Using Backlight and Rim light for Wildlife Photographs:
Coastal brown bear, Alaska Photography Workshop
Exposure: 1/160 at f/8, ISO 200
One of my favorite techniques to creating unique and compelling wildlife imagery is backlighting. A backlit photograph simply means that the light source of the image came from behind or the back of the subject. When used correctly a backlit photograph draws attention to the form and shape of the subject. The warm inviting tones of the natural light add contrast and vibrancy to your image which can really make it stand out. I have used both backlight and rim light for years to add variety to my wildlife portfolio. In this article I will share with you my tips and tricks for mastering backlight.
Arctic tern, Iceland Photography Workshop
Exposure: 1/2656 at f/6.3, ISO 400
I have included the settings for a few of the photographs in this article so that you can see how I worked. It is hard to say exactly what settings you should use here because it will really depend on the lighting situation that day, your gear and the results that you want. I tend to favor a dark image with lots of contrast and vibrant color. I usually use spot or evaluative metering depending on how bright the light is that day. Manual mode is best but you can also get great results in Av or Tv. If you use those modes remember to adjust the exposure compensation if the images are too light or dark. Don't be afraid to check back in on your lcd screen to ensure that your photos are coming out how you want. Really play with your settings, this is a creative technique. Experimentation will build confidence and experience.
Red fox kit, PA USA
Exposure: 1/400 at f/6.3, ISO 640
The Golden Hour
To create naturally backlit or rimlit photographs let's first talk briefly about subjects. I find that this technique works best for mammals, birds in flight, or birds on an interesting perch. The reason for this is that you will lose some of the recognizable features of the animal. The focus of the composition will now be on form, color and the environment. Think of a cookie cutter shape glowing, if you cannot tell what the shape is, you lose the viewer's ability to recognize and relate with the subject. The glow around the edge of the subject should work for you, not against you, thus why I choose wildlife that is easy to recognize by shape alone. My favorites are foxes, bears and owls.
Once you have your subject, you can move on to how exactly to achieve this effect. The best time of day for backlit and rimlit photographs is the famous "golden hour" which is right after sunrise or right before sunset. The reason for this is that the sun is positioned low in the sky, you want this angle and color for the best effect. Most of my backlit photographs were created at sunset, in the very last light of the day. The lower the light, the more dramatic the results will be. When setting up photography trips where I know I want to include a backlit image in my shot list, I use Weather.com to check sunrise and sunset times. This way I can plan to be in position at just the right time.
In essence backlighting happens when you position the light source directly on the opposite side of the subject from yourself. For example, to backlight a fox in a meadow the sun is across the field from me and the fox is in the middle. You are facing the light, and your subject is in the middle of you and the light. Seriously! This goes contrary to everything you learn in photography school about properly lighting a subject. However by positioning yourself in this manner, you are on the dark or shadow side of the subject. The light flaring around it will create a beautiful halo of light on the subject and illuminate any foliage.
Red fox kit, PA USA
Exposure: 1/400 at f/7.1, ISO 400
What is Rimlight?
With backlighting being a subject lit from behind, it can seem confusing as to what rim lighting is. Rim light is that glowing line that the backlight creates around the very edge of your subject. It is one of my favorite parts of a backlit image and I love to use it with mammals like foxes whose fur just catches the light so lush and stunning.
Red fox adult, NJ USA
Exposure: 1/100 at f/4, ISO 1000
In my opinion, the best full silhouette photographs are made just after the sun has dipped below the horizon. The last of the golden light is still illuminating the sky, however because the sun is gone there is no rim light. You will need to increase your ISO, the light level is low now. Your subject is now a true dark form. I love to use this technique when the wildlife that I am photographing is in an interesting environment.
In the photo above of a red fox still atop a sand dune, this is the blue hour when the light's hue has gone cold. I had to use ISO 1000 there just to keep a decent shutter speed. In the photo to the right, a burrowing owl is resting on top of a palm tree. I feel that the color and shapes are strong when you create an environmental portrait of your subject like these. I also use this often for birds in flight when there are great clouds in the sky to add texture and depth to the image.
Another way that I enjoy using the silhouette technique is when I have a subject that is an interesting shape superimposed over a great background scene. A buffalo on a field in Grand Teton National Park or a heron in the glittery waters of Florida is perfect. The best thing about this is that you can be creative and really produce something unique. Photography is all about the light, so play with it and make a photograph that is totally different than you might have thought to do. Most of all have fun!
Hopefully these tips help you capture great photographs of wildlife in beautiful backlighting! Good luck out there and mostly importantly. have a great time doing what you love!
Want help in person? Check out the Photography Workshop page for my upcoming schedule of instructional trips.
Reddish egret in flight, Florida Birding Workshop
Exposure: 1/3200 at f/8, ISO 200