Backlit Beauty

Andrew Beck All Authors, Andrew 5 Comments

“Can we position ourselves over there please?”

My words weren’t even cold before one of the other guests on the vehicle pointed out to me that that would in fact mean that we would be shooting directly into the sun…

A male lion sits in the shadow of an acacia thicket out on the open plains of Nxai Pan. He faces west, probably listening out for location calls made by a female and her 4 cubs we had spotted just 15 minutes before finding him. Had we stuck to the age old guideline of “shoot with the sun over your shoulder” I would have had nothing but images of a lions backside and the back of his head.

Hardly anything to get excited about.

Adjusting our position to around 135 degrees to the sun meant that we were not quite directly in front of the big male but were definitely able to get some more interesting images despite shooting pretty much into the sun.

Andrew Beck Wild Eye Botswana Photographic Safari Nxai Pan-3

Canon 1DX, 200-400mm @ 400mm, F4.0, ISO 500, 1/320, +1/3EV

One of the great qualities of the early morning and late afternoon light is that it is less intense than that of the mid-day sun which means that you can in fact get away with shooting into the light. Add to this the fact that the shadows cast by the low angle of the sun add depth to the scene, and you’ve got a winning combination.

Shooting in this kind of light will almost always require you to make some sort of exposure compensation adjustment. In this particular instance and shooting in evaluative metering mode, my subject was sitting in the shadows of the scene which mean that in order to ensure that he was correctly exposed, I needed to increase my exposure compensation to +1/3 EV to brighten the entire scene.

It is important to note that all of the exposure adjustments I refer to in this post are made whilst shooting in evaluative metering mode. I prefer to shoot in this mode and manually compensate for any exposure adjustments necessary.

Do You Understand the Various Metering Modes?

Andrew has put together a blog post looking at three of the most common metering modes, how they work and influence your images.

Read the Blog

Backlighting can also provide some spectacular color casts across a scene, converting the entire scene into shades of yellow, orange and red.

Wild Eye Andrew Beck Backlit beauty-2

Canon 1 DX, canon 200-400mm @ 560mm, F5.6, ISO 200, 1/160, +1 EV

Depending on your position in relation to the sun and the intensity of the light, you may find yourself underexposing in order to accentuate what we refer to is rim-lighting. This is the glow that seems to surround the subject as fine hairs and other details are highlighted as the light hits them.

Wild Eye Andrew Beck Backlit beauty

Canon 1DX, 800mm F5.6 @ F7.1, ISO 400, 1/400, -2/3EV

In its most commonly represented form, backlighting is responsible for those captivating silhouette shots which so many photographers dream of capturing. It is here that we aim to have the yellow, orange and red tones of the setting sun broken by the unmistakable shapes of some of Africa’s most iconic and recognisable inhabitants.

Wild Eye Andrew Beck Backlit Beauty

Canon 1 D X, 300mm F2.8 & 1.4 x converter (420mm), f9.0, ISO 250, 1/800, -3 1/3 EV

Silhouettes tend to catch the eye of even the most inexperienced photographer with ease, the contrast of pitch black outlines against 50 shades or red and orange (see what I did there), gets us all hot under the collar. Often photographers forget that that, when capturing silhouettes, you need to leave no room for doubt in your viewers mind as to what you are photographing. That is to say that the outline/silhouette that you are capturing should be clear and should at the very least feature the characteristic features of your subject.

Wild Eye Andrew Beck Backlit Beauty

Canon 5D MKIII, 800mm f5.6 @ 7.1, ISO 500, 1/640, -2/3 EV


Wild Eye Andrew Beck Backlit Beauty

Canon 1D X, 200-400mm @ 362mm, F5.6, ISO 125, 1/1000, -1 EV

Underexposing in these backlit situations will preserve the orange and red tones whilst ensuring that your subject stands in stark contrast as a pitch black silhouette. Needless to say, getting down low or having a subject being elevated in the landscape will help a lot.

Backlit scenes by nature are rich in contrast which makes for great B&W potential so don’t forget about the possibility that your image may actually look better without  all that colour.

Wild Eye Andrew Beck Backlit Beauty

Canon 1D X, 200-400mm @ 560mm, F5.6, ISO 400, 1/800, -2/3 EV

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About the Author

Andrew Beck

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Very few people can tell you what their passion in life is. Even fewer will be able to tell you that what they do for a living is in fact their passion. My love for the bush and conservation took me on journey which would not only allow me to explore the continent which fascinates me so much, but to share my passion for photography and conservation with others. Be sure to check out my my website and instagram account.

Comments 5

  1. DaveT

    Great set of images and thanks for the tips on using various settings for backlit shots. I love these type of images and next time I’m out in a situation that looks like it’s going to give me an opportunity for shots that are rim lit etc I’m going to give it a go.

    1. Post
      Andrew Beck

      Only a pleasure Dave, I’m glad you’ve found the post useful and look forward to seeing some images of yours! you’re welcome to share them on our Facebook page when you’re ready.

  2. Carol Bell

    Andrew this has come at the right time for me as I have been trying to do this in Kruger as I love the colour of the grasses at the moment with the sun shining on them. I have sent Gerry a photo and a question on how to get silhouettes. (my photo I underexposed too much) When I come and have a private workshop with you maybe you can look at what I have done and advise where I have gone wrong….. I do love your photos especially the one of the kori bustard. On metering modes I have played with them but not enough I am afraid. Am looking forward to that blog.

    1. Post
      Andrew Beck

      Thanks Carol, I’m sure I’ll be able to help you out when you vist the offices. Perhaps ear mark some images that you would like to have a look at and see where things went wrong?

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