Nick Carver Photography Blog

Photography Tips, Tutorials, & Videos

CONTACT NICK

Photography Tips: Backlighting with Plants

Skill Level: Beginner

When beginners set out to photograph things like flowers and leaves, the natural inclination is to approach the subject from the front, in sunlight, with the sun hitting the front of your subject. It makes sense after all - you need some light on your subject in order for the camera to take a picture. There's even the old adage in photography to shoot with the sun to your back.

But this approach to photographing a subject tends to yield boring results. Front lighting (that is, when the light is hitting the front of your subject) just isn't interesting. Front lighting flattens out your subject, squashing depth. Think of deer in headlights or on-camera flash. It may get the job done in terms of being able to see your subject, but it definitely isn't pretty.

You could, of course, utilize side lighting to rake across your subject and create depth. You could also opt for overhead lighting which, depending on how strong the light source is, may or may not be flattering. Better yet, you could utilize soft lighting like that of an overcast day. But one really fun and really interesting use of light in photographing plants is backlighting.

Backlighting (that is, when the light is coming towards you from behind your subject) gives semi-translucent subjects like leaves, flower petals, and ice crystals a sort of glowing effect that adds a nice bit of "pop" to your photo. With brightly colors flowers and fall leaves, backlighting can be a great way to accentuate the color, making the pigment glow like a neon sign. It's also a great way to bring out all the little veins and texture in a leaf.

And if you can position yourself so that the backlit plant has a dark, shadowed background, those leaves or flower petals will glow like fireworks on the fourth of July. Check out these examples to see what I mean:

Finding backlighting is easy. Just head outside on sunny afternoon or morning and find yourself a leaf or flower in direct sunlight. But instead of approaching the subject from the front (where the light is hitting), move around to the back of it so that the sunlight is coming towards you. This works best when the sun is lower in the sky. So avoid high noon and stick to morning or afternoon. But don't worry, this doesn't have to be done right at sunrise or sunset.

Working with backlighting can be a little tricky. To make it easier on yourself, keep these points in mind:

  • You don't want the sunlight actually hitting the front of your lens. Your lens needs to be shaded by a tree, overhang, lens hood, or a carefully placed free hand. If the sunlight does hit the front of your lens, you'll get lens flare - that's those little semi-translucent circles of red, orange, green or purple spread across your picture.
  • You don't need to have the sun directly in front of you to get backlighting. The sun can be quite a bit higher or to the left or right of the picture. But if you get the glow on your subject, all is good.
  • Unless you're shooting in manual, your camera may want to make the picture too dark as a result of the backlighting. Camera's don't do very well with backlighting. Make sure you stay in control of the brightness by using the exposure compensation tool on your camera.
  • Try the picture at different brightnesses using the exposure compensation tool. A much darker or lighter version may look really cool.
  • Your camera may have a hard time focusing when working with backlighting. You may need to manually focus your lens.

When winter rolls around, try backlighting on icicles or frost-covered plants to get a great sparkly effect. Like this:

Backlighting can keep you busy for hours when photographing flowers and leaves. So the next time you're out enjoying nature's beauty, give backlighting a try.