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Photo by Scott Bourne
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My advice for beginning photography students is to always shoot with the sun at their backs. This usually assures good light on the subject. But once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to move on to something more challenging and creative. Enter backlit photos.

The picture above was made with my trusty Canon G9 – in it’s highest quality JPEG mode – (since I was shooting for the Web, no need to make a RAW image. This is one of the few times I won’t shoot RAW.)

The exposure was 1/1250th of a second at f6.3. The focal length was 16mm (about 70mm EFL) and the ISO was 200.

The background was busy. There was a strongly patterned brick wall surrounded by trees and a fence. But thanks to the magic of backlighting, the ugly background went away and photographed black. Sometimes limited dynamic range is your friend.

I put the camera at a level that matched the height of one of the many fountains in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Park. I wanted a fast shutter speed so I shot at f/6.3 to force a faster shutter speed.

The fast shutter speed froze the water in place, and the beautiful backlight helped to isolate the water drops and the position of the water in a nice pattern.

So don’t be afraid of backlit subjects. It takes practice to know what to expect, but the results can be rewarding.

Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. The relation ISO, f-step and shutter speed is very important. After I discover it, my exposures are much better.

  2. Thanks, Scott. That is exactly the step-by-step article that a beginner like me needs. I find the biggest problem I have is with backlit subjects. I can see how backlight can assist with a semi-transparent subject like water. When I can deal with opaque objects like buildings and people without using the on-board flash, I will be getting somewhere! Thanks for your help and your devotion to the beginners in your audience!

  3. I’m not sure I understand… If it was backlit then it seems like the background should be white and not black… Can someone explain why this happens to me?

  4. Adam the SUBJECT was backlit – not the background. And since the subject was so much brighter than the background, and since digital cameras only have about five stops of dynamic range, the camera saw the background as black. Hope this helps.

  5. Thanks Scott. Just to be sure I understand, that means there was an artificial light somewhere behind and to one side of the subject? So the light would not pass directly into the camera but would bounce off/come through the water into the lens?

  6. No Adam no additional light sources were used. The light from the sun is directly hitting the subject but NOT the background. I’m not sure I understand the last part of your question.

  7. Hey Scott. I was thinking that there are two ways light gets into the camera: directly (like if I took a picture of the sun, the light from the sun goes directly into the lens) and indirectly (e.g. sunlight bounces off the subject and then goes into the lens). I was trying to figure out how the sun could illuminate the subject from behind (indirect light) without having it also overexposing the area behind the subject because of the light going directly from the light source into the lens. I think I get it now though. The sun wasn’t directly behind the subject, but instead a bit above it. That way the angle (and possibly a lens hood) might have prevented that light from going through the lens? Sorry for the beginner’s questions, I’m fairly new to all of this.

  8. Adam you may be over-thinking this a bit but yes, the sun was behind and above. Hope this helps.

  9. great tip Scott….Back light is an amazing way to spice up an image….Once the beginner get their hands rapped around back lighting they can then discover the pleasures of fill flash and even over powering the sun :)

  10. Scott said, ” But thanks to the magic of backlighting, the ugly background went away and photographed black” Would you please consider a video, showing how the “magic” is accomplished? thanks joanlvh

  11. Joanlvh,

    It may sound complicated, but it really is simple. If the difference between the High Light (brightest part of the picture) and the Shadows (the darkest) is to great, the camera can not expose both properly at the same time.

    Since Scott choose to expose the bright water properly, the back ground which is way darker falls almost completely black (although there is still some detail in there)

    I think what would be a very helpful for this is a video on the different exposure setting on the camera and the meter in general…..A video like that would answer a lot of questions that would come out of this post.

  12. Different Adam here (I know, confusing). I’m a beginner too, so let me see if I understand. The key to the photo seems to be the really fast shutter speed. At a fast enough shutter speed, no light is getting to the sensor, so the whole photo would be dark (say at 1/4000). Since there is a good deal of backlight that makes it through to the water in this photo, it’s well lit even with the fast shutter speed. But the shutter speed was not slow enough to allow the light from the background through, hence the nice dark background. At 1/60 or so, the water and droplets would be much less defined and the background would come out as well. Am I on the right track?

    Also, love the podcast and thanks for all the attention you give to beginners like me. Trying to understand this photo made me pick up my camera and take all sorts of shots of the same subject with varying shutter speeds at different ISO settings.

  13. Adam,

    With continuous light (the sun, a lamp…anything like that) the shutter is just part of the exposure. You are right in that the shutter speed was what froze the water.
    The reason that the background is so dark is because the same amount of light that is hitting the water is not hitting the background because of a shadow cast by a building, a tree or what have you. Since there is such a difference between the quantity of light hitting the water and the quantity of light hitting the background if Scott had slowed the shutter down the water would be completely blown out (meaning no detail would show and it would look like a big whit blob.

  14. FYI – Looks like the image of the wolf pups (?) from a later post ended up switching this one. Happens to me on occasion.

  15. Wow this is a word press bug – and I can’t fix it for a few days because the original image is offline. Sorry!

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