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Backlighting Basics

Updated: 6 days ago

Backlighting involves positioning the main light source behind your subject. In simple terms, backlighting in wildlife photography can be explained as shooting towards or into the sun.

Shooting backlit opens up a myriad of artistic opportunities and allows us to transform ordinary scenes into captivating and evocative images. Yet so often as wildlife photographers we are advised to photograph front-lit images with advice such as 'shoot with the sun to your back' or 'point your shadow to your subject'. When I first started photographing wildlife I tended to shy away from backlighting due to mixed results and its technical difficulty. In this short piece I want to share 5 backlighting tips that I hope will simplify backlighting and encourage you to give it a go if you haven't already.

A white faced heron photographed backlit.
Backlit light illuminates the feathers of a white-faced heron herding a small school of mullet in the shallows.

TIP 1: Exposure and Metering

A common issue with backlighting is that we are often faced with a scene that has a dark underexposed subject or a bright overexposed background and shooting back-lit can seem like a tightrope walk between these two extremes. Below are two technical ways that I use to navigate this issue and gain full control over my exposure when backlighting. Gaining full control allows for greater creative freedom over how my final image will look. I can choose to shoot dark and dramatic, or expose for the subject and create a bright ethereal image.

A pied shag catching a mullet at sunrise.
Backlit contrasty scenes can be challenging - a pied shag breaks the water with a small mullet at sunrise.

Manual Exposure & Spot Metering

Although not the only way to shoot backlit images, I find 'Manual mode' and 'Spot Metering' to be a powerful backlighting combination. Quite often our camera's metering modes can get fooled by harsh contrasty back-lit situations and we don't get the effect we are looking for. I find shooting with Spot Metering paired with Manual mode provides full exposure and artistic control as the camera's light meter makes no adjustments to the exposure.

Unlike Matrix/Evaluative metering which evaluates the light in the entire scene, Spot Metering reads the light from a very small selected part of the scene. Where I choose to meter in the scene will be determined by the artistic result I am after.

  • In Practice

A lot of the time when shooting backlit I like to spot meter off the brightest part of the scene, this could be the sky, water ripples, bright spots, rim lit feathers or seed heads etc. I then manually dial in my exposure to create the brightest possible image without clipping any of the details. Having my 'blinkies' switched on or reviewing the histogram allows me to check that I haven't lost any important details in the highlights. Exposing my image in this way allows me to capture an image that retains the maximum dynamic range - capturing as much details in both the highlights and shadow areas in a single frame. Images captured in this way are often cleaner as we're not introducing unnecessary noise into the image in post processing by raising the exposure in the shadows significantly. When shooting this way I will often edit the RAW file by fine tuning the white balance, increasing the contrast (curves adjustment), increasing vibrance/saturation, toning down the highlights to reveal more detail and increasing details in the shadows slightly etc.

In the pied shag/cormorant image below I metered the image off the bright reflected water and was able to capture an image that held detail in both the bright water droplets as well as the bird's dark feathers, making the most out of an often tricky lighting situation.

An example of backlit wildlife photography, a pied shag shakes water at sunrise.
A pied shag shakes water droplets at first light. The backlit water droplets stand out like stars in the night sky.
A silhouette of a sacred kingfisher with the sun setting in the background.
A NZ kingfisher photographed against the setting sun.

There are times however when a balanced exposure may not match our artistic vision or the lighting conditions force us to compromise. In times like this I find it helpful to ask myself what the most important part of the scene is. If the details in the subject are the most important part then I may want to correctly expose the subject irrespective of how this effects the rest of the image. In the pied stilt image below I made the decision to expose for the bird and render the bright grey background white to create an image with a stark, lonely feel. Alternatively, if the surrounding scene or the shape/form of your subject is what we are trying to convey (see kingfisher silhouette to the right) then sacrificing the details of the subject and shooting the scene may be the best artistic choice. Once again, this creative decision is completely up to you!

A pied stilt feeding in the shallows.
Using diffused fill flash and underexposing the backlit sky allowed me to create this sketch-like effect.
Black swans photographed at sunset on Lake Ellesmere.
Black swans silhouetted against backlit pastel skies. Lake Ellesmere, Canterbury, NZ.

TIP 2: Photograph the GOLDEN HOUR!

Pied stilt backlit reflections against a sunset sky.
Pied stilt backlit reflections against a sunset sky.

One of the most effective and simple ways to tackle backlighting is to photograph around sunrise or sunset - the golden hour! The low angle of the sun can really enhance the atmosphere and mood of an image adding warmth and a dreamy ethereal quality. During dawn and dusk the light is often more diffused and the lower contrast makes a more balanced exposure easier to achieve. Some of my favourite backlit images have been taken moments before the sun rises or after the sun sets when you get wonderful soft pastel colours - so don't pack the gear away too prematurely. Winter can be a great time to shoot back-lit images as the sun is lower in the sky for longer giving us more time to experiment.

NOTE: During the golden hour the light changes rapidly, I find it helpful to regularly review and test my camera settings to make sure that I'm achieving the results that I'm after.

A small banded dotterel chick photographed during the golden hour.
A small banded dotterel chick photographed backlit during the golden hour.

TIP 3: Experiment with ANGLES!

Experiment with placing the sun directly behind your subject as well as slightly to each side. Moving our shooting angle by taking a few steps (or belly slides!) to the left or the right can give our backlit images a completely different mood and feel. Take a mental note of how different angles affect your back-lit photographs.

When the sun is in the frame or directly behind the subject we can create dramatic contrasty images such as silhouettes (see the image below of a NZ fur seal calling out at sunrise).

NZ fur seal silhouetted against the rising sun.
NZ fur seal silhouetted against the rising sun.
A white-fronted tern chase photographed just after sunset.
Chasing a 'cheat meal'. A white-fronted tern chase photographed just after the sun dipped below the horizon.

When we move slightly off axis to the left or right we start to reduce contrast and lens flare and create a more ethereal feel (see the banded dotterel image below). Angled backlight is extremely popular with BBC filmmakers as it adds a ton atmosphere to any scene.

A banded dotterel chick rim lit at sunset.
Photographing slightly off axis to the setting sun has given this image a warm ethereal feel.
A spotted shag flaps its wings at sunrise photographed in Kaikoura NZ.
Roosting spotted shags photographed backlit and slightly off axis to soften contrast and lens flare.

NOTE: Please don't look at the sun through your viewfinder when photographing the sun directly - this can damage your eyesight! Instead compose your image by switching your camera to live view.

TIP 4: Add mood with Back-lit "Blackgrounds"

A low key image of a royal spoonbill photographed against a shaded background.
Royal Spoonbill photographed against shaded raupo bed.

Dark backgrounds or "blackgrounds" can be a great way to create mood. The bright backlight contrasts with the dark background making our subjects pop, enhancing the backlit effect. HOW DO YOU CREATE A "BLACKGROUND"? This effect can be created by shooting into the light towards a shade/dark background. When shooting into the light we are faced by the shadow side of the terrain. This could be a shaded mud bank, bush edge, hill side etc. NOTE: The background doesn't always look black to the naked eye - but by exposing our image for the highlights (See TIP 1) the shadowy background renders to black. Clear skies with bright light tend to work best for this effect.

NOTE: When editing this type of image you will often need to increase the contrast. To do this I will often use the 'Tone Curve' in Lightroom - darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights to create extra separation and pop. The 'Adjustment Brush' can be used to make more selective/local adjustments to the image e.g. lightening the subjects shadows etc.

A black-backed gull about to drop a mussel - photographed backlit against a black background.
A black-backed gull about to drop a mussel - photographed backlit against shaded pine trees.

It helps to become an observer of the light. Go to your local photography haunts and take note how the light falls - Where does the sun rise? Where does it set? Where does the first or last light touch? What parts of the landscape stay in shadow the longest? The knowledge gained will become invaluable.

Backlit wildlife photography of a spoonbill water shake.
A royal spoonbill shaking water droplets against a shaded rock wall gives almost a night sky effect.
A New Zealand fantail in flight photographed against a dark background.
A pīwakawaka in flight photographed against dark shaded trees.

TIP 5: Fur, Feathers, Fluff & Stuff

Sunset skies illuminate the wings of a banking white-fronted tern.
Sunset skies illuminate the wings of a banking white-fronted tern.

Tip number 5 is all about adding that extra WOW factor in our backlit photographs, looking to add those details that help take our images to the next level.

FUR, FEATHERS & FLUFF. Furry and feathery subjects make perfect backlighting subjects due to the way the light illuminates fur, fluff and feathers. Capturing a subject's' or objects' translucent qualities e.g. a young birds soft down feathers or a bird's spread wings in flight can give an ethereal glow and enables the viewers to see those fine feather details not often visible when photographing front-lit. Photographing against a shaded background and deliberately underexposing our image until only the illuminated feathers, fluff or fur is visible will create a wonderful 'rim lighting' effect (see spoonbill image below).

A rim lit royal spoonbill photographed at sunset.
A rim lit royal spoonbill photographed at sunset.
Rim light illuminates the soft down feathers of this young paradise shelduckling.
Rim light illuminates the soft down feathers of this young paradise shelduckling giving a sense of vulnerability.
A photo of a silvereye bird in flight.
The low backlight illuminates the small wings of silvereye in flight.
A new zealand fantail in the rain.
A pīwakawaka photographed through backlit raindrops.

STUFF. Being aware of how backlight interacts with 'stuff' in the atmosphere or environment can also improve our backlit photography. Atmospheric conditions such as rain, water drops, fog, dust, breath vapour etc. can look magic when photographed backlit. Photographing dewy grasses, flowers, fluffy seed heads etc. can create wonderful golden bokeh balls when backlit. HOW DO YOU CAPTURE BOKEH BALLS? To create this bokeh effect (1) look for spots where the light is reflecting such as ripples, dew drops etc. (2) use a telephoto lens (3) choose a wide aperture (4) get close to your subject (5) get as low as possible (If there are small bright elements in the foreground try and and include some out-of-focus foreground in your image to frame your subject with that golden sparkle).

backlit bokeh balls in this wildlife photography photo of a banded dotterel.
A banded dotterel photographed at sunset through backlit wild flowers adding a nice bokeh.

wildlife photography photograph of back lit cormorant wings
Backlighting on a cold morning helps capture a little pied shags breath and backlit wings.
With a low perspective I photographed this kōtuku through sunlit floating vegetation to create this colourful bokeh ball effect.
With a low perspective I photographed this kōtuku through sunlit floating vegetation to create this colourful bokeh ball effect.
Backlight and a dark background help illuminate the breath of these Canada geese on a cold morning.
Backlight and a dark background help illuminate the breath of these Canada geese on a cold morning.

In Conclusion

These five backlighting tips are by no means a comprehensive 'how-to guide' for backlighting photography although hopefully they have inspired you to get out and shoot creatively into the light. At first shooting into the sun can seem a little strange and counter intuitive although, rest assured, with a little practice you'll be harnessing the light and capturing your own artistic and evocative images in no time. Shooting backlit is open to your own creative freedom so experiment and most of all - HAVE FUN!


Need help with your wildlife photography?

One of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of wildlife photography for me is helping people improve their photography and fieldcraft skills. For the past 7 years I have run individual and small group photography tuition tailoring lessons to suit individual and group needs. I cover a wide range skills from camera basics, mastering the light, how to get close to your subjects, wildlife behaviour, hide photography etc. If you are in the greater Christchurch area and want to learn wildlife photography in a fun, relaxed personal setting feel free to contact me for more information.

A white heron taking off during the golden hour.
A white heron taking off during the golden hour.


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