Creative Against The Light Photography


Normally, a photographer makes sure that the light, (it could be the Sun, moonlight, or artificial light) is behind or at an angle from the photographer. This ensures that the subject is well exposed, and you see a lot of detail. Shooting against the light is usually not recommended, because the camera tends to underexpose the subject, causing an unwanted  silhouette. But with one’s imagination, one can take advantage of too much  ambient light. Against the light  photography can produce beautiful,  and  varied results.

By shooting against the light,  amazing photos can be made. This is contrary to the advice usually given to beginners to never shoot against the light, or  to only shoot when the light source is to the side of the camera. Sometimes, even seasoned photographers are afraid to take photos against the direction of the  light source, and, thus, lose beautiful opportunities.

Photographers Using Light

In against the light photography, the Sun, moonlight, a camera flash,  or reflections from snow or sand, can be used as light sources. The Winter months are a perfect period to experiment with backlighting. On a Winter day, the Sun’s position in the sky is lower than  the rest of the year, making it easier to place the subject between the camera, and the light source. In other seasons, this is only possible for a limited number of hours a day. The Winter sunlight is also less intense compared to that in the Summer. This lessens the contrast difference between the light source, and the subject,  so it’s more likely that the power of your flash will be enough to counter the reflection of the sunlight.

Contre-Jour

Against the light photography, or contre-jour (French for ‘ against daylight ‘), refers to taking photos with the camera directly towards a light source. This ensures that subjects are illuminated from behind, making details disappear, causing a stronger contrast between light and dark, making shadows and  silhouettes more visible, and lines and shapes are emphasized.

The light source in the photo, often shows up as a bright spot or a  halo  around the subject. Beautiful evening light, the backlight can completely envelop the subject. Transparent subjects such as leaves, jellyfish, etc. appear ethereal, obtaining a beautiful luster. Depending on the subject, you get a different effect.

Backlight is generally used in nature and landscape photography, but is also ideal for use in portrait photography to give the scene a more dramatic impact. Against the light  photography, also helps to separate the subject, and background, and gives more depth to the photo, achieving a 3D effect. The subject ‘s edges, light up when it is positioned  against the backlight, which accentuates the subject  and gives it more emphasis.

Sometimes, against the light technique,  (also called  ‘hair light’ or ‘shoulder light’, ) is used by portrait photographers, to make the subject stand out against the dark background. This creates an almost angelic effect and adds lots of atmosphere, and drama to the picture. It is important that the light is coming from one side only so that half of the subject is illuminated, and the other half is in shadows. Photographers also use colored filters for the strobes (gels) to add color to the background.

Taking against the light shots is generally technically more difficult, because it is very easy to get too much light into the lens, wherein contrast is reduced, unwanted marks or ‘artifacts ‘ get in the picture, and the exposure becomes problematic. However, you can soon get the hang of it with some practice and experimentation.

Lens Flare

The greatest enemy of backlight photography is lens flare. These are unwanted reflections of the light source, or stray light, that enter the lens, then bounce around the lens elements, usually in the shape of the aperture opening, or a haze over the image where contrast is limited. It arises at the glass transitions in a lens. A lens contains multiple glass parts to direct the light to the desired spot (at the sensor).

Old Man of Storr on Isle of Skye

Zoom lenses are more susceptible to lens flare than lenses with a fixed focal length, because there are more glass parts that are used. With wide angle lenses, you also have a greater chance of lens flare than with a telephoto lens. Lens manufacturers apply special coatings to reduce this effect as much as possible. Lens flare is visible in the viewfinder, so you can correct it by changing your position.

The easiest way to reduce lens flare is by using a lens hood. Lens hoods are placed on a lens’ front end  to protect the lens from physical damage, and reduce lens flare. They are designed to block or redirect stray light, so it will not bounce or reflect within the lens elements. It also helps to choose a smaller aperture, so that the flare of the light source is limited.  Inspecting the front of the lens, and cleaning it is very important since dust particles on the lens itself or a filter can cause lens flare.

Exposure

Overexposure is a common issue with backlighting. The brightly lit background confuses the light meter of the camera, thinking that the subject is also very bright, which controls the shutter speed. As a result, there is less light than is necessary, to show detail in the subject, creating a silhouette. This can, of course, also be a desired effect, (if so, then there is no need to perform the succeeding steps,) but  if that’s not the case, then we must seek exposure compensation.

Photography Overexposure

Advisable is to  use + 1 or + 2 EV overexposure on the camera, if you do not use the spot metering mode.  As a result, the light on the dark parts of the picture  have more time to reach the sensor, allowing more visible detail in the subject. This means, however, that it is possible that the already lighter parts  will appear bleached-out. If you do use the spot metering mode, then  measure the exposure in the shaded, or the dark part of the picture. This requires no further compensation, if the camera light meter is accurate. Try to experiment with varied levels of exposure, and the different positions, so you can choose the best method for any given situation.

If you have no choice but to photograph  against the light, (and, do not intend to create dark forms or silhouettes,) then you can use a flash to the darkened areas of the scene. This will show more detail  on the subject, or use  flash on a reflector to redirect light back to the subject, so that the light source and the subject are more in balance. And yes, you can use flashes even in the middle of a very sunny day. You can also make a gloomy day appear like a lovely Summer day by using your camera flash.

A great advantage is natural  light, and flash light, can be adjusted to achieve better balance, whereby both subject and background are shown using correct exposure, very clear details, and, vibrant colors. Having a loose flash is necessary, since this is more powerful than the built-in flash in most cameras. I will discuss more about flashes in a future article.

The last option is to enhance the image digitally.  In digital imaging programs, you often have the ability to highlight  the shadowy areas, for example, with the ‘ fill light ‘ option in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and Adobe Camera Raw (for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements).

Silhouettes

Against the light photography is mostly used for silhouettes. When there is a large contrast difference between foreground and background, (the light source does not necessarily have to be bright,) do the light measuring on the background, and set the correct exposure on the camera, for you to get a silhouette. The subject will be all black, without any visible detail, and lose all its color. It is therefore important that the shape is interesting to attract the eye, since there won’t be any color.

Silhouette

Silhouettes are commonly used since it is a relatively simple technique.  It is important to use this effect, especially when you don’t have control over too intense backlight. If the light is obliquely from behind, you can have a silhouette, and let  the light source  be directed  at one side of the subject. Many portrait photographers use this method to create a glow surrounding the subject . This highlights  the subject’s outline, making the person stand out from the background. Also called ‘her light. ‘ The subject blocks the light source, but to a large extent, the clever way the light is angled, highlights parts of the subject, which adds atmosphere to the scene.

Dawn

It helps if you use a dark background, wherein the effect is stronger, and more dramatic. Maneuvering the camera so that the light source is behind the subject, but showing enough  visible detail.

Transparent

If the subject is a bit transparent, and has a lot of detail, then the backlight is the ideal way to display its detail and texture. Consider, for example, leaves (with their detailed veins), fruits, flowers, etc. This technique highlights these subjects’ natural beauty.

Warning

Never shoot directly into the Sun, certainly not in the middle of the day, when the ultraviolet rays are most fierce. You run the risk of damaging your eyes , since the lens works like a magnifying glass. My guiding principle, is to always check if you cannot look at the Sun longer than a second, then you cannot photograph.

There are times that you can only shoot the Sun after sunrise or just before sunset, or on days when, for example,  there is fog or light cloud cover. If you absolutely want to take pictures of the Sun in the middle of the day, place a gradient filter in front of the lens. This can give your images pretty tones. With a small aperture, (high aperture number,) you get a star effect around the Sun. Just be sure that there is no dirt on the filter, otherwise you  might introduce lens flare. The addition of LiveView to recent cameras allows you to see the scene,  and you can make changes in the composition through the screen, and do not have to look through the viewfinder.

Articles on the internet also warn us that shooting when the Sun is at its brightest may cause burning of the sensor, but you run this risk in SLRs only. This can happen if the mirror is flipped-up on an extended period of time,  such as when using the LiveView function of the camera. Otherwise, the sensor will not be visible. The aperture blades may be at risk, but nowadays they are made of a different material which make them not susceptible to burning. You should  also consider the temperature of the camera, when it gets too hot, shut it down.

Using backlight is a great way to get creative with photography. You can create a lot of contrast, add drama, and atmosphere, and have distinctive pictures. Many photographers swear by it. That the technique is relatively complicated, adds to the challenge. The reward is greater if you  succeed  in creating a beautiful picture using backlight.

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