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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.

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Nikon is Backwards

Nikon is Backwards

If you know me, you know that I really don't care about the Nikon vs. Canon debate. As I've said before, that rivalry is about as useful as the "my dad can beat up your dad" argument. The bottom line is that both manufacturers make fantastic cameras, both have their strengths and, most importantly, it's the photographer, not the camera. A great photographer can get great shots with either system.

BUT...

There is something I want to point out about these 2 systems that no one ever seems to address. It's something so simple and so basic that while everyone is arguing about megapixels, color reproduction and ISO performance, this point just never comes up.

The point I speak of is that Nikon is backwards. That's right! I said it! Nikon is backwards! Despite my Switzerland-like neutrality between the two systems, I can confidently say that Nikon is backwards. And I can prove it.

Let's look at 4 undeniable, undebatable, and - dare I say - astonishing bits of evidence that prove Nikon is backwards. Allow me to remove the shroud from over your eyes...

 

Exhibit A
The light meter/exposure compensation scale

When you look at the exposure compensation scale or the light meter scale (both use the same exact scale) of a Canon camera, you see something like this:

Canon Exposure Compensation Scale

Positive on the right, negative on the left. Makes sense. That's how we were taught in school and that's how pretty much every other meter on the planet is designed - positive to the right, negative to the left. That's how society is set up - to have higher numbers to the right and lower numbers to the left.

When you look at a ruler, the higher numbers are to the right, the lower numbers are to the left. And if a ruler had negative values on it, they would be on the left side of zero. Same deal for a radio dial, a speedometer, and book pages.

But now picture a ruler where zero is off to the right and then as you move left, the numbers progress up 1, 2, 3... Or picture your speedometer with 0 mph on the right and as you accelerate, the dial sweeps to the left. Doesn't feel right, does it?

Well, here's your Nikon scale:

Nikon Exposure Compensation Scale

It's backwards. Plain and simple. It just doesn't jive with how we think of numbers. We think of positive numbers on the right, negative on the left. Nikon decided to throw caution to the wind and flip the positive and negative. I don't know why, but they did.

So, there you go. Nikon's exposure compensation and light meter scale is backwards.

Strike one, Nikon.

 

Exhibit B
The lens mount

What's the old rule for fastening a screw, nut, bottle cap, or jar lid? "Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey." You rotate to the right (clockwise) to secure something tighter, you rotate left (counter-clockwise) to loosen it.

So now instead of a bottle cap or screw, let's attach your lens to your camera. With your Canon lens, you line up the dots and rotate right (clockwise) until the lens clicks into place. Fasten it on just like a jar lid.

Okay, let's do the same thing with your Nikon. Take your lens and line up the white marks, now rotate clockwi-NOT SO FAST, AMIGO!

You're going to have to throw out everything you've ever learned about fastening things to other things because on a Nikon, you rotate the lens counter-clockwise to attach it to your camera. So instead of righty-tighty, lefty-loosey, you'll have to remember "righty-removy-the-lensy, lefty-attachy-the-lensy." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, though.

So, there you have it. Nikon's lens mount is backwards.

Strike two, Nikon.

 

Exhibit C
The rear lens cap

As a result of the lens mount being backwards for a Nikon, the rear lens cap also fastens on backwards. Rotate right to loosen it and remove it, rotate left to attach and tighten.

But just like the lens attaching the camera in a seemingly backwards way, I'm sure this clockwise to loosen and counter-clockwise to tighten thing only seems backwards to us. Surely only us Americans with our crazy imperial measuring system are on this page. I'm sure this "backwards" tightening/loosing business makes complete sense to the rest of the world.

What's that? It doesn't? It's backwards everywhere?

Damn. Strike three, Nikon.

 

Exhibit D
The zoom ring

Let's look at the zoom ring for a Canon lens:

Canon zoom ring

Ah, yes. Lower focal length numbers on the left, higher focal length numbers on the right - just like inches on a ruler and mph on a speedometer.

Now here's Nikon's zoom ring:

Nikon zoom ring

Hmm...okay. Lower focal length numbers on the right, higher focal length numbers on the left. Backwards from every other scale we're familiar with in the rest of our lives...alright. Makes sense, I guess, when everything else on the camera is already backwards. I mean, if I have to think backwards when attaching the lens and using the light meter, why stop there? Better to go 100% backwards than only partially. Right?

Strike 4, Nikon. You were out one strike ago.

 

Closing Statement

I have no idea why these things are backwards on a Nikon. My guess is that they just had to be different than Canon. Too bad being different makes everything backwards in this case.

So, in summary, this backwards business is the main reason I recommend Canon over Nikon. Now some of you gear heads out there may be thinking "that's ridiculous to recommend Canon over Nikon based solely on these trivial matters. Nikon is clearly better in image quality/ISO performance/auto-focus/blah, blah, blah."

Well let me respond to this imaginary devil's advocate with 2 statements:

First, these "trivial" matters actually play a huge role in the usability of the camera. If you're constantly fighting decades of training on what's considered forwards or backwards, then you're fighting an unnecessary battle. A camera's controls should get out of your way. They should be so easy and intuitive to use that you never have to think about using them - you just use them.

And secondly, Nikon doesn't have better image quality, ISO performance, auto-focus or blah, blah, blah. Canon doesn't either. Sure, you can compare MTF charts and side-by-side sample images. You can do an in-depth analysis of noise performance and color reproduction. But most of that stuff has no practical application in photography. Plus, Nikon and Canon are always out-doing each other. Canon may be the top today, but Nikon will be back on top on a few months. It's a never-ending seesaw of who has the latest technology, best image quality, and better auto-focus system.

So don't worry about Nikon vs Canon. Concentrate on learning how to use your equipment to the very fullest. Concentrate on becoming a better photographer, not a better gear reviewer.

But all that being said...let the angry letters begin!