Every flower photographer knows to run out of the house with our cameras on an overcast day. Cloudy skies cast soft, even light on our floral subjects which enhances the delicate beauty of petals without harsh shadows or bright spots. Unfortunately, such lighting can become a little one-note. If you find yourself wanting more drama in your flower photography, try adding backlighting in your workflow.
What is Backlight Photography?
Backlight photography in which the photographer faces her light source and places the subject in front of her, shooting towards the light source. This technique is often used in outdoor portrait photography. So, if you are already familiar, we can adapt those principles to produce striking and evocative floral portraits as well.
Why should you backlight? Whether your light source is the sun or artificial, the warm light shines directly through the flower petals, highlighting their translucence and making them glow, often with an actual halo of light around the subject. The effect on flowers is ethereal and definitely dramatic. I often find backlighting draws out interesting juxtapositions between subjects and backgrounds.
Overall, once you get a hang of this technique, you will find it to be a great tool for playing, experimentation, and honing of your technical skills. Let’s explore the first step in any photography – when and where to shoot.
Time of Day
If your light source is the sun, which certainly makes sense when shooting outdoors, choosing the right time of day is crucial to making backlight photography work for you. My favorite time to photograph flowers basking in backlight is either in the first hour and a half after sunrise or in the last two hours before sunset. When the sun is closer to the horizon, it casts warm, golden light, giving your subject a nice glow. Keeping an eye on your camera settings in the rapidly changing light, especially shutter speed and ISO, will help you use every ray of sunshine to your advantage.
Shooting outside closer to midday is impractical for backlighting since the sun is shining directly above the subject, casting harsh light and rendering unpleasant shadows and unrecoverable highlights.
In the image above the cherry blossoms were photographed during midday and as you can see the highlights around the subject take the attention away from the flowers.
Best locations for backlight flower photography
I love to photograph flowers in nurseries. Several of the images in my portfolio were made in my neighborhood garden centers. At a nursery, I can arrange the pots to suit the light, which offers much more flexibility than the plants in my garden. If you’re lucky to have a garden of your own, you’ll find plenty of inspiration there but nurseries are a still a great resource since they carry such diverse types of plants year-round. There’s sure to be something you don’t grow that catches your eye. So, get to know your local nurseries and see what they can spark.
I am known to stop my car on the highways, people’s yards, and really any random spot where I am struck by the color, shape, or smell of flowers. If you are adventurous like me, you may want to knock on someone’s door before photographing their property. Really, most people are friendly and don’t mind. Botanical gardens, wild flower fields, or city parks are all great places to visit – even a morning or evening walk around the neighborhood. I would urge you to keep looking for opportunities because flowers are all around us.
Bringing It Indoors
Where I live, it’s still cold. Some days, when my creative juices are flowing but my body refuses to go out, I create my own backlight at home. All I needed was a rose, a cheap constant light, a black velvet cloth for background… and here is what I got.
Once you’ve found your scene, shooting in manual mode is vital to creating your best backlit floral photographs. Our cameras usually excel at front-lit photography but may have trouble autofocusing and metering for backlight. Slightly overexposing the image allows you to capture all the details of your subject. Remember that your light source is behind the flower, so the front of it is darker than the back. I suggest starting at a wide aperture, anywhere from f/2.8 to f/5.6. Shutter speed can be somewhere between 1/60th and 1/400th but make sure to account for weather. Since you’ll often be shooting outdoors, your shutter should be adjusted to get a crisp image, even on a windy day. ISO can be adjusted depending on whether shooting handheld versus using a tripod.
Let’s talk a little more about exposure and metering. Spot metering is the best way to determine exposure in backlighting. Standard exposure readings often underexpose backlit subjects when the camera meters the entire scene. Spot metering, however, allows you to focus on a specific part of your composition and make exposure decisions around that area. This is another place to experiment in backlighting. See what metering does for different parts of your frame. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Take a few test photos, and tweak your settings to achieve the look that pleases you. This step is a great opportunity for experimentation – so have fun with it!
Camera Lenses and Accessories
My favorite lenses to use? Macro, of course. But I also love to use my 70-200 lens or even 100-400 lens. You can avoid lens flare with telephoto lenses (more about lens flare later).
Personally, I like less contrast for my floral images as it brings out the delicate nature of the flowers. If you feel the same, use a reflector or diffuser to soften the light and thus the overall contrast.
White Balance for Backlight Photography
Getting the correct white balance makes the colors of your image more realistic, especially the greens that often frame flower compositions. If you aren’t already, get into the habit of carrying a WB card or color checker passport and take a picture or two with your WB tool once your scene is set. Adjust based on these tests.
It is always my goal to get the white balance correct while on scene but I also shoot in RAW in case I need to adjust in post-processing. Playing with WB in post can help you get a more realistic image, certainly, but it can also give you a lot of creative freedom. A good thing about flowers is that they do not complain about color shifting if you change their petal colors!
Dealing with Camera Lens Flares
When bright light enters your lens and is reflected, it gets scattered and creates lens flares. These can be circles, hexagons, octagons or can show up as haze across the frame. It’s not usually visible through the viewfinder and it can be difficult to detect in the field. One way to know whether you are getting lens flare is to look at the front element of your lens. Usually there will be spot(s) on the lens where the light hits – that’s lens flare.
If you, like most photographers I know, want to avoid lens flare, you’ll want to be cautious of shooting directly into bright light. You can avoid lens flares by doing the following:
- Adjust the angle of the camera
- Use a lens hood
- Block light with your hand or a hat
Many photographers want lens flare, however. You should feel free to incorporate lens flares into an image as an artistic element. Especially when shooting into light with wide-angle lenses, lens flare becomes unavoidable. If lens flare is interesting to you, adjust your camera angle and composition to incorporate this element, again checking the front of your lens element, and try to balance it with the rest of your composition.
To remove or not to remove camera lens flare created by backlight is an artistic choice. Some like it and some hate it!
Optional: Dew/Water Drops
If you are fortunate to come across dew around sunrise, I strongly recommend running out the door with your camera. Water droplets add interesting textures and reflections to floral compositions, sometimes shifting a photograph’s focus in surprising ways. The light interacting with water also creates beautiful, specular bokeh, or out-of-focus blurring. Look out for my upcoming Visual Wilderness article about bokeh and how to use it!
Of course, you can always turn on a sprinkler if you’re feeling impatient or struck by creativity. Mother Nature can sometimes use the help. Even if you don’t personally have a garden or sprinkler, a neighbor, friend, or family member could probably let you use theirs. If shooting in a nursery or garden, the staff will be regularly watering their plants, so keep an eye out for dewy plants there as well.
Post-Processing Backlit Photography
Shooting in RAW gives you a lot more flexibility in post-processing. Just a few little tweaks go a long way in backlit photography. Since this technique creates images with high contrast, the camera does not evenly render details in both light and dark areas of the frame. Because of this, I recommend overexposing your photos in the field. You can enhance these areas to make much more appealing photos suited to your style, whether that means drawing out the contrast or softening it. My personal workflow involves darkening the background and dodging any bright spots on the subject. This makes the flower pop without blowing out the lightest areas.
Here is an example of back lit Tulips that shows how bad light can be salvaged by a lot of selective dodging and burning done in Lightroom.
Backlight photography can be challenging, and it’s easy to create unpleasant exposures if you are using auto mode. But the more you practice, the more you develop the skills to see the quality and direction of the light and how to use it for creative flower photography. Next time you are out and about in the garden or on a stroll through a field, pay attention to backlit flowers. The reward is worth the observation and the observation soon turns into obsession. BTW, don’t just stop at flowers, pay attention to leaves as well! Happy shooting!
Do you have any questions? Do you use backlight photography to capture stunning flowers photos? We would love to hear from you. Feel free to share your insights in the comments below.