In regard to outdoor photography, backlight can be utilized by direct sun, ambient light in the sky and, if the subject is small, with flash. From pre-dawn to post-sunset, opportunities present themselves that allow photographers to make backlit images with impact. Whether you desire silhouettes at sunrise, rim lit icicles or backlit autumn foliage at midday, backlight can enhance many subjects. The effects will leave the viewers of your images mesmerized.
To become familiar with how natural backlight plays upon a subject, simply observe how the sun illuminates what you view. First, look at a front-lit subject and notice how the flat light reveals little texture. Walk to the side of the subject to see highlights and shadows that create dimensionality. Contrast is more pronounced than with front light. Now, go behind your subject. Shape becomes the prominent aspect as the outline or silhouette becomes more pronounced. The contrast between highlights and shadows is emphasized.
Begin your training walks without a camera. The idea behind this is to get you acquainted with how backlight impacts an object. Make sure everything you observe is between you and the sun. Break away from the adage that the sun should be over your shoulder. Take the walks at different times of the day to see how the sun’s angle impacts the light. Sunrise and sunset reveal the most dramatic lighting, but successful images can be made during midday hours once you learn a few tricks.
Subject matter can range from insects to forests of trees, translucent to opaque objects, solids to liquids or anything that has strong definition and form. Smaller subjects have an advantage in that flash or other light modifiers can be used to produce a backlit image. Larger objects become more dependent upon natural light conditions. Colored filters or changes to the color temperature can help augment colorless light.
One of my favorite backlit subjects to shoot is water. Whether it’s in the form of steam, fog, mist, rain during a sun shower or a waterfall, it’s a subject that comes alive when backlit. In the case of mist or steam, backlight reveals its density, shape and the path with which the wind transports it. It glows from within and depicts highlights and shadows not revealed when front lit. Good subject matter for these types of shots are geysers, clouds, rolling fog and morning mist on lakes and rivers.
Waterfalls are great backlit subjects. As the water falls from its high point to the ground and then bounces off the surface, the motion of every drop is shown. The darker the background from where the drops are offset, the more prominent they become. This is due to the backlight that illuminates the translucent drops. The diamond-like effect each drop is bestowed is contrasted against a dark background that allows the drops to stand out. Fast shutter speeds freeze the motion of each drop while slower ones imply movement. Both effects net strong images. Try both options to see which you prefer. It’s better to be able to choose the better image when viewed on the computer than wish you’d have shot it the other way but didn’t.
Silhouettes are common subjects in regard to outdoor backlighting and are best shot early or late in the day. In order to create them, the light falling on the subject needs to be much less than the light behind it. Pre-sunrise light in the eastern sky works well, as does post-sunset light in the western sky. The added bonus is these are the points at which color in the sky is most vivid.
I always try to stretch sunrise and sunset light by arriving at my location before dawn or staying after sunset to look for interesting forms and shapes to silhouette against an alpenglow sky. The subject needs to be clearly discernible, have no clutter in the foreground or background and have interesting lines. If the sky lacks color, add a filter to give it punch. The color of the filter doesn’t affect the silhouette since it remains black. Just as the sun peeks over the horizon, continue to shoot using the sun as an added focal point and stop down the lens to ƒ/22 to create a sun star.
If serendipity presents itself, an animal may appear while the sun is on the horizon. If this happens, position yourself to get the animal directly between you and the sun. The result of these images will leave viewers breathless and in awe.
Silhouettes also work well with people. They are easily identifiable and make great subjects. Having them do something helps increase the drama. Try this the next time you’re out photographing with some friends. A framed print makes a wonderful gift come the holiday season.
There are techniques that allow you to create good photos during midday hours. Small backlit subjects can be successfully photographed during midday hours when shot toward the sun. Backlit leaves work well to show their fibers and networking of cells. The cliched photo of a dandelion seed head immediately comes to mind. Anything that allows light to pass through it is a good candidate. In regard to safety, never look directly at the sun through the viewfinder for fear of damaging your eyes.
Fall foliage is a great midday backlit subject. It’s obviously more restrictive because it’s seasonal, but put it on your calendar to try it. To really see its impact, take a front lit shot of a brightly colored tree in peak fall color. Then, go around to the other side and watch how the leaves literally glow. Whether you photograph the whole tree or a single leaf, backlit autumn foliage is a fabulous subject.
Be sure to review last week’s Tip of the Week that addresses backlight in indoor settings and mark your calendar to catch next week’s third installment on the topic.
Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.