Backlighting for wildlife

If you want to breathe some fire into your wildlife images, one of the best and most atmospheric ways is to shoot your subject backlit, writes Andrew James. I’ve already partially covered this technique in the article from a few weeks back on shooting contrejour landscapes but I thought it would be good to extend the technique into wildlife.

Backlighting is really effective for wildlife photography and yet a lot of people seem to be afraid of trying it. This could be because it can be a hit and miss technique and it’s true that it is. However, if you get a ‘hit’, it’s likely to be an image that really holds the attention of the viewer and ultimately, aren’t we are all trying to take a photo that engages the viewer and to a large extent, ourselves?

I recall once being in Africa, at first light. There were just three of us in the vehicle plus the driver, and we spotted a young cheetah a long way off but slowly coming towards us. The sun was only just up and the light had still not really taken full effect, but the two photographers with me were desperate to move. I asked why and their answer was quite simple, they wanted us to get around to the other side of the cheetah so when the sun really sparked into life, we’d have it behind us and illuminating the front of the animal.

This logic made sense and it’s advice I’ve seen written thousands of times – keep the sun behind your shoulder! However, I persuaded them we had time and we should sit tight. Ten minutes later, when the sun had risen above some low cloud, the whole scene came to life. The cheetah stopped and scanned the area for prey. It and all the long grass around it became beautifully rim-lit so we fired off a lot of shots in just a few moments. One of the first images I took is below. It’s a simple enough shot, with just enough room above and around the cheetah to give a sense of the environment. I shot on Cloudy White Balance so this retained the warmth in the scene and  I’ve not warmed it up any further in post-processing.

Beautifully backlit, this early morning scene really worked well.

A short while later, the young cheetah continued towards our position and I got a much tighter composition. The intensity of the light was already beginning to go but the sun was still low and strong enough to give me another lovely portrait, this one with much less environment included. I prefer the first one, but both work well because of the decision to remain in a position that allowed us to use the backlighting.

Cheetah portrait: 300mm, 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600. Evaluative Metering.

The cheetah continued past us until it was no longer backlit. The front lighting was still beautiful but it didn’t inspire me in the same way. Of course the irony was that by not moving we had enjoyed two bites at the cherry – getting the subject in both backlit and front lit poses without the hassle of trying to direct the driver. We’d simply let the cheetah come to us. Sometimes it pays to wait and just see what happens! My two companions became backlighting converts when they looked at their images. Backlighting just screams ‘mood’. It’s evocative. Rim lighting helps to separate the subject from the surroundings, defining its shape in a very dynamic way.

Good backlighting conditions don’t happen often. That’s why, when they do, you should grasp the opportunity with both hands. Take that chance and always aim for atmosphere! In that landscape contrejour article  I talked specifically about including the sun in the shot. With wildlife it’s much harder to do this as you are generally shooting with a longer lens so your field of view is narrowed considerably. Also, in most cases I choose to avoid having the actual light source within the frame. Your subject is still the animal, so a very strong and overpowering blob of light can distract. What you want is that rim lighting that’s defining your animal’s shape and the warmth that’s so inviting.

Brown bear in golden light: 300mm, 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600. Evaluative Metering.

This Kamchatka bear had snuck around the back of us and we only had a few moments to grab a shot as it walked directly through the light. It was so close I couldn’t even fit it all in the frame as I was shooting on a 300mm prime lens. Even the backlit mosquitoes help tell the story in this shot, as well as the breath of air it was exhaling.

You will recall that in the landscape contrejour article I recommended using Evaluative/Matrix metering for shooting. I still use this most of the time for into-the-light wildlife – keeping a close eye on the histogram and using exposure compensation if needed. All three images you’ve already seen here were exposed using this method.

However, if I am looking to silhouette a subject, I often switch to Spot Metering and simply meter from a bright area within the frame. This is usually the sky, although it could just as well be water.

Even when you spotmeter from a bright area, as I did with this next lion image, it’s possible the camera will still capture detail in the shadows (simply because of the excellent dynamic range of a modern digital camera) so you may need to dial in some negative exposure compensation. As always, I recommend using RAW so that you can tweak exposure later and maybe darken the shadows even more – but don’t come to rely on it as a rescue service for poorly-exposed images. With the hit and miss nature of into-the-light shots, shooting RAW is exceptionally useful, though.

Lion profile: 300mm + 1.4x converter, 1/2000sec at f/5.6, ISO 800. Spot Metering.

Silhouettes are a really powerful way to photograph backlit wildlife but your composition must be clean, with clear shapes. I recall the lion only briefly held a pose where he was in perfect profile and for the rest of the frames he was more of an indistinct shape. Too many black and indistinct shapes don’t cut it. Keep it simple where composition is concerned!

Use a lens hood
Whenever and whatever you are shooting backlit I’d advise having your lens hood fitted. While a certain amount of flare within the shot might be wanted, you still need to control it in order to retain clarity within the photo. I mentioned the Histogram earlier and this really is your best buddy when it comes to backlit wildlife images. You have to expect a certain amount of highlight peaking so you’ll see a few highlights pushed over to the far right of the graph – this should be where your rim lighting is and you have to accept that some of this might be pure white. That’s fine, as long as the rest of the image is exposed okay.

If you don’t get a chance to try any backlighting on wildlife or want to practise it for when you do, then pets make great subjects. When I shot a friend’s puppy the backlighting option had almost gone so I grabbed this image as quickly as I could. Another 10 minutes and the sun would have been too high in the sky, as even with this photo it is verging on top-lighting but I think I just about got away with it.

Puppy power! Backlighting can make a difference to your pet portraits.

I am absolutely certain that most of you look out for great backlighting opportunities but if you are yet to try it or have tried it but didn’t quite get it right first time round, don’t give up on this technique because it really is worth persevering with. I’ll leave you with another lion shot – this time not silhouetted but with a beautiful rim light making the old fella’s mane glow.

he king at sunset: 300mm, 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600. Evaluative Metering.

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