The Art of Backlighting


Outside of a photographers skill with a camera, there is a number of things that make up the building blocks of an amazing wildlife Photograph. The species, the behavior of the animal, the habitat (read background) and the Light falling onto the scene. Of these its the lighting that gives the photograph an artistic quality, mood and atmosphere. But its backlighting that provides these things in bucket loads.

This is the third incarnation of the Art of backlighting blog. As my own experience with backlighting has increased, so has my understanding of it. Central to this is understanding, is the dynamic range of light. In a practical sense its the ability for a photographer to look at a scene and know if a camera is able to capture all the stops of light within the scene. As we change the angle that the light falls onto our subject, so the dynamic range changes. From front lighting that has few stops of light in its range to back light that usually pushes the boundary of a cameras capabilities. With backlighting we see both the shadows of the light source and the light source itself. If you want to get a better understanding of this read: Understanding the dynamic rage of light

Backlighting what is it?

Well in layman term it’s almost self explanatory. It is any photographic situation where the light source is coming from behind your subject. That light source being natural or artificial.

What makes it so unique?

I have touched on this, backlight has probably got the most dynamic range in a scene, compared to side and front lighting. So photographs will always have loads of contrast. However it also has the potential to have too much contrast, resulting in blown highlights or underexposed shadows.

When used correctly contrast is what aids in making a subject stand out with in a picture. It provides instant separation from the back ground.

This is effectively achieved in two ways, Shadow & Light

  • Shadow, so because the light source is behind the subject, the part of the subject we see is in shadow. This makes your subject darker than the area behind it, which is essentially very bright because that where your light source is originating from.
  • Light, where the light touches the edge of your subject it illuminates just that area. An effect that is commonly known as rim lighting. This edge of light is what effectively outlines your subject against the background.

A photography that I took and shared with the first Art of Backlighting blog in 2007, still a favorite after all these years.


So when I first edited the leopard image above, I did it as a Silhouette. A silhouette gives no detail in the shadow area of the subject, its rendered completely black. The type backlit image that appeals to me need to have some level of detail in the shadows area.

A Silhouette, is easily achieved when your subject is the above the Horizon line. Under expose the sky by 1 or 2 stops and everything darker than the sky will be rendered black. Dramatic, but bordering on the boring.

When your subject is back lit below the horizon or against a solid background, slope of a hill, termite mount or thick vegetation. It present an opportunity to shooting with an exposure with out any compensation. Which provides that bit of detail in the subjects shadow area. But with the very possible chance of over exposing the highlights of rim light on the edge of the subject.

Catching Light

Catch light, by definition is that twinkle of light in the eye of your subject, its a term often associated with portraiture photography. What it actually is, is the reflection of light from the moist surface of the eye. That moisture has in essence caught or emphasized the light for a brief moment, for the photographer to photograph it.

Well catching light is not limited to the eye or portraiture. Nature photographers have been unwittingly using catchlight for years and its what makes or breaks a backlit photograph.

Hair, Water & Dust are all things that catch light. By incorporating these into your backlighting composition, you will add a edge to the image that would have other wise fallen flat.

So look for scene where animals are dusting them selves, animals drinking water in a messy, splashy manner and animals that are particularly furry.




Colour Range

The colour range is lost the more backlit your photograph. As more and more light travels through the lens the less color is recored by the sensor. This is far from scientific, this is merely my explanation of a phenomenon of the photographs getting a deep yellow or orange hues when photographing something close to the same line as the sun.

Angle of adjustment

Even thou we call it backlight, one does not really want to shoot dead straight into the sun for two reasons. As mentioned, we loose a lot of color range because of excess light entering the lens. Two because its dangerous, the lens can act as a magnifying glass and channeling a beam of light right onto your cameras sensor like a laser.

So the angle of light will effect the quality of you back lit photograph. There is two angles we need to concern our selves with. The angle of the sun in relation too the subject and our angle in relation to the sun.

Angle of the Sun

Shooting a backlit subject in the middle of the day will not have the desired effect. The light is coming from above and the dynamic range may just we way to much for your camera to photograph successfully. As the sun moves closer to the horizon the dynamic range typically starts to get lower. Presenting an opportunity to start using the light directly.

As an example, front lighting in the Golden hours, there is very little dynamic range and the image contrast is almost flat. However moving into a position where we get side and back lighting, the dynamic range is increased. Adding that contrast back into the flat scene.

Our Position

So we sort of explained this already, we don’t want to shoot straight into the sun and we don’t want to shoot with it. So the ideal position is an extreme version of side lighting. From my experience is the position where we start getting our very first lens flares entering the lens or just off it.


That loss of color range and increase in contrast that a backlit image provides is almost perfect for Monochrome images. This has worked so well for me, that I have started to take a likening to these types of monochrome images.


Last bits of advice

  • Use Spot Metering, Although this is not essential, spot metering on your subject specifically will help to achieve a correct exposure.
  • Meter off the brightest part of your subject, this will prevent blown fur highlights.
  • If you meter off the sky, it will result in a silhouette.
  • Try to have a dark or solid background, this helps highlight the rim light of fur even more.

Further reading: The Dynamic Range of Light & Monochrome images (with subject seperation)



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