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Tips and techniques

NATURE’S VIEW: Walking with my telephoto zoom on a backlit type of day

By April 4, 2017No Comments

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Like most nature photography instructors, I arrive several days prior to a workshop to scout the area. I check on the condition of the sites where I will be taking my students and search for new ones as well. I take the time to see how the light illuminates a scene at different times of day and determine the best perspective and time for my students to photograph there. These days also afford me time to photograph on my own and to reconnect with and savor nature.

On scouting trips before my workshops along Virginia’s eastern shore, I make time to walk the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge’s wildlife loop drive. The drive is closed to vehicles until after 3 p.m., making it a great opportunity to get my daily steps in while exploring the refuge without worrying about traffic.

The loop is a perfect 3.1 miles in length and winds through major habitat types of the refuge. With a few spur trails leading off from the main loop, there is always a new and different route to explore. Whether I hike the loop in the morning or afternoon, I’m going to find something to photograph — or better yet, experience.

Winged Sumac Leaves Backlit 11162016 Chincoteague NWR VA (c) Jim Clark_6

Backlit winged sumac leaves, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

During these walks, my lens of choice is an 80-400mm telephoto zoom. This lens has vibration reduction and is quick, silent and sharp. While lacking the wide-angle range, this focal length challenges me to isolate on segments of the bigger scene. When I explore the loop during the late morning or mid-afternoon hours when the contrast is high, this zoom range also helps me to isolate on backlit compositions.

Spider Web in early morning 10162016 Chincoteague NWR VA (c) Jim Clark_10

Spider and web backlit by mid-morning light, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

During these high-contrast hours, I search primarily for backlit translucent subjects such as leaves, but I’m also looking for silhouettes and subjects in shade.

For backlit subjects, I check my histogram to make sure I haven’t overexposed the highlights. Reviewing the composition on the camera’s LCD monitor with my loupe helps me see how sharp and composed the image is. It’s that simple in terms of techniques.

The challenge, of course, is discovering backlit subjects that stand out from the rest of the scene. I search for compositions with a clean, unobtrusive background that is complimentary to the primary subject.

Sweetgum Leaves backlit 11142016 Pocomoke River State Park MD (c) Jim Clark_1

Sweetgum leaves backlit by morning light, Pocomoke River State Park, Maryland. © Jim Clark

If I want to add a wide-angle component, I’ll sometimes carry a 28-300mm telephoto zoom. While on a national wildlife refuge, I’m forever the optimist. I just might encounter a special wildlife moment where the extra reach of the 80-400mm would work best.

A technique I recommend to workshop attendees is to turn around and walk the other way when they hike a loop trail or path. The light will be different, and they just might see something they missed going in the other direction. Even the same subject they photographed going one way might turn out to be even better at a different angle. Another bonus is that you add more steps to your daily count! Staying fit and capturing great images — you can’t beat that combination.

A past NANPA president and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim Clark is a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book Coal Country. Jim’s website is, his blog,, and you can visit him on Facebook.