The Stalactite Chandelier in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico by Anne McKinnell

How to Create Dramatic Images with Backlight

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When you want to add more drama to your landscape photos, one of the best ways is to make use of backlighting. It’s time to break often repeated rule to “always shoot with the sun behind you”. Instead, turn around and shoot towards the sun to create images with real impact.

When you shoot towards the sun, your subject is lit from behind, hence the term “backlight”. This type of light creates high contrast scenes, emphasizes shape, and can make translucent subjects glow.

It isn’t without it’s challenges though! So here are a few techniques to help you get started using backlight:

1. Use spot metering mode

Most of the time, we use our camera’s evaluative or matrix metering mode which evaluates the entire scene to determine the correct exposure. However, backlit scenes tend to be very high contrast and you will want to exposure for either the subject or the background, depending on the type of image you want to create.

So the first step is to switch your camera to spot metering mode so you can meter on the most important element in the scene and let the rest fall where it may.

2. Find a subject with an interesting shape

If you have a scene with a colourful sky at sunset or sunrise, backlight is an excellent choice. But the trick here is to find a main subject with an interesting shape that you can silhouette against the sky. Once you have found your subject, use spot metering mode and meter on the sky, which will allow your subject to go completely black creating the silhouette.

Elliott Bay, Seattle, Washington by Anne McKinnell

3. Find a translucent subject

Another excellent situation for backlighting is when you can find a subject that is translucent such as a plant or a flower. Put the subject in between you and the sun and it will appear to glow. Use your spot metering and meter directly on the subject and let the background fall where it may.

I used this technique on the photo of a stalactite in a cavern which was being backlit by artificial light. It was both translucent and had an interesting shape!

The Stalactite Chandelier in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico by Anne McKinnell

4. Use a reflector

If you are not doing a silhouette, you may need to bounce some light back towards your subject in order to have colour in the sky and detail in your subject. This is easily accomplished by using a reflector. In the image below, I used a reflector to bounce some light back onto the shorter cactus in the foreground so it did not become a silhouette.

Cacti in Big Bend National Park, Texas, at sunset by Anne McKinnell

5. Create a sunburst

If you shoot during the golden hour when the sun is low in the sky, you can position yourself so that the sun is partially hidden behind your subject. Then, use a small aperture like f/22 and the sun will turn into a star creating another dramatic effect.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Arizona by Anne McKinnell

Next time you are on a photo shoot, don’t forget to turn around, face the sun, and try to create some dramatic images with backlight.

About Author Anne McKinnell

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems.

You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.