Take Control Of Backlight

Like facing into a refreshing breeze, backlight can flow through a scene to create depth, dimension and visual impact

Sunrise at Mono Lake, California. As the sun rose above the horizon, this scene was transformed from quiet and flat to one of glowing colors and rich contrast.

The stars faded as darkness gave way to soft twilight. The eastern horizon cast its gentle glow across the landscape. Long wavelengths of light penetrated the sky overhead, defining a blue shadow cast by the Earth against the atmosphere, and then pushing it ever lower in the sky. Clouds and the east-facing mountains gathered hues of pink and orange that dropped gradually toward the base of the escarpment. Then, with a flash of gold, the disc of the sun broke the horizon and direct sunlight poured in. Contrast between highlights and shadows built rapidly as the sun revealed itself. Like millions before, this sunrise, in visual terms, was an evolution from simple to complex.

Within canyons, you can find a subtle form of backlight in reflective surfaces like water.

On this particular morning, in the crisp autumn air among golden grasses at Mono Lake, it occurred to me that many of my favorite photographs have an almost palpable sense of movement created by backlight. Like facing into a breeze, the light flows through the image—glowing through an autumn leaf, rim-lighting cactus spines or reflecting toward the viewer from the surface of water. All of these effects depend on light coming from a position somewhere behind the main subject.

The photograph of glowing rabbitbrush flowers that I composed that morning is a classic use of backlighting in the landscape. The sun is low over the horizon so the color temperature of the direct light is still warm, and the translucent nature of the grasses and rabbitbrush flowers makes them glow. I chose the camera position to layer the sunlit vegetation against shadows illuminated by cool blue skylight. This provides contrast of both tone and color to set off the highlight areas, enhancing the impression of depth and dimension. The trick was to avoid lens flare and loss of contrast from the sun in-frame and shining directly into my lens. Shading the lens with my hand as I normally would wasn’t an option as it would have been in the frame, but luck was with me—a low cloud would become a natural lens shade as the sun rose behind it. Waiting for the sun to rise behind the cloud meant that it was also high enough to spill over Negit Island to illuminate the water vapor rising from the lake in the distance.

Crepuscular rays penetrate fog through oaks, Sonoma County, California.

Dissecting Backlight

Over time, I’ve grown to think of backlight not only in terms of direct light as from the sun or a strobe, but as any light source arriving from an angle behind the subject that plays an important role in determining the character of the photograph. Thinking of it this way has helped me dissect the various sources of light at play to make better-informed creative decisions in the search for situations and camera positions that make use of subtle backlight to create separation of color, form and tone. The light might be transmitted toward the camera through translucent objects or reflected off in the manner of a rock skipped off the surface of a pond—the light’s path is deflected, refracted or diffused toward the camera rather than reflected back off the subject like front light.

One of my favorite forms of backlight occurs when light is reflected off a surface behind the subject, but just out of frame, then transmitted through leaves or other translucent materials. The balance between this transmitted backlight and overhead skylight is close enough for the effect to be subtle, and it maintains a shaded background against which the leaves achieve an elegant glow. It’s an effect that can be easy to miss in nature unless you’re really looking for it, but it especially sings in a photograph.

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 4×5 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.

Use Technology To Reveal The Full Range Of Image Data

Astonishingly, RAW files from current DSLRs can capture—in a single exposure—the full tonal range of strongly backlit scenes like this one, without use of filters. We can still make good use of graduated ND filters or exposure blending techniques to optimize our exposures, of course, but the idea of a 14-stop dynamic range in a single capture was only a dream for color photographers a few years ago.

Part of the fun of photography comes from uniting technique and technology to manifest creative vision, and the ever-increasing ability to view challenging lighting as opportunity is just one reason why photography today excites me more than ever. Tuning into the various qualities and movements of light—of “facing into the wind”—feeds my soul and gets me out there to see how the sunrise will evolve today

Tips To Minimize Flare With Backlight

Here are a few tricks to avoid or minimize lens flare when shooting into the light:

  • Remove all filters.
  • Make sure the lens surfaces are clean, front and back.
  • Use a lens hood.
  • Shade the lens with your hand, hat, black card or body. If your camera is on a tripod, try standing where you can actually see the shadow fall across the front of the lens.
  • If you aren’t able to shade the entire front element without getting your hand in-frame, at least try to fully shade the entire aperture diaphragm hole itself—you’ll eliminate most flare.
  • If the sun is within your composition, you can try to hide it partially behind a tree, cloud or other object to reduce the intensity of direct sunlight falling on your lens.
Justin Black's photographs have been published widely and featured in numerous exhibitions around the U.S. and abroad, from the UK and Germany to Los Angeles and the United States Capitol. Formerly executive director of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), Black has contributed photography in support of conservation campaigns to protect threatened landscapes and ecosystems from British Columbia to Brazil, and from California’s Sierra Nevada to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. His company, Visionary Wild, has achieved a reputation for delivering world-class photography travel and education experiences for passionate photographers with leading professional instructors.