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Tips and techniques

Urban Nature: Using Backlighting for a Dramatic Effect

By October 6, 2022No Comments
Backlit Japanese Cherry Blossoms (Rosaceae) "Yae-Akebono" Prunus New York Botanical Garden Bronx, NY. © F. M. Kearney

Backlit cherry blossoms. © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

I began my career in photography as a freelance press photographer for a variety of local New York City newspapers. In those days, I shot black and white film and processed it myself at home – temporarily transforming my bathroom and bedroom into makeshift darkrooms. Some newspaper offices had their own in-house darkrooms, which made things a lot easier. There was one office where we shared a darkroom with photographers from another newspaper owned by the same parent company. On one occasion, I recall seeing some photos being processed by one of their staff photographers who had just returned from an assignment. He had taken pictures of some factory workers in a large room. In almost every photo, there were large windows in the background, spilling bright sunlight into the dimly lit room. All the subjects were heavily backlit and cloaked in a dark silhouette. Strong backlighting definitely has its place in photography, but it absolutely did not work in that situation.

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Backlit blossoms

In April, I wrote an article about enhancing your flower photos by including the sun. Backlighting is a similar technique, but it doesn’t necessarily have to include the sun (or whatever the main light source may be). Personally, I think the image is more intriguing when the light source isn’t seen. These are the types of images I will focus on in this article. But, even when the sun isn’t in the shot, this type of photography presents the same kind of exposure challenges – requiring the use of a flash or a reflector and possibly a lens hood, which I will discuss later.

I shot the opening photo in the New York Botanical Garden during the peak cherry blossom season. After capturing the standard, front-lit scenes, I wanted to try something a little different. I positioned a large blossom directly in front of the sun – completely blocking it from view. Under the clear blue sky, this created a distinctive, halo-like aura around the blossom, as well as a beautiful rim light. This is the type of light that forms around the edges (or rim) of a backlit subject – producing a brilliant outline.

Flowers take on a very special look when backlit. Just about any flower can benefit from this type of lighting, but some can benefit more than others. Tulips are one on my favorite flowers to backlight. Aside from the fact that they’re often planted in uniform patterns and colors – beckoning even non-photographers to grab a shot – their unique shape makes them the perfect subjects for backlighting. They’re basically hollow bulbs that, when backlit, catch the light in a way that gives them an almost translucent quality. I shot the cluster of white tulips in Photo “A” under such conditions in the New York Botanical Garden. I accentuated the effect by positioning them in front of a dark background. The backlight almost makes them look as though they’re emitting their own light.

Three photos to compare lighting from front and back of flowers. PHOTO A (top): Backlit tulips. PHOTO B (left): Backlit floribunda rose. PHOTO C (right): Front-lit floribunda rose. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO A (top): Backlit tulips. PHOTO B (left): Backlit floribunda rose. PHOTO C (right): Front-lit floribunda rose. © F. M. Kearney

Roses are another type of flower that can really take advantage of backlighting. Although not hollow like a tulip, the effects of backlighting are quite amazing. Photos “B” and “C” are images of a floribunda rose surrounded by buds. Although they look similar, I shot the two images years apart and in very different lighting. The rose in Photo “B” almost appears to glow in the backlight, whereas, the standard, front-lighting in Photo “C” renders a much less dynamic and flat-looking image.

Flowers aren’t the only things in nature that possess a translucent quality. Fall foliage really shines (literally) in backlight. I visited Central Park last autumn when the colors were at their peak. There were great shots in practically every direction I looked, but just like with the flowers, the real beauty was in the backlit scenes! I photographed the scene in Photo “D” near a body of water known as The Pool. Not only did the backlighting enhance the color of the leaves, it also created decorative highlights on the lake and interesting shadow patterns on the ground.

Backlit fall foliage by The Pool Central Park New York, NY. PHOTO D: Backlighting really enhances fall foliage. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO D: Backlighting really enhances fall foliage. © F. M. Kearney

Dealing With Glare

As beautiful as backlit images are, glare can be a huge problem. In photographs, it’s seen as a haze that washes out the image. Colors are desaturated and the contrast is flat. It’s more of a problem when the sun (or other bright light source) is at an angle to the camera, rather than directly in front. I’m sure there’s some convoluted, scientific explanation for this, but I really have no idea. In any event, the problem is fairly easy to spot and to solve. If you see bright light shining on your lens, simply use a lens hood to shield it. If you don’t have a lens hood, you can use you hand, or some other large object to block it. Depending on the angle of the light, you might have to use your entire body. On some occasions, I’ve actually had to stand a few feet off to the side of my camera to block the light. Of course, a tripod and some type of remote triggering device is necessary. Initially, you might not even realize that your lens is being affected by glare. But, once it’s properly shielded, the difference and your view will become quite clear. One final note… a lens hood will be of no use if the sun is shining directly in the lens.

Preventing a Silhouette

As I mentioned earlier, the use of a flash (or a reflector) is necessary to bring out the true colors and details of a backlit subject. There may be times, however, when a strong silhouette can create a much more impactful image. But, for most occasions, you will want to use a flash and use it at a reduced power output so as not to blow out the subject. If you’re shooting during the “Golden Hours” of the day (at dawn or sunset), you may also want to use a warming gel to better match the warm, ambient lighting. Of course, a flash isn’t an option in backlit landscape scenes. Luckily, most digital cameras are equipped with histograms. If the little “mountain range” is flush up against the left side, just gradually increase your exposure until it’s no longer touching it. Don’t worry if the image still looks too dark in your camera’s LCD window. Shadow details do exist and you will be able to bring them out in post-processing.

Using a Polarizing Filter

A polarizing filter may or may not help in backlit situations. Before going through the trouble of screwing it onto your lens, just hold it up to your eye and rotate it. Use it if it makes a noticeable difference, if not, leave it off. All filters increase the chances of dust showing up in your photos. In addition to that, a polarizing filter will cause you to lose about two stops of light. So, only use it if it’s really necessary.

Creative Backlighting

Backlighting doesn’t always have to be unseen, nor does it have to come from an extremely bright source. For a change of pace, try using something a bit more colorful… like a sunset or a sunrise. Although not traditionally thought of as a source for backlighting, it’s a good way to add some creativity to your photos. While on vacation in Antigua with my wife a few years ago, we witnessed a really awesome sunset. I normally like to shoot sunsets over water, but we were staying at a resort that was nowhere near the ocean. Making matters worse was a tall hedge of bougainvillea right outside our door – preventing me from getting a clean shot. I quickly searched for an opening and was able to capture the scene in Photo “E.” It wasn’t exactly the type of shot I would have taken had I had access to the ocean, but it did give me the chance to try something new. As with the other backlit floral images, I needed to use a flash for better lighting. Also, the warming gel was especially useful in this situation.

PHOTO E: Bougainvillea backlit by an Antiguan sunset. © F. M. Kearney

Backlighting is a great way to give your subjects a new and exciting look. But don’t be like my newspaper photographer friend. Take the time to use the proper techniques to deal with this unique type of light. The end results will be worth the effort.

F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).