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Backcountry Photography

Seeing the Light

Let There Be LightBy Tamia Nelson

April 7, 2009

Light determines how we see the world. Without it, we'd all be in the dark. That's self-evident, right? And nowhere is this more true than in photography. In fact, the word itself comes from the Greek, and it means "light writing." I guess that pretty much gives the game away. But there's more to the story than etymology. Light has many moods, and using it to best advantage is one of the most demanding aspects of the photographer's art. It's also one of the most enjoyable.

OK. You've got a camera. What's your pleasure? Is it capturing wild animals in their natural habitat? Water in its varying tempos? Flowers and fungi along the portage trail? Or maybe you just want to make a record of your paddling and camping adventures. No matter. Whatever your reason for clicking the shutter, light plays a vital role in the result. Mind you, I'm more concerned with the how than the why. I'll leave discussions of the nature of light to those who are better qualified: physicists, opticians, and optical mineralogists, to name only a few. In what follows, I'm going to stick to the strictly practical.

Let's begin at the beginning. At some time or another, most serious photographers have been told to keep the sun behind them when they shoot. In fact, this is often the very first lesson that a novice shutterbug learns. And it's pretty good advice, as far as it goes. The trouble is that it doesn't go very far. Napoleon used to say that being a good commander meant mastering luck. Well, being a good photographer requires that you master light. You can't afford to let the light dictate when and where and what you shoot. A shot presents itself, here and now. Conditions are what they are. It's up to you to make the most of the accident of the moment. And that means understanding all of natural light's many faces.

Notice that I said natural light. Artificial light, the light you get from a flash or a lantern or a lamp, is domesticated light. It's under your complete control. Natural light is not. It's "wild" light. You have to take it as you find it. And natural-light photography is our subject today. So let's look first at the challenges presented by cloudy skies and deep woods. This is the realm of…

Diffuse Light

You'll also find diffuse light under a tarp or inside a tent during daylight hours. Diffuse light comes at you from all directions. Contrast is limited, shadows are either altogether absent or barely discernible, and the edges of objects seem soft and ill-defined. Colors are often muted, too, though if there's mist or fog or high humidity, they can actually be richer (more saturated in shutterspeak).

Low contrast. Muted colors. Does this sound like a recipe for dud photos? Think again. Sometimes diffuse light is just what's needed to bring out fine detail. Here's an example:


A pair of common redpolls rests in a pine as wind-driven flurries rake the branches. The little birds' red escutcheons are brilliant beacons in the diffuse light, which also emphasizes the softness of their feathers. Now here's another photo, shot under thickly overcast skies:

Empty Nest

Long abandoned, this empty nest is slowly filling up with fallen leaves. The diffuse light highlights the subtle colors and emphasizes the nest's form. The next shot is of the same nest, but it was taken on a sunny day.

Empty Nest 2

Conclusion? Occasionally, less is more. In the second photo, there's simply too much light. It washes out the fine detail visible in the first photo, and denatures the colors of the autumn leaves. This shows what can happen under direct illumination, or…

Specular Light

Whereas diffuse light seems to come from everywhere, yet originate from nowhere in particular, specular light streams from one readily identifiable point source. The sun is the ultimate example. Direct light sharpens and intensifies tonal contrasts. Shadows are all-consuming pools of black, while objects in full sun are nearly lost in a dazzle of light. Any scene which includes both bright sun and deep shadow is particularly difficult to meter. In the photo above, I chose an exposure that brought out some of the detail in the shadow. But the sunlit half of the subject suffered accordingly. Of course, if I'd exposed for the sunny side, instead, the left of the photo would have remained an inky enigma. It's a lose-lose scenario.

Obviously, shooting good pictures in strong specular light takes practice—and it doesn't hurt to be lucky, either. Sometimes you are. Then you get a spectacular pay-off.

Bridge at Owl Creek

The scene is a rusting iron bridge spanning a pool at the end of a lively whitewater run. Leaves swirl languidly round in the eddy below. The still-strong light of the low autumn sun picks out the details of rusting iron and flaking paint, sharpening shadows and intensifying colors. Now here's another example:

After the Flood

The spring floods are long gone, but a stranded pine, stripped of all but a few shreds of its bark, remains behind. Balanced precariously on a rocky ledge, it's stark evidence of the water's power. The sun is near the zenith on this autumn day, highlighting the fissures in the weathered gneiss. In this instance, direct lighting worked well for me. But that's not always been the case, as the following picture shows:

Burdock in Full Sun

A few weeks ago I went is search of burdocks, and on a brilliantly sunny morning I found just what I was looking for. But the photos I took left a lot to be desired. The strong light washed away the fine details of the seed heads. I would have had much better luck later in the day.

The shot reproduced above also illustrates the limitations of conventional wisdom. In a sense, it's a classic example of the…

Front Light…

That failed. When the sun is behind you, with its light falling directly on your subject, the object of your attention is said to be "front-lit." This is photography by the book. But as I've already noted, the book sometimes gets it wrong, and this was one of those times. Front-lighting works best when your subject has a range of colors or contrasting areas of light and dark, as in this example:

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

I wanted to show the sooty interior of the chimney of my Kelly Kettle®. I tried several shots before deciding that front-lighting worked best. The background played an important role, too. The green lawn gave just enough contrast. Even the ash deposits helped, reflecting the light and highlighting the sweep of the chimney's arc. Now here's a front-lit photo that makes the most of vibrant color:


Although paddler and canoe were all but lost in the light streaming over my shoulder, the front-lit surface of the water perfectly mirrored the brilliant colors of the autumn woods and cloudless sky. The original of this shot was made with a film camera. Processing costs being what they were, I was reluctant to toss it out. So I salvaged what I could, cropping the image down to bare essentials. The result isn't standard album fare, I admit, but it does concentrate the viewer's eye (and mind) on the passage of the boat through the water—and the earth's passage from one season to the next.

That took a little post-processing to achieve. Sometimes, though, front-lighting simply works:

Monarch of the Flowers

It was mid-October when I snapped this, and the last of the monarch butterflies were preparing to head south. Both butterflies and flowers had passed their prime, but by keeping the sun at my back I made the most of their fading colors. If I'd been more interested in my subject's texture than the play of color, however, I'd have been better off using…


Anything with "topography" is enhanced by sidelight, as you can see here:

Not Quite Gone to Seed

Yes, it's another burdock. Sidelight gives the seed head form and depth, and the colors don't suffer. (Usage note: "Sidelight" and "backlight" are each one word, as are "sidelit" and "backlit"; on the other hand, "front light" is two words. And front-lit is hyphenated—or at least I think it is. Don't you just love the English language?) The other seed heads in the background appear only as indistinct forms, giving prominence to the main subject. Sidelight is wonderful for bringing out the downy softness of feathers, too, as this shot of a goldfinch shows:

A Place in the Sun hspace=

The late-winter sun picks out individual feathers on the bird's flank and highlights the warm gold of his cheek. I didn't use a polarizing filter this time, but if I had, the colors might have been even richer. Polarizing filters really come into their own in sidelit shots on bright days. Here's a for-instance:

Ice Sculpture

A polarizing filter throws the ridges and valleys of the scalloped ice shelves into stark relief, while it softens the harsh light reflected from the snowy surface. The filter also deepens and enriches the colors of water and rock.


So much for preliminaries. Now it's time for the main event:


Many photographers find backlit shots among the most problematic. And there's a good reason for this. As the name suggests, the light is behind the subject, and shooting into the light is fraught with snares and pitfalls. Technical obstacles loom large. Camera sensors often can't cope with intense light, so meters give false readings. That can lead to pictures like this one:

Birchbark on the Beach

Details of both river and canoe are washed out or lost in shadow. This was not my finest hour as a photographer. But I learned an invaluable lesson. Making the most of backlit scenes requires metering for the portion of the picture you wish to emphasize. Moreover, you have to keep the sun under control. Does this sound like the greatest trick since King Canute failed to stop the tide? It's not. You just need to interpose something between your lens and old Sol, as I did in this shot:


No, I didn't plant the pine whose branches screened the sun. But I did make use of what nature freely gave. And that's all that was needed. (I also metered for the shadows on the ice.) Another way to "control the sun" is simply to frame your photo so as to exclude it altogether.

Rising Damp

In this case, the sun is out of the shot, behind the trees and off to one side. Tendrils of mist rise from the open channel on The River, and ice crystals hanging in the frigid air soften the profile of the rolling hills. I metered for the foreground, and the result was a photographic silhouette that still preserves much fine detail.

Backlighting can be also be used to compose striking silhouette portraits of opaque objects, as in this shot of another burdock:

Burdock in Silhouette

The sun is out of the frame. Stalk and seed heads are reduced to a dark outline, which contrasts wonderfully with the muted greens and russets of the pine in the background. But backlight isn't limited to opaque subjects. Translucent objects like leaves also show up well in backlit photos. Take this shot of beech leaves in autumn:

Copper Beeches

The result is a study in color and form. The tonal spectrum ranges from pale yellow to deep copper. Each vein is distinct, every serrated leaf margin highlighted. Twigs and branches are seen in silhouette or outlined in white.

Another hint: Backlighting often infuses muted hues with an ethereal luminescence.

Bracket Shot

Structure, texture, and color are all shown to good advantage in this backlit portrait of bracket fungi growing on the trunk of a windfall. It would have been a very different picture if the light had come from any other direction, or if it had been diffuse rather than specular. That's the real benefit of…

Seeing Things in a New Light

And it's an edge that any photographer can enjoy. Just ask yourself one key question before you shoot—what's the light doing? Is it coming directly from the sun? Or is it being filtered and diffused by clouds, a forest canopy, or a blanket of fog? Is it enveloping your subject in a soft glow? Highlighting every contour and curve? Or bathing it in such brilliance that critical detail is lost in the glare? Light defines the visible world, and that's our subject here. So if there's one essential commandment for photographers, it's this: Never lose sight of the light.

The skillful use of light is one of the things that makes a good photograph good. Do you want to take better pictures? Of course you do! We all do. And the recipe for success is as simple as seeing the light. It's as easy—or as hard—as that. And it's well worth the effort.

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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