If you've been following my blog, you'll notice that I've been talking about light for several posts now. Photography is all about light and I believe that when you take the lighting into consideration with every single image, your photography will not be able to help but improve. This post is dedicated to my favorite type of light, back light. For the folks just starting out, back light is not the light that strikes your back, but rather, the light that strikes the back of your subject and is typically coming right toward your camera. Back light can be the most challenging light to photograph in, merely from the fact that your camera can not see the same range of light that your eyes can and sacrifices have to be made in either the highlights or the shadows to get a proper exposure. My son took this photograph of me at the beach, while I was taking photographs of course! He was using my waterproof point and shoot...because it goes without saying that if you're at the beach with a small child, you give them a waterproof camera instead of your DSLR. Notice how the camera decided to expose properly for the sky but the exposure on me is nearly black. It simply could not see all the highlights and all the shadows. But I have to give kudos to my son...nice shot baby!
Back lighting has the unique ability to make your subjects stand out, even put a halo around them with highlights in their hair, fur, or feathers. Check out these side by side photos of the Pineapple fountain at Charleston's Waterfront Park. Notice how much more dramatic the back lit subject is. It's nicer with the longer exposure too but that aside, it's just a more dramatic, attention grabbing, image. The water scatters the light and gives the fountain a unique look. Just in case you're curious, this is a long exposure, high dynamic range image taken with a 10 stop ND filter. Check out my workshops to learn how to do this technique.
Back lighting is what you'll find most often at sunrise and sunset, as long as you're not facing the opposite direction that is!
It can define shapes in the form of silhouettes. Just because you may know how to do HDR, doesn't mean that every situation calls for it. Sometimes it's better to trust the viewer and leave a little to the imagination.
Back lighting does not always have to be strong and blinding. Sometimes, it can be soft and colorful like this sunrise at Hunting Island State Park near Beaufort, SC. Just enough light was striking this tree to give it a bit of a glow.
When photographing back lit subjects, my best piece of advice is to determine what is most important to your composition and expose properly for that part of your image. With more modern cameras, and some of the latest full frame mirrorless and DSLR's, making that choice is less difficult as they are able to capture a broader range of light than older cameras and ones with smaller sensors. High Dynamic Range photography is now a very popular option. When in doubt, I expose three different photos, two stops apart, and decide back on the computer whether or not I'll process a single image or merge the three exposures into a single HDR photo. More often than not, I choose to manually blend 2 exposures, one for the sky, and one for the foreground because I feel it gives the most realistic result. And I'm a control freak so that factors in as well. ;) Some situations call for more than 3 exposures but after switching to full frame several years back, the need for 5-7 exposures is gone. No, I'm not getting into the full frame/crop sensor debate. They both have their pro's and con's. Use whatever camera is best for you. Remember, it's all about the light...not the gear!
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