Backlit Photography: A How-To Guide With Adam Barker

Text and photos by Adam Barker, Arc’Teryx.

Over the course of my time behind the camera, I have come to understand many things about this exceptional medium of photography. Some are mainstream and cliché, while others remain a bit more insightful and unique unto my own style of shooting. Of all the things I have learned, however, I believe the most important is the concept of understanding light. As adventurers, we are fortunate to see light in all its crazy character and presentation.  Whether artificial or natural, light is the key element, or foundation of any exceptional image. Knowing how to interpret light, and how best to utilize the type of light you are given at any moment will help you make the most of each and every shooting situation.

Backlight could well be the most challenging of all the types of light to shoot. It is tough to manage and expose, and it can be extremely unpredictable in how our equipment will react when shooting directly into the sun (or other light source). I’ve come to learn, however, that the steepest challenges most often yield the greatest reward.

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First, let’s discuss exactly what backlight will do from a photographic standpoint. Backlight has a way of infusing drama into an image. It accentuates shape and form, illuminates translucence and can bring even the most mundane of objects to life. It can flood our images with life in a way that other types of light cannot. Shooting backlight also comes with its challenges, however. Read on for several of my favorite tips to mastering backlit scenarios.

Backlit Photography - A How-To Guide With Photographer Adam Barker (photo by Adam Barker)

1.Ensure your front element is clean—let’s start with the simple stuff, right? It is vital to have a clean lens when shooting into the sun. Every last spec of dust, dirt or grime will increase the likelihood of having strange and distracting flare in our image. Flare is manifest in spots or shapes of discoloration and odd contrast. It can be an immediate killer of an otherwise stellar image. Flare can also be utilized as a great stylistic tool in our imagery, however, but it requires a solid understanding of how your lens performs in backlit situations. First and foremost—make sure your lens is clean, and then experiment with different shooting angles, apertures, etc. to better understand exactly what type of flare you might be dealing with.

Backlit Photography - A How-To Guide With Photographer Adam Barker (photo by Adam Barker)

2. Let your creative vision dictate exposure—exposing in backlit situations can be a huge challenge. Unless we are utilizing some sort of fill flash (or bouncing light on the subject with a reflector), we are often forced to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows. Are you looking for a moody image that is darker in tone and focused more on shape than detail? If so, expose more for the highlights. Let the sun or light source act as a rim light, accentuating the shape and scale of the subject matter. Are you looking for a more stylized image with detail in the shadows? If so, resist your urge to manage the highlights, and expose for the darker parts of your scene. Don’t be afraid of blown out highlights, and embrace the “high key” feel that often times results from these exposures. This is a technique I’ll often utilize when shooting lifestyle images.

Backlit Photography - A How-To Guide With Photographer Adam Barker (photo by Adam Barker)

3. Capitalize on the illumination factor—given the proper subject matter (especially when shooting landscape photography), backlighting can infuse our images with life. Search for objects like foliage, flower petals and other translucent subject matter that will come to life with light from behind.

Backlit Photography - A How-To Guide With Photographer Adam Barker (photo by Adam Barker)

4. Stop down for Sunstars—another huge benefit of shooting into the sun can be the inclusion of a sunstar in your frame. This can serve as a great counterbalance to your main subject matter, and who doesn’t like sunstars!? The key to obtaining tight, sharp sunstars is a deep aperture (usually starting around f13 or so) and having the sun abut another object like the horizon, a building, a tree, person, etc. If you’re shooting handheld, you’ll find that changing your shooting angle even just the slightest bit will make a huge difference in how the sunstar appears in your frame. It’s also important to ensure your sensor is dust-free when shooting sunstars as dust will always become more prevalent when your lens is stopped down. Finally, remember that the character of a sunstar is largely determined by the blade structure in the lens diaphragm. Each lens model will yield a slightly different sunstar—you’ll find some more pleasing than others.

Backlit Photography - A How-To Guide With Photographer Adam Barker (photo by Adam Barker)

5. Utilize a Grad ND Filter to Balance Exposure—this is an unbeatable tool when shooting scenic landscape photography in a backlit situation. Even better is a Reverse Grad ND, which has the heaviest gradient across the center of the filter. This means that we are getting the greatest filtration (and balance) where the light is hottest—right at the horizon. I use Singh Ray’s 3-stop Reverse Grad ND for most of my into-the-sun shooting. Remember to a) be shooting in manual mode and b) expose for the foreground. You will then balance the highlights with your filter.

Backlit Photography - A How-To Guide With Photographer Adam Barker (photo by Adam Barker)

6. Experiment—as with everything in photography, it takes a great deal of experience to truly master any shooting situation. Experiment with different shooting angles, different lenses and different subject matter. You might find you like backlighting for a particular type of shooting, but not for others. You’ll also find a great degree of variance in how your images appear with just the slightest variation in shooting angle and where you place the light source in relation to your subject. Don’t be afraid to fail, and there’s no question you will find success.

Reblogged from Arc’Teryx’s The Bird.

Ontario residents: in celebration of the opening of its first Toronto flagship retail store, Arc’Teryx will host a Crowd the Store contest, starting with a scavenger hunt for gift cards on August 16 in the downtown core.

Located at 339 Queen Street West, between John Street and Peter Street, the 2,817 square-foot store will open to the public on August 23 at 11 a.m.

Ontario customers will now have access to Arc’teryx’s complete line of products beginning with the current 2014 Fall collection. Customers will also have the opportunity to learn first-hand about the company’s innovative and forward-thinking design process via special engagement areas inside the store.