BACK-LIT SUBJECTS AND THE BEAUTY OF RAW FILES
One of the most beautiful ways to photograph subjects is when the light is behind them. With the sun shining softly through the hair of a model or the fur of an animal, you can often capture something really special.
With a model portrait, you have all the advantages. You can organise your time of day and your position…more importantly, you can use reflectors and/or fill-flash to put some light into the shadows. You have the freedom to manipulate the light to create your vision.
With wildlife however, you have to take what you can get. The animals are not going to pose for you, and they certainly are not going to move into better light for your convenience. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get some great backlit wildlife images. There are a few important factors that (in my experience) make backlit photos like these possible.
Tip #1. Early morning/late afternoon light is best. When the sun is low in the sky, the light is soft and the contrast is low. This gives you the best chance of getting a shot where the shadows are not too black, and the highlights are not too burned-out. The light is also much warmer so the picture will likely be more atmospheric – more ‘romantic.’
Tip #2. Err on the side of (slight) overexposure. Because I shoot in Manual, I can easily alter my exposure with a simple change of the shutter speed or the aperture. Because you are looking into the sun for shots like this, the camera is likely to try to limit the light, so a shot taken in auto may well come out a bit too dark. By increasing the exposure slightly, I can brighten up the features of the subject. The backlit highlights may come out a little overexposed, but if the contrast isn’t too strong (see tip #1) it shouldn’t be too bad. More importantly though, I can capture more details in the shadows.
Tip #3. Shoot in RAW. For people who have only ever shot in JPEG, you have no idea just how much latitude you have for correction of shadows and highlights. I can’t give you a full lesson in editing RAW files here, but most backlit shots you see don’t appear quite as they were originally shot. On the other hand they don’t take a huge amount of adjustment either…a simple brightening of the shadows and pulling back of the highlights can take your well-shot image and really bring it to life.
All of these tips go hand-in-hand. These shots would not have worked at all without the benefit of low-contrast light. Taken in bright sunlight, you would almost certainly lose too much detail in the highlights and shadows to create a decent image. But even in low-contrast light your good RAW file can become something special with a small amount of processing.