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Tips and techniques

Field Technique: Embracing the Backlight, Story and Photographs by F.M. Kearney

By June 13, 2014No Comments

Garden Highlights (R-425)_edited-1

Flowers are usually best photographed on overcast days. The cloud cover acts as a giant softbox, evening out the light by eliminating dark shadows. Sometimes, this flat, contrast-free lighting is exactly what I’m looking for. Other times, when I’m in the mood to spice things up a bit, I seek out the harshest, most direct lighting I can find. I don’t necessarily want this type of light on my subject but, rather, behind it to create a nice backlight.

Roses are in season now, providing many creative photo opportunities. One sunny morning, I came across a row of white shrub roses in the New York Botanical Garden. After surveying them under standard frontal lighting, I thought: “Nothing to see here. Move on.” But when I walked around to the other side, I was absolutely amazed to see just how much more dramatic the roses looked backlit. No longer static and boring, they came to life against the sparkling highlights that danced in the background.

However, backlight isn’t the easiest kind of light to work with. Unless you’re going for a complete silhouette, additional lighting and techniques are needed to properly expose your subject.

I positioned my tripod to compose a shot of a small group of the shrub roses in the foreground and a few others several feet behind. I used my depth of field preview to determine the optimum aperture that would render the foreground roses sharp and the background as a field of soft, glistening highlights. Although the background looked good in the viewfinder, the image as a whole was faded and washed out. A quick look at the camera explained why: the glare from the sun was shining directly onto the lens.

Cokin_hood_3I attached a Cokin modular hood, comprised of several individual ¾-inchstackable rings, allowing me to build a custom lens hood of precisely the length I needed. With the lens now completely shaded, the true color and contrast of the image was restored. To compensate for the strong backlight, I mounted a flash on my camera and set it to “TTL-Fill.” I also used a reflector and aimed it at the opposite side of the flowers from where I aimed the flash. I find that this type of multidirectional lighting can produce almost studio-quality results in the field. At last, I was ready to shoot.

This may sound like a lot of work, but once the initial setup is in place for the first photo the process for those that follow is streamlined. “Garden Highlights,” is one of the many images I shot that morning. It might require a bit more prep, but the spectacular results possible with backlighting are certainly worth the effort.

F. M. Kearney is an award-winning nature photographer whose work has been widely published. He is a long-time contributor to NANPA publications. To see more of Kearney’s work, go to

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