Master Backlighting in Wildlife Photography

how to take backlit wildlife photos

If you read the manual that came with your camera it will invariably advise you to shoot with the sun coming from over your shoulder to illuminate your subject from the front. This is sound advice and of course will produce very good, evenly lit images. But have you ever considered turning this approach on its head and shooting directly into the light to create dramatic backlit pictures? The prospect can be a bit scary, and there are certainly a few pitfalls to watch out for, but once mastered backlighting (aka contre-jour) can create a wonderful mood in your photos.

grey seal backlit mark hamblin

Whilst I’m a great fan of backlighting, it doesn’t work in all situations with all subjects, and so a cautionary approach is required as well as an element of experimentation. Learning to recognise the kind of lighting situations and subjects that can be backlit effectively is perhaps the initial key to success. In theory, any form of light can be used to backlight a subject, but the stronger the light source, the greater the backlighting effect and the stronger the contrast.

The angle of the light is also important. Midday sun, for example, could be used to backlight a subject but the light will be coming from a high angle creating a top lit, as well as slightly backlit, effect. Whereas, when the sun is nearer the horizon early and late in the day, the subject will be more specifically backlit with a much more pronounced and therefore dramatic effect. For the same reason, the winter months are better than summer because the arc of the sun is lower in the sky producing a more pleasing backlighting result.

This technique works well with many animals, creating a dramatic rim-lit effect where their fur catches the light, but it can be equally effective with birds – especially those with a distinctive shape. Birds such as terns and gulls can similarly produce very effective backlit shots when photographed in flight using backlighting to highlight their semi-translucent wings.

backlighting in wildlife photography

Aside from finding a good subject to photograph, the key to successful backlit pictures is a ‘good’ exposure. I use the word ‘good’ here rather than ‘correct’ because what might be deemed to be the correct exposure may not necessarily produce the best results. The reason being that backlit images can be very subjective in terms of how you want the overall picture to look. Sometimes you may want the body of the subject to be well lit, in which case the rim-lit fur may be blown out a little. At other times you may want to expose specifically for the rim-lit areas creating a semi silhouetted effect, or you may choose to expose somewhere between the two extremes.

wildlife silhouette golden light

One way to control the exposure more precisely is to use either spot or partial (spot) metering, which allows you to take a very specific meter reading directly from the subject. By doing this the background light is excluded from the meter reading and the shaded part of the subject should be well exposed. There are a few things to watch out for though with this approach to metering because the tone of the subject may also influence the reading. This will be most noticeable for dark subjects, which are likely to affect the meter reading and produce an image that is too light, so you’ll need to apply some exposure compensation to adjust for this and also check the histogram. The histogram for backlit subjects will be quite different from a front lit image with spikes at both the dark (left) side and bright (right) side of the histogram. Don’t worry about this. The important thing to check for is that most of the tones have been recorded without a strong bias towards either the left or right of the graph.

cuckoo mark hamblin golden

Exposing specifically for the shaded part of the subject can also lead to overexposed highlights. This may be okay if it’s a relatively small area, but it’s always worth viewing the LCD image with the ‘Highlight Alert’ function activated to check for ‘excessive blinkies’ after you’ve taken a few shots. In order to reduce the extent of blown highlights and achieve a more balanced exposure, stick with the spot metering technique from the shaded side of the subject but darken the image by dialling in -1 stop on the exposure compensation scale if shooting in a semi-auto mode. To darken the image further and emphasise the backlit part of the subject, simply dial in more compensation (e.g. -2 stops).

backlighting wildlife

Top Tips to Make Your Rim-Lit Photos Stand Out

Shoot your subject against a dark background. This will accentuate the backlit parts of your subject and help make them stand out more dramatically. Also, line your subject up so that you can eliminate any bright (hot spot) areas behind the subject, which can be distracting and spoil the overall effect of the shot.

Bracket your exposures to alter the look of your images. Exposing for the highlights around your subject can create very dramatic affects with just the outline of the subject visible. This can also be achieved by adjusting the exposure sliders during raw processing.

Soft backlighting when the sun is weak or low in the sky will lower the contrast levels and reduce the chance of blocked shadows and blown highlights.

Shield the front element of your lens to prevent flare. This can be a major issue when shooting into the light, so always fit a lens hood and, if necessary, cast a shadow over the lens using your hand or piece of card. Alternatively, compose with the sun hidden behind the subject so that no direct light is striking the front of the lens.

wren breathing

Download our free ebook
Grab Our FREE eBook!

Get our best tutorials sent straight to you, and enjoy a copy of "10 Ways to INSTANTLY Improve Your Nature Photos".