always be directly behind you when you photograph wildlife. Forget about that. If you want to create images that stand out for their artistry and imagination, and if you want to be flexible and opportunistic as a wildlife photographer, understanding when and how to work other angles of light is critical. Because the truth is, if you spend enough time around wild animals, you will inevitably find that you often can’t control where you stand in relation to an animal. Moving your position might risk startling the animal or maybe even putting yourself in danger. It makes good sense to understand techniques that will enable you to make the best of your circumstances.

What Makes For A Good Subject And Setting?

For me, the magic of backlighting is that it cloaks your subject in rim light, which has a tremendous way of accentuating its shape and texture. Rim light directs your attention to the downy feathers of a great horned owl chick or the elegant lines of a white-tailed deer. Creatures of all kinds provide us with such great opportunities for this technique, because of the hair, fur, feathers or scales that cover their bodies.

Light behind an animal can also illuminate and call attention to the features that make that animal unique, such as the beard on a topi, the wattle of a wild turkey or the red bill of a reddish egret. This is especially true when these features are translucent. Does your subject have features that the light could penetrate? If so, it could be an excellent candidate for backlighting.

Keep in mind that environmental elements such as dust, water spray or gently falling snow or rain can help create a wonderful setting for your backlit subject. Even insects can become points of light. I’ll never forget the “aha!” moment I had one summer morning when I went out at sunrise to photograph cedar waxwings in a local park. I realized that if I positioned myself such that they and the huge hatch of insects they were catching in midair were between me and the rising sun, I could have both the bird and the bugs all around it lit up, like a constellation of stars.

Backlighting a cedar waxwing catching insects
Backlighting created this beautiful effect as a cedar waxwing catches insects illuminated like a constellation of stars.

Plants lend themselves beautifully to this technique as well, and can stand alone as backlit subjects or can serve as supporting actors, balancing or framing your animal subject. Backlight will accent the graceful lines of grasses and delicate flower petals.

I also find that the use of backlighting serves to emphasize depth, giving an almost three-dimensional effect to the image. The subject is set off from its background by being limned in light.

What Time Of Day Is Best For Backlighting?

It probably goes without saying, but I will say it anyway—the sun needs to be out. Cloudy or overcast conditions won’t work. I mostly use this technique within the first hour after sunrise or the hour just before sunset, when the sun is low and light is softer and more diffuse.

Once the sun gets pretty high in the sky, it becomes more challenging to pull this off successfully. However, if you are up for the challenge, it can be a good tool to use once the light gets harsh and options are limited.

How Should You Position Yourself?

Try to find a background that is relatively distant, or if not distant, uncluttered. Avoid including the sun itself in the frame, as that may create exposure challenges, washing out the image and robbing your subject of details. If you have the chance, experiment with having your subject block the sun, or place the sun off to one side or the other to see what’s most aesthetically pleasing. Be careful if you include any sky, as it’s very easy to blow out.

Aim your lens in such a way that it is not affected by lens flare. A low angle of light coming toward you and hitting your lens directly can easily create flare. This is a good time to make sure you have a hood on your lens. A makeshift fix is to use your non-shooting hand to create a small spot of shade for the camera.

How Should You Expose For Backlighting?

Once you are in position, you will need to decide whether to expose for the shadows or for the highlights. Make sure you’re in spot metering mode, which will allow you to target and meter a select area of the image.

But before you set exposure, back up for a moment and ask yourself, “Do I want to focus more on shape or on detail?” If it’s shape and rim light you’re after, you’ll want to expose for the highlights. If you’d rather render some detail in your subject and its surroundings, expose for the dark areas. This will require you to overexpose, which will most likely blow out the lightest areas of your image. Enable highlight alerts on your camera, and the “blinkies” you will see on the screen after you take an image will show what part of the image you overexposed. Don’t worry too much, as shooting a backlit image will almost always mean some part of the image is blown out. If you are shooting in RAW—as I strongly suggest here—that will allow you to do more extensive changes in exposure during processing, specifically, adjusting shadows and highlights.

If you rely on your histogram, keep in mind that it will read quite differently for backlit images than frontlit ones. A backlit image will most likely have spikes at both the left (dark) side and right (bright) side of the histogram. This is normal. Just make sure that most of the tones are basically toward the middle, without a strong bias toward either the left or right edge.

Keep in mind, as always, that it’s better to overexpose than to underexpose, as it’s far easier to recover blown highlights than blocked shadows that hold no information. Bringing up shadows can also introduce noise (graininess).

Backlighting a rough-legged hawk
A rough-legged hawk on the hunt for voles in a meadow in central Nebraska.

It may be helpful to bracket shots when you’re using backlighting. This will give you more options to work with, and increase the chance you’ll have an image that gets the exposure just right.

Depending on the effect you are after, a bit of fill flash can help to illuminate detail on a backlit subject and keep it from being completely silhouetted. In this case, you want to properly expose for the background and use a hint of fill flash to balance out the lighting.

Other Backlighting Considerations

Make sure your lens’s front element is clean when shooting toward the sun. Each bit of dust will increase the chance of flare. A UV filter can also create flares, so you may want to remove it if you use one.

If your eyes are sensitive, you may want to try using the Live View on your LCD to protect them when looking into or toward the sun (particularly if using a telephoto lens).

If you are a fan of sunstars/sunbursts, make sure the sun is in the frame and touching another object, like a tree or the horizon. Stop down to a small aperture, such as ƒ/16 or ƒ/22. In general, the smaller the aperture, the greater the effect.

Take the time to practice. Planning a trip to Africa (a place where you will really want to employ this technique) or anywhere special? Make sure you are familiar with the settings you will have to use. Even if you don’t have a wild animal to photograph near home, practice with plants or inanimate objects. As with everything, the only way to get better is with consistent practice.

How Should You Process Backlit Images?

You can selectively bring shadows up or highlights down in your image editing program. The Curves control in Photoshop is a great tool for this. If you’ve chosen RAW format to shoot in, you will definitely have more leeway to do this than if you’re shooting in JPEG.

I feel confident that once you try it out, you will find that backlighting can make for powerfully artistic images. You’ll be hooked in no time!

As always, tread lightly and shoot from the heart.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, conservationist, writer and ethicist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education. She considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. A contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, Groo is passionate about ethics in nature photography. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She is also Chair of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife, and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.

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