A lot of photographers are uncomfortable photographing backlit subjects (i.e. sun is coming from behind the subject). I think our nature impulse is to just put our camera in the same direction as the sun and shoot. It is also easier, too.
But backlighting is unique and beautiful once you get the hang of it. It can make translucent subjects glow, and it can create a really lovely fringing that front-lighting simply cannot match.
The problem is that with the sun behind the subject, the subject itself is in shadows. If you shoot it that way, you create a silhoutette, which can be nice, but you lose detail on the subject. The solution if you want to see the detail on your backlit subject is to either (1) add light to the shadowed subject (with flash or reflectors); or (2) overexpose the image.
This second technique, overexposing the image, is what we are talking about in this post using a few examples from my Hill Country shoot last week.
By overexposing (i.e. manually overriding your camera’s settings and telling it to make the image brighter), you add light and detail to your subject. But your background also becomes overexposed, too, and sometimes that is not good. For example, here, I came across a backlit cow under an oak tree. I overexposed as much as I could, but the bright sky behind put a limit on how much I could overexpose before the sky “blew out” (overexposed) to white. This was the best I could do, as the sky around the cow and sun-flare is right on the edge of overexposure.
I like the image, but I do wish I could have pulled more oranges out of the tree. (Yes, a bit of flash might have helped but that cow was not waiting for me)
You may have noticed that the title of this post is “Backlighting Against Dark Backgrounds”. A dark background is the secret sauce for really unique backlit nature images. because you can then overexpose the backlit subject and the background does not “blow out” (because it was dark to start with).
For example, I was able to overexpose the image above and the glow of the tree really stands out from the dark background. In the image below, I overexposed almost a stop and half (i.e, I more than doubled the brightness of the image from the camera’s meter reading) in order to get light and detail into the tree trunk and foreground leaves. Because the background was a dark hillside, it did not overexpose and the whole image pops.
Fall color, Block Creek Natural Area, Hill Country region, Texas, USA. Canon 1DX. 70mm. ISO 1000. f/11 @ 1/50 second. Polarizer. EV +1 1/3.