How to Use Backlighting in Landscape Photography
Light plays an integral role in landscape photography. But it is not just the light’s quality that is influential – it is its direction too.
One of the most dramatic forms of lighting is when you shoot toward the sun’s direction and the landscape is backlit – also known as contre-jour photography. This technique creates deep contrast between shade and light, with long, inky shadows cast across the landscape.
Leaves and foliage glow and standout when illuminated from behind, shape and form is highlighted, while moisture in the atmosphere is revealed by shooting into the light. In its most extreme form, subjects will be rendered no more than an inky silhouette.
Backlighting is one of the most challenging types of light to manage, though – shooting into the light can create exposure issues and flare. However, results can boast incredible depth, beauty and atmosphere.
Potential problems with backlighting
Many beginners to landscape photography are told to never shoot into the light, but you would be making a mistake if you followed this advice. Flat, lifeless scenes can be transformed when they are backlit, with contrast helping to emphasise shapes, lines and texture within the landscape.
The morning and evening are typically the best times of day to shoot backlit shots, as the sun is low in the sky and the light’s temperature is golden. This is often referred to as the “golden hour”.
But before you begin pointing your camera at the sun, a quick health and safety warning – don’t look at the sun through a lens for any prolonged period. As I’m sure you will already know, doing so isn’t good for your eyes, particularly if you are using a longer focal length. I recommend you always compose shots through LiveView when shooting toward the light.
It is also worth using the best quality optics you have. Flare or ghosting (when light reflects off the surface of the lens) can ruin images, so high-quality modern lenses with flare-resistant coatings are normally the best choice.
You should always ensure optics are spotlessly clean and only attach filters if they are absolutely necessary – the risk of flare will increase if you have filters attached.
With medium and longer focal lengths, attach a compatible lens hood – using one will help reduce or eliminate flare. Hoods are less practical with wide-angle lenses, though, and you may be better trying to shield the lens with your hand, body, or by using a piece of card. Some areas of flare are easy enough to tidy-up in post-processing, using the Healing Brush or Content Aware Move Tool.
Flare isn’t the only technical issue to overcome when shooting backlit landscapes. For all their sophistication, TTL (through the lens) metering systems can be deceived when shooting into the light; results typically end up being rendered underexposed.
This problem is easy enough to spot and resolve, though. The best solution is to consult your camera’s live histogram. If the graph is skewed to the left, with a gap on the right of histogram, your shots will be too dark. So, apply positive exposure compensation (or select a longer shutter speed if working in Manual exposure mode). It is best to do this incrementally, a third- or half-stop at a time, until you achieve the correct level of exposure for the scene.
Backlit scenes tend to have a high level of contrast, but with modern sensors possessing such an impressively high dynamic range today, most are able to retain shadow and highlight detail without assistance – although you may want to tweak the shadow and highlight sliders during editing to achieve the best result.
For scenes so bright that your camera can’t cope, consider attaching a graduated Neutral Density (ND) filter to hold back the sky, or bracket and blend exposures to extend dynamic range.
Read more: The Essential Guide to Filters for Landscape Photography
Types of landscapes ideal for backlighting
When the sun is low in the sky, tall objects – like trees and buildings – will create long, raking shadows that will stretch toward the camera.
Try using these shadows as lead-in lines to draw the viewer’s eye into the scene. A wide-angle lens will often produce the most interesting and three-dimensional results.
Woodland interiors can work particularly well when shooting toward the light, and you can use the tree trunks and branches to partly obscure the sun in order to reduce its intensity.
Strong, directional light can be moody and dramatic, but the sun’s intensity can be so bright that it just overwhelms the image. I favour taking photos when the sun is lower in the sky and its brightness is slightly filtered and reduced by thin cloud, moisture, dust or pollution within the atmosphere.
Misty landscapes really suit being backlit. Low sunlight adds warmth to mist and trees, and hedges and buildings cast deep shadows toward the camera.
Another landscape type that suits this style is the coast. If you shoot toward the sun while it hangs atmospherically above the sea, with water reflecting colour and light, you are sure to capture punchy results. The best colour in the sky will often be toward the sun’s direction.
Crops and fresh foliage will also look more vibrant when backlit, so explore rural scenery.
Creating sunbursts with backlit landscapes
One trick you can try when shooting backlit shots is to include the sun within the frame to create a sunburst (or sun flare). This technique can really add sparkle and interest to your shots by transforming the sun into a near perfect star.
The effect is the result of diffraction, which describes the bending or spreading of light waves. Although diffraction will soften image quality overall, it is justified in this instance due to the creative effect.
The smaller the aperture, the more light diffracts, so a small f-stop in the region of f/22 is often a good starting point. The number of points from each starburst is related to the number of aperture blades in the lens’ construction.
Typically, the more blades the better. Some lenses create better bursts than others, so experiment with each lens in your system to see which performs best.
Read more: How to Create Sun Stars in Landscapes and Avoid Lens Flare
In its most extreme form, backlighting will cast elements within the landscape into silhouette. This is when the subject is recorded without colour or detail – it is simply a bold, inky outline.
Although not everyone likes the technique, it can produce very striking results, but subject selection is key. Look for instantly recognisable subjects that don’t merge with any other object – if they do, your silhouette will become an undefinable, black blob.
Once again, trees, buildings, rock arches, and landmarks work best for silhouettes. Meter for the bright sky and use these settings to take your photo – the faster shutter speed will render the darker foreground underexposed and create your silhouette.
Again, I would suggest you use your live histogram to guide you – in this instance, a sharp spike to the left of the graph is not indicating poor exposure, but a creative effect instead.
Read more: How to Shoot Striking Silhouettes
Admittedly, shooting toward the light might present certain technical challenges, but nothing you can’t easily overcome.
No light type will provide more drama and instant impact than backlighting. So, next time you are out with your camera, shoot toward the light and capture your own beautiful and atmospheric results.