Photo Safari Skills: Shooting into the Light

19th April 2016
With all the photographers out there, more images than ever before are being produced of the natural world - and of everything else for that matter. One way to make your images stand out from the crowd is to 'break' some of the accepted 'rules' This tutorial examines one such method.

The general perception is that photographers prefer to have the light behind them. And indeed, this is often the case, and certainly gives the most reliable results. But there are many more options available to us as photographers that can give more interesting results.

I'll examine the idea of side-lighting in a future article, but for now, I would like to look at back-lighting (when the light is on the far side of the subject from the photographer). I'm also excluding silhouettes for the purposes of this tutorial.

Back-lighting can give some wonderful effects, but only in quite a narrow set of circumstances. Ideally:
  • the sun will be low in the sky (early morning or late evening)
  • the subject will be identifiable by shape alone
  • the subject has an outline texture which will capture the light
  • the background of the scene complements the subject

Clearly it's not always easy to meet these conditions, but practice will help you learn when backlighting will work well, and when it's best to move yourself to get a better angle!

Here are a couple of examples where I think backlighting has worked to my advantage:

Here, the dust of dry season is backlit by the rising sun and creates an orange glow across the image.


With the light higher in the sky, and with less dust around, the backlight has just lit up the halo of fur around this waterbuck, giving a strong 3D effect.


Sometimes it doesn't work so well:


The late morning backlight on this Martial Eagle does not work at all, and just leaves dark shadows underneath the bird and bright highlights on its back. In this case, the light was too high and too strong, but I wanted the photos for interest, not necessarily visual beauty!


In this case, the light of the rising sun has hit the front element of the lens, causing flare. It's quite dramatic, and if you want to recreate it, put the sun almost directly in line with your subject.


Modern cameras and metering systems allow photographers to take shots in ways that have never been possible before. So the lesson to take from this is: "Try it!". You might be surprised at the results that you get. Certainly on a photo safari in the South Luangwa, I encourage my guests to take photos that they might not 'risk' without me....we try new things and make the best of 'poor' photographic situations by experimenting with new techniques. In the end, what's the worst that can happen?!

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