My favorite style of shooting is against the light (known as “contre-jour” or backlighting). Backlighting occurs when you point your camera directly toward a source of light, whether it’s the sun, a street lamp, or a relatively bright portion of the scene. This effect causes the subject to be lit from behind, making its fringes seem to glow from within. When used properly, backlighting can help you create dramatic and mysterious photos.
In your next assignment for the Outdoor Photography Guide Photo Challenge, you’re going to explore the artistic use of backlighting in your photographs. Read through this post for specific tips and creative ideas for shooting against the light, and make sure to check out the inspiration gallery below.
But first, watch this video for some words of advice on backlighting from this week’s guest expert, Kurt Budliger:
Remember to join the Photo Challenge Facebook Group to share your shots from this week’s assignment!
Tips for photographing backlight
Anything translucent, such as leaves or hair, will appear to glow from within when backlit. Subjects surrounded by fog, steam, dust, sea spray, and even falling snow can look magical in backlighting. This translucent calla lily was a perfect subject for backlighting. Photo by Ian Plant. Andes Mountains, Ecuador. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 800, f/11, 1/640 second.
Flare, which results from light striking the front glass element of your lens, can be a significant challenge when shooting into the light, especially when the light source is very strong. Flare can reduce contrast, add strange color casts, and even leave your images covered in unsightly “alien space ships” (oblong blobs of color caused by excessive flare). It is typically possible to shade your lens from direct light by using a lens hood, your hand, or something handy like a hat. Make sure you completely block the light, keeping the lens glass in the shadow; just don’t get your fingers in the shot! For this backlit red-winged blackbird, I used a lens hood to prevent flare. Photo by Ian Plant. Huntley Meadows, USA. Canon 5DII, 700mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/200 second.
Because of extreme contrast, strongly backlit subjects often end up in silhouette. I carefully exposed for the highlights in this image, letting everything else go dark. Photo by Ian Plant. Cape Cross Seal Reserve Namibia. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 640, f/5.6, 1/800 second.
Strong light is vital to getting the best backlighting – the stronger the light, the better the effect. For this image of a wild horse, a clear horizon free of clouds, haze, or any other obstruction, allowed bright, warm light to catch every translucent surface and set it on fire. This is precisely the look you should be aiming for! Photo by Ian Plant. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 5DIII, 700mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/800 second.
The edges of backlit subjects such as this snowy egret glow with light, and often it is difficult to keep these areas from becoming overexposed. Do your best to avoid overexposing highlights, but if you cannot then set your exposure to ensure that important mid-tones have sufficient detail. For this shot of the egret, I was unable to avoid slightly overexposing the backlit fringes of the bird’s white feathers, so I choose to optimize exposure for the rest of the bird. Photo by Ian Plant. J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 5DIII, 700mm, ISO 200, f/8, 1/320 second.
Backlit subjects often work best with a dark background, as it makes them appear to pop out of the image frame. Here, the background was in shadow, so I carefully exposed for the backlit foreground, allowing the background to go dark. Photo by Ian Plant. Yellowstone National Park, USA. Canon 5DIII, 600mm, ISO 400, f/9, 1/160 second.
Backlighting works particularly well with landscape images containing leaves or flowers. I zoomed in for an intimate view of this scene, pinning the backlit foreground against a dark shadowed background. Photo by Ian Plant. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 5DII, 90mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1/8 second.
I photographed this springbok just a few minutes before the sun set, with the entire scene bathed in gorgeous red light. When the sun is low in the sky, contrast is reduced and color is enhanced. Photo by Ian Plant. Etosha National Park, Namibia. Canon 70D, 282mm, ISO 500, f/4, 1/500 second.