It happens all the time. In the course of learning photography, someone will inevitably lend you the advice to always shoot your subject with the sun behind you, illuminating the subject from the front so you can get the best exposure. Consider that person officially wrong. It's time to play by some new rules.
Backlighting is a wonderful way to add drama and creativity to a scene, and plays a crucial role in adding emotion and movement to your images. When you let go of the idea that the sun always needs to light your subject from the front, and instead start working on tricks and techniques for lighting your subject in all sorts of ways, the level of skill and creativity in your nature photography will skyrocket.
Here are a few ideas for how to incorporate backlighting in your nature photography.
One of the most obvious ways to use backlighting is to create silhouettes. Your subject stands out as a beautiful outline against a compelling background. A silhouette can often be meditative, offering viewers a quiet but engaging scene to look at and think about. The trick to silhouettes is to expose not for your subject but for the surrounding scene.
You can accomplish a silhouette shot by putting your camera on spot metering or partial metering, then metering for a lighter area of the scene. The best places to aim are for whichever area you want to be perfectly exposed. Maybe it is the sky, if you want all the details in the clouds to be recorded while your subject stands as a dark outline against it. Or it this could be the golden grass as in the photo above.
When creating silhouette photos, it is crucial to think not only about light but also about composition. A dark shape in a bright scene isn't a great photo on its own. But a dark shape in an interesting pose creatively placed against a visually compelling canvas can make your photograph stand out in the crowd.
2. Rim Light
Here is another wonderful creative tool you can only get with backlight: rim light. This occurs when the light shines through the more translucent edges of your subject, such as the fur of a mammal, the feathers of a bird, or even the tiny hairs on the leaves of plants. The result is a glowing outline of your subject.
You can use rim light to different effects. In the photo above, the photographer exposed specifically for the glowing edges, letting the rest of the lion's body and the background become deep shadow without any detail. This allows only the areas where the light touches to show up, creating a beautiful and very simple golden outline.
Another option is to expose for more of the shadows, so that you capture the rim light while also getting more detail in the overall image, such as in the photo of the serval cat below. The photographer exposed evenly for both shadows and highlights, and the result is a photograph that provides plenty of detail of the cat and its environment while still capturing that gorgeous golden glow all around its edges.
Rim lighting adds that special pop to nature portraits. The time spent mastering this technique will pay off in spades as your portfolio grows.
3. Capturing mood and movement in the air
A final suggestion is to use backlighting to help capture the mood of the weather and the movement of air in the atmosphere. The hot breath of the black grouse as he calls for a mate at sunrise is captured by the low light, adding to the energy of the photograph and bringing out the intensity of the bird's calls. The deep shadows of the bird, and the hint of rim light on his feathers and the wattles over his eyes help the flow of the warm air stand out even more. The photo is now more than just a shot of a bird with his beak open — now it is also showing his actual call.
This also works for landscape photos. Light coming in from behind mist, fog, and clouds make them stand out bright against the darker shadows of the backlit land, as in the photo below. The mist coming off the lake is a thin layer of gold against the shadowy banks, and the clouds all have a soft golden lining thanks to the backlighting. This is one of the reasons photographers so often shoot toward the rising or setting sun for landscape photographs — so that all the drama of light can be captured in the image, and often including the sun itself.
The next time you're shooting at sunrise or sunset, try positioning yourself so the light is coming from behind your subject and experiment. You may be surprised and thrilled by how much more interesting your photos can become.
3 more tips for using backlighting
1. Use spot metering instead of evaluative metering. This allows you to meter for the just part of the scene for which you want to capture the most detail. It may be your subject (allowing your background highlights to blow out) or it may be your surrounding scene (allowing your subject to fall into deep shadow). Experiment a lot with your settings, trying different exposures to capture the light differently until you land on your sweet spot for that scene.
2. Try shooing so the sun is blocked by your subject or is out of the scene. This will help you avoid lens flare and starbursts in your image. Shading your camera also helps, either by standing in the shade or shading it with a bit of cardboard. If you're shooting with the sun in your scene, it will be a little more technically difficult to avoid flares, but you can accomplish it with the help of a lens hood, filters, and careful angling of your camera.
3. Work on backlighting at sunrise and sunset hours. The best backlighting happens when the sun is low, and the light is softer and more weak. This allows you to reduce how much contrast occurs between your subject and the background. If the light is too bright and your subject too dark, it will be a challenge to get that softly glowing portrait with lots of detail even in the shadow and highlights.