Winter sunset over Chugach Mountains overlooking snow covered Matanuska River. © Michael DeYoung

Winter landscapes are ideal for photographing backlit especially with warm colored skies and clouds. Shadowed snow can be rendered with a blue cast and that makes a nice complementary and contrasting color to the warm clouds and sun. Warm/cold color juxtaposition is usually a winning combination in a landscape photo.

 

If you’ve ever shot slide film, you know that a transparency looks its best on a light table – lit from behind with maximum brilliance and color. Backlight produces the most dramatic light and the strongest, boldest colors, especially in the sky and other reflective surfaces. Weak or past peak fall foliage often comes to life when photographed in backlight. It is the most challenging natural lighting scenario to master and control.

Creating dazzling images in backlight and even including the light source (the sun mainly) as a subject is where SLR cameras are clearly superior to smart phone cameras. It’s hard to control lens flare and effectively use supplemental lighting with a smart phone camera when shooting in backlight. When the atmosphere is smoky or hazy, backlight at sunrise and sunset is often the only light that will produce pleasing colors and shapes in a landscape.

While waiting for my favorite light, which is warm, soft indirect light that occurs prior to sunrise and after sunset, I will look for compositions and photos that work well in backlight. If I have to photograph people with detail, especially when facing the camera, backlight is my go-to lighting. Unless the sun is sitting on the horizon and softened by haze or smoke, I almost never photograph faces and/or portraits with direct sun on faces. Backlight allows me to create a softer and more pleasing light on my subject’s faces with speedlites (i.e. flashes) and other supplemental lighting.

WHAT MAKES BACKLIGHT BEAUTIFUL?

  • Crisp edging and rim light around subject.
  • Beautiful glow and brilliance to colors of translucent subjects.
  • Simplified shapes. Sometimes, foreground or even middle ground elements can be dull in color or texture. Backlight can make those subjects less distracting if you throw them in deep shadow and render them as shapes (silhouettes).
Back country snowshoeing near Turnagain Pass, Alaska. © Michael DeYoung

I love winter landscapes or lifestyle images in fresh snow. Not only does the snow bounce light back onto shadowed subjects but at sunrise or sunset, the blue cast of shadowed snow often creates a very pleasing color compliment to the warm, low sun light.

People photographing brown bears along beach at sunrise. © Michael DeYoung

The biggest challenge in dealing with backlight is controlling dynamic range. This group of photographers is photographing a coastal brown bear sow and cub into the sunrise light along Cook Inlet in Lake Clark National Park. The bears are dark and there is no light or detail in their eyes. What helps is that they are right near a very reflective and warm tide pool which helps bounce light back into their faces but its effect is limited. One has to be really skilled at checking their histograms to ensure there is no lost detail in either shadow or highlights. No amount of post processing and selective masking can save an image if there is no detail to begin with. Fortunately I was able to pull out shadow detail while preserving the warm sky and water because I exposed to not lose detail in either highlight or shadow area. With subjects that move, (the bears and shooters were moving) doing an HDR or using speedlites was impractical.

 

BACKLIGHT CHALLENGES

Backlight can be hard to manage even when following the backlight recipe. (See below.) Here are the main challenges with backlight:

  • Lens flare. If you include the sun in or near the edges of the frame (I like both) you can get significant unwanted flare. I chose a wide angle zoom and wide angle prime specifically for their ability to render sun stars and minimal flare.
  • Controlling dynamic range. In many cases without careful attention it is easy to blow out highlights and/or have shadows with no detail and your backlit image exceeds the dynamic range of your sensor. In many backlight scenarios, our sensors can’t capture full detail from highlight to shadow. Some examples would be a dark forested mountain against a bright and colorful sunrise sky, or a dark animal like a moose with bright colorful sunrise clouds as the background. Choosing your subject’s tonality carefully can overcome the challenge of exceeded dynamic range without having to resort to doing HDR. High Dynamic Range simply doesn’t work in shots with a lot of movement. With design skill, you can choose foreground subjects that look good in total shadow, or, can be lit with supplemental lighting without destroying the mood of the background
  • Lack of important shadow detail. This is related to the dynamic range issue. The keyword is “important.” A line of spruce trees that make a foreground framing element don’t necessarily need detail. In fact, being in total black can simplify and strengthen the image. However, a prominent foreground subject, such as flowers, a person or animal needs to have detail and also be well lit. Sometimes exposure bracketing to maximize dynamic range (HDR) doesn’t work if there is any kind of motion in your image, such as flowing water, fast moving clouds and moving subjects like people or animals. To add detail to opaque subjects in backlight, such as people and wildlife, you have to use supplemental lighting to add color and detail to your shadowed subject. This is not always practical or safe with wildlife.
  • Maintaining effective separation. If you are not careful and deliberate with your point of view, it’s easy to let dark foregrounds merge with dark and shadowed backgrounds for poor separation.
Layer of fog below ridgeline. © Michael DeYoung

Not all lenses are equal when shooting directly into the sun! I love sun stars and I have to pick the right (usually a wide angle) lens to render a sun star and back lit image the way I want to see it. The flare from this lens, a Sony 16-70mm f4, is unacceptable. I quit using this lens because of this issue.

Arches National Park's Mesa Arch at sunrise. © Michael DeYoung

The lens flare from this Canon EF 16-35mm/f4 lens is much more acceptable to me than the Sony lens as seen in this sunrise shot of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. Sun stars work best with minimal flare when:
1. The sun is partially hidden by a solid object like a ridge lline, tree branches, or other solid objects including people or wildlife
2. Aperture setting is at F16
3. No filters

Hiker on beach amongst lupine flowers. © Michael DeYoung

Hiker on Beach 1 of 3. Often times, backlight looks great on a landscape but creates dark shadows and flat, lifeless light with a human element. When photographing people in backlight, supplemental lighting is often needed so the quality of the light on your human subject matches that of the background, unless your intent is to go for a total black silhouette. That doesn’t look good in most cases, especially when the subject is facing the camera. I use off-camera speedlites frequently in backlight. Without supplemental light, there is too much contrast to show rich detail and brilliance on both the hiker and the background. To get a proper exposure on her, I would have needed to greatly overexpose the background, losing the mood and feel seen here. In Image #2, I tried to save this image with selective processing in Lightroom.

Hiker on shore of Turnagain Arm by field of lupine. © Michael DeYoung

Hiker on Beach 2 of 3. With selective masking tools in Lightroom, I selected the subject and brightened it to bring more detail and life to her. The efforts failed as far as I’m concerned. The tools in Lightroom are best suited to enhance and bring out more of what you captured but it can’t save bad lighting on my hiker. Compare this to the next image where she is lit with an off-camera speedlite. The background exposure is the same, but there is much better light on my subject, Lila.

Joyous hiker walking along Turnagain Arm shore near lupine flowers. © Michael DeYoung

Hiker on Beach 3 of 3. The quality of light on my hiker using an off-camera speedlite is significantly better and sharper than the previous image. You don’t always get it right the first time. Using wireless speedlites, especially with moving subjects, requires several tries to get it right.

Woman in white dress on sandstone rock. © Michael DeYoung

Unless the sun is sitting on the horizon and the atmosphere is smoky or hazy, I almost never photograph women with direct sun. Backlight is my go-to light. In this situation with a dancer moving around a lot, it was impractical to use a speedlite to add light to her. My solution was to place her in front of a shadowed area.This way I can expose for her and not blow out the background tones and still show the crisp backlight on her hair and white outfit.

Male trail runner on mountain trail. © Michael DeYoung

This situation made using a speedlite much more practical and effective than the previous image of the dancer in white. His trajectory was more predictable and I was closer to my subject with a wide angle lens which allows me to place my speedlite closer (on a tripod behind me) without it appearing in the frame. I needed the speedlite to be close for maximum power to match the bright background. The dancer was shot with a telephoto and my flash would have been too far away to be effective. I try to use a speedlite (off camera and from camera right in this shot) to add light quality and action-stopping power to my subject without sacrificing richness and contrast in the background.

Sandhill cranes at sunset  in Bosque del Apache NWR. © Michael DeYoung

Cranes at sunset, Image 1 of 2: Here are two common problems with shooting backlight and colorful clouds:
1. Large, mostly rectangular blocks of featureless shadow
2. Poor separation – some of the cranes merge into each other and some of them also merge into the dark mountain background.
With our eyes we can see a physical separation between foreground and background subjects, but we need to learn to see as our lenses see. When we compress 3D real life into 2D images, foreground objects, such as the birds, merge with background elements of similar luminosity (black on black as seen here), or color. An advanced design skill for photographers is to pay careful attention to separation.

Sandhill Cranes at sunset in New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. © Michael DeYoung

Cranes at sunset, Image 2 of 2: Since so much colorful cirrus clouds filled the sky, my solution to minimize featureless black areas was to use a wider angle lens than Image 1, rendering the mountain range smaller and showing more of the color. I couldn’t “art direct” the cranes so the best I could do was to find a group with better separation than what I had in the first image. Not perfect, but better.

 

RECIPES FOR SUCCESSFUL OUTDOOR IMAGES IN BACKLIGHT

  1. Shoot only with very low sun angles. This maximizes chances for warm sky and water color. Warm colors are 10x more visually appealing than cold colors in harsh mid-day light. The exception to this is vast, snowy winter wonderland landscapes. In these situations, you can get beautiful blue skies, full detail in shadow areas and crisp white sparkling snow. Snow, especially new snow, is nature’s best reflector. That’s why the best winter images take place with fresh snowfall.
  2. Landscape or background should be light-toned and/or reflective subjects. Think sky, water, snow, and sand occupying a large part of your image. There are always exceptions. See #4 & 5 below.
  3. Translucent subjects that allow some light to shine through them like flowers, leaves and foliage, icicles, thin fabrics, bird wings, etc., produce brilliant colors and glow. Place these subjects against a shadowed or darker background for maximum visual impact.
  4. Opaque subjects, especially people can be lit with supplemental lighting to add detail, texture and/color when against a bright colorful background.
  5. If you are using backlight to create rim light on your subject and not using any supplemental lighting then choose a dark background. This way you can open your exposure and properly expose your subject without losing detail in the background. Pay close attention to your histogram and make sure you have some shadow detail, even if it’s dark. It won’t matter how good you are at local masking in post processing. If you have no detail in a shadowed subject, there will be nothing to reveal in what you have masked.
  6. With the significant improvements in dynamic range of modern sensors, it is rarely necessary to render shadowed subjects in total silhouette. Silhouettes are best done with interesting shapes (think flowing curved or diagonal lines) like human or animal forms. Large dark rectangular blocks with no detail are very distracting in a backlit image.

It takes several years of practice to get really good at rendering landscapes and outdoor images in backlight. When you succeed you unlock lots of potential for colorful and striking images.

 

Coastal fog creeping through the mountains. © Michael DeYoung

Caribou Pass, Image 1 of 2: These 2 images show a comparison between backlight and front light from the same vantage point. This is a backlit shot at 2AM, of fog and stratus clouds over the Arctic Ocean dancing among the foothills of the north slopes of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge above the Kongakut River in early July when the sun never sets but just skims the northern horizon. Shooting clouds in backlight with low sun angles really emphasizes shapes and brilliant colors.

Caribou Pass with Arctic Ocean fog invading the Kongakut River valley. © Michael DeYoung

Caribou Pass, Image 2 of 2: From the same vantage point as the previous image, this is the opposite direction, and front lit, showing the Arctic Ocean fog invading the Kongakut River Valley. Although the 2 AM light is warm and colorful, it doesn’t match the contrast and brilliance of the backlit version. Whenever possible, on location, shoot both frontlit, sidelit and backlit images and bring home options to choose from later.

Skier jumping off ridge at Taos Ski Valley, NM. © Michael DeYoung

Fresh snow is nature’s best reflector. Normally, I wouldn’t shoot backlight and include the sun when it’s not sunrise or sunset. Behind me there is a large slope bouncing nice bright light onto the skier. No flash needed!

Hiker on Great Sand Dunes at sunset. © Michael DeYoung

Backlit images can be punchy, richly textured and colorful if large areas of your image are either sky, snow, sand and/or water – light toned and/or reflective. I had 3 of those 4 in this winter image in Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Separation is also important. Had my hiker been walking below the ridge line, she would have been lost in the patterns of sand/snow and shadow. The only place for good separation was to pitch her against the sky. I paid careful attention to my histogram to not lose any shadow or highlight detail.

Backlit iceberg in Kenai Fjords National Park. © Michael DeYoung

I seem to be hard wired to look for landscape compositions in shapes and colors that really work in backlight. My backlight recipe is to look for: reflective, translucent and light toned subjects. When shooting in backlight, large areas of my images are: snow, sky, sand or water. If I have a dark toned foreground subject, I either light it with supplemental light or render a pleasing silhouette.
An iceberg in Kenai Fjords National Park fit the bill. Shot with my trusty 70-200, I left the sun just outside the frame to create the color wash.

Snow geese lifting off. © Michael DeYoung

I already knew from years of experience that snow geese, like other birds, have translucent wings. With them being white they are ideal subjects for photographing in backlight especially with warm sunrise reflections off the water. The water they splashed upon take-off had a nice golden glow and I spent probably an hour trying to capture a simple shot of just a few birds on take-off.

Moody sunset sky over Turnagain Arm Alaska. © Michael DeYoung

As usual, this moody sunset sky and its colorful water reflection on Turnagain Arm looked best in backlight. The problem was the foreground lupine. Yes, I’ve mentioned that translucent flowers look great in backlight. I couldn’t have shown that backlit brilliance through the flowers unless I got down real low. Doing that would have resulted in losing context with the greater landscape. A very low Point of View would have blocked much of the sky and mountains. I wanted to show the flowers and give a sense of place. So I lit them with 2 off-camera speedlites, each with a warm gel, to add color and light quality to the flowers without losing the mood. Using speedlites for backlit subjects isn’t just limited to people.

Fireweed and hazy orange sunset due to forest fire smoke. © Michael DeYoung

Most flowers, such as these fireweed in Interior Alaska, are translucent, and look more brilliant backlit than frontlit. Large parts of Alaska were filled with wildflire smoke shutting down grand landscape type images. With a lot of smoke/dust/haze in the atmosphere it is easy to shoot into the sun and render a soft, warm light with pleasing contrast.

Hiker overlooking wildfire smoke filled in the North Cascades. © Michael DeYoung

Unfortunately we had heavy wildfire smoke when we hiked the state of Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail. This stopped me from getting a lot of the images I envisioned in the North Cascades. With the smoke, the only possible decent shots would be in backlight at the ends of the day. In this shot of Lauri at our campsite near the US/Canada border, the smoke softened the contrast to the point where all the image tonality was well within dynamic range. I shot this at 105mm (maximum focal length) to stack the layered ridges to the west toward Mt. Baker. In post processing, I masked Lauri to add detail to her while maintaining the rich colors and shapes of the background. In smoky backlight I was forced to concentrate on shapes and patterns and give up on crisp detail and texture you would see in a clearer atmosphere.