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Using Light - Backlight

Placing the Sun Behind Your Subject

Story by Ray Hennessy June 22nd, 2017

When you first start learning wildlife photography a rule that you will hear often is to keep the sun at your back. While this is generally a good thing and will keep your subject well lit it doesn't always have to be that way. For the past year or so I've found myself in a bit of a creative rut photographing birds. One the the methods I've tried to use lately to capture more creative and different photos is backlight. I've been thrilled with the results.

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I've found that photos can have an entirely different look when the the sun is behind the subject. Generally speaking there is a very short window when this works best which is the first or last 30 minutes or so of sun. It also requires a clear day with bright sun to work best. That is not to say you cannot create a backlit situation on an overcast day it is just much more difficult and will usually not be quite so dramatic.

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Most of the backlit photographs I've captured are characterized by a few main attributes. The first is usually a lovely glow around the subject, created by the sun outlining the subject against a dark background. Occasionally, most often with birds, they will spread their wings and I'll get a glow through them as well. Second is the color, many of these backlit photos have the orange and yellow glow from the early or late sun. Sometimes that color is just on the subject and often the entire foreground and background take on the colorful glow. Third and sometimes the most impressive trait of a backlit photo is the incredible bokeh created. With any image that has a lot of bright highlights in the foreground, background, or both, the long telephoto lens creates some out of focus circles of light. I often specifically look for these situations to add these often spectacular elements in my backlit photos.

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One other advantage of setting up with the sun behind your subject is that you can also try to capture some interesting silhouettes. I've included a few of my favorite silhouettes below that actually have the sun in the frame.

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It can be a tough choice to position yourself in the opposite direction from what you are used to shooting but I highly recommend giving it a try the next time you are presented with the opportunity. Sometimes doing the exact opposite of what everyone else is shooting is exactly what you need.

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