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Making an Impact with Lighting

Posted Jun 11 2009 10:43pm

Capturing the Light;Photography header  

We continue with a focus on some of the techniques that help you to make an impact with your photography, and we now turn our attention to lighting.  Previously, we've covered how changing your Mimosa crop angle of view, and the purposeful use of color, can help you create more dynamic images. We'll now take a look at how the use of certain lighting techniques can also help you create photographs that command attention.

Back Lighting for Captivating Images

Drama, intensity, edginess...these are a few words to describe some of the stunning effects you can achieve with the use of backlighting. With backlighting, the light is behind your subject, which means you are actually shooting into the light. This is directly opposite of the usual and comfortable  way commonly employed in image-making, where the light is behind the photographer. Shooting into the light comes with a set of challenges that will be addressed shortly, but when it's done right, dramatic images are your reward.

I enjoy nature photography and I have a passion for capturing images of all types of flowers, foliage, plants, etc., and this is where I will use backlighting quite a bit. I tend to photograph in early morning or late evening light, when the light is softer without the harshness that's present at mid-day. However, for this technique to be effective, you must have some direct sunlight. It won't work if it's a completely overcast day.

Mimosa with bee I'll share several images that I specifically created to illustrate this technique. These are of the flowers of a mimosa tree in my front yard. This is the season when the mimosa trees are covered with these little pink flowers that remind me of a ladies silky marabou hand fan. The bees love these little flowers and visit them frequently. This first image with the bee gathering nectar, the flower is on the shaded side of the tree and is softly lit.

In the next image, to make use of backlighting, I positioned myself to photograph Vibrant electrified the flower with the sun illuminating it from its rear. My little flower fans appear more vibrant, almost electrified. Notice, too, how the green buds are rimmed with the light along their edges.

Backlighting can be an effective way to make a creative statement, as you can use it to create a silhouette of your subject. I captured this image at a Civil War Reenactment event I attended a  while ago.  A civil war reenactment would not be complete without the main characters, so in addition to the boys in the blue and gray, we have Lincoln their generals and commander-in-chief.  I discovered some interesting facts from the man who portrayed Lincoln--how his height and other measurements are exactly the same as that of our 16th president; and then to look like him, as well, was remarkable (to me). However,  I thought this profile image which focuses on Lincoln's trademark stovepipe hat, created a more effective representation of the former president than just photographing the person portraying him.

Some challenges in Using Backlight

Lens Flare

Lens flare occurs when unwanted light enters through the lens striking the diaphragm or sensor, reflecting and scattering the light.

Poppy It can create streaks of bright light and little hexagonal circles on your image, much like you see at the top of this image of a poppy, and it lowers the contrast of the image. It can be distraction or you it can use it as a creative addition. In this instance, I purposely allowed it to create a soft, almost ethereal looking image.

However, in most cases you will not want lens flare. Here are some  things you can do to avoid or minimize it.

Use a lens hood on your lens. Many times this is sufficient to keep unwanted light out. If you don't have a lens hood handy, use your hand to shadow the lens. You can usually tell right away by looking through your viewfinder or on your display screen, if this is sufficient. You can use a piece of cardboard for your shield. Keep it handy in your camera bag. Just be sure your hand or the cardboard doesn't show up in the picture!

Block the unwanted light with something in the scene. This may involve changing your composition a bit as you adjust your view and camera angle.

Make adjustments in your shooting angle. Shooting from a higher angle, with your lens pointed more downwards, may help in avoiding stray light.


Underexposure of your image is another issue to be concerned with when using backlighting. Of course, if you're creating a silhouette as with our dear friend 'Mr. Lincoln', the underexposure of your subject is what you want.  If a silhouette is not part of your plan, here's a couple of things you can do.

Make camera adjustments. Underexposure occurs because your camera meter, in determining the exposure for your image, is influenced by the strong lighting streaming from your light source.  You will need to make adjustments allowing more exposure so your subject will not be blacked out with loss of detail. Many cameras allow for these types of unusual shooting situations, so you just need to be familiar with the what and how it works with your particular camera.

Use fill flash. You can also adjust by turning on your camera's flash. Filling in with flash is a very effective technique to make sure your subject is properly exposed, while still reaping the benefits that backlighting brings. We will cover the use of fill-flash in a future segment (maybe the next one!)

In the meantime, if you have any questions about anything here, shoot me an email at

If you like to see "moi" with 'Mr. Lincoln" you can find us in one of my Facebook albums at   Boy did I feel short! :)

Until next time, happy shooting!                          

Joan R Sig

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