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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.

Red Skimmer Dragonfly

As is the norm here in Orange County for May and June, we've had pretty ugly sunsets. The ol' "May Gray" and "June Gloom" marine layer has been suffocating the coast nearly every evening. And with the inland hills dried up from the heat, there just isn't much landscape photography to be had within the county borders. I'd love to travel somewhere to get a taste of new scenery, but my private lessons have been booming and duty calls.

Nevertheless, I still managed to get out and take some shots. But instead of a sweeping vista, I focused my 100mm macro lens on a red skimmer dragonfly that's been hanging out in the backyard.

Red Skimmer Dragonfly

The trick with dragonflies is to not bother trying to sneak up on them - they know you're coming and they will fly off. The way to get close is to first figure out where they like to land. I've found that dragonflies (at least these red skimmer dragonflies) will usually return to the same perch over and over after doing some laps in the air. So once you've figured out where your dragonfly likes to land, get up close to the perch while it takes a lap flying around. They don't seem to mind returning to that same perch with you right next to it, so long as you don't make any quick motions. Apparently they respond to motion more than your proximity.

Then, once your dragonfly returns to its perch and you're nice and close, slowly bring your camera up to your eye and start snapping. It'll pose for you like a supermodel so long as you don't move too quickly. And keep that shutter speed fast if you're going to be handholding your camera.

Red Skimmer Dragonfly

Red Skimmer Dragonfly

Sunflower Details

Macro Photo of a Sunflower

My car had to get some work done on it over the weekend, which left me stranded at home without a vehicle. Since I'm not big on watching TV, especially in the middle of a beautiful day, I decided to spend my newfound downtime out in the backyard enjoying the weather, drinking some tea and admiring nature's beauty on a smaller scale.

So with a relatively fresh bouquet of sunflowers on hand, I broke out my macro lens for a change of pace from the sweeping landscapes I'm used to. I brought the bouquet outside and placed them on a table in the shade. This shady light is primo for close-ups as it doesn't create too much contrast in these delicate subjects.

Using my Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro (the non-L version), I kept my aperture wide so I could get real selective with focus and create some more abstract-like compositions. I find that when shooting flowers, photographing them head-on tends to result in unoriginal pictures, so I usually try and get the most extreme angles I can on them, working to highlight intimate details like the delicate curves, repeating patterns and interesting textures.

Macro Photo of a Sunflower

Macro Photo of a Sunflower

Macro Photo of a Sunflower

Macro Photo of a Sunflower

Macro Photo of a Sunflower

Photographing this close-up world can keep you busy for hours. Examining things so closely with a lens that's capable of capturing it will open up tons of compositions. All you need is a macro lens and a steady tripod.