While rewarding, working with limited light presents many challenges, especially for digital photographers. Low-angled directional light can easily fool camera meters, and low light and long exposures can push the limits of batteries and camera sensors. Here are some field procedures and artistic techniques I’ve learned to rely on during my years photographing “on the edge of light.”
Juxtaposition of Shadow and Light
For subjects that are only partially lit, this method can be very powerful when handled correctly. A subject standing in direct light against a background that’s in shadow, for example, will appear in sharp relief to its surroundings. Alternating areas of shadow and light create texture and depth, helping preserve a three-dimensional look in your photographs.
You can simplify your composition by placing potentially distracting elements in shadow, making them essentially invisible and focusing attention on your subject. Borders between shadow and light can also create interesting patterns and shapes.
Although juxtapositions often work best at sunrise and sunset (when the light is warm and colorful), you can make powerful images using this technique at any time of day.
Backlighting creates deep shadows, providing texture to an image that might otherwise appear flat in standard light. When they’re backlit, the edges of translucent subjects such as wildflowers or feathers appear to glow. This light is particularly effective at sunrise and sunset, when it takes on a strong golden or reddish color. Look to juxtapose your backlit subject against a dark, shadowed background to maximize contrast in the image and to create dramatic lighting.
In many ways, backlighting is the hardest to work with. Flare presents a significant challenge, especially when you include the sun in the frame. This can cause a general loss of contrast, as well as unsightly hexagons and blobs. To mitigate flare, shade your lens to prevent direct sunlight from falling on the front element— block it with a lens hood; in a pinch, use your hand.
Of course, when you want to include the sun in your image, it will be impossible to keep light from striking your lens. here, the best you can do is to partially block the sun using the edge of a tree, mountain, cloud, or some other natural feature. Even partially blocking the sun can help reduce flare to a manageable amount. And remember that a number of digital darkroom techniques, such as Content Aware Fill in Adobe Photoshop CS5, can help eliminate flare when you process your images.
Another technical challenge of backlight is that the extreme contrast between highlight and shadow can fool your camera’s meter, resulting in over- or underexposure. Critically check exposure by reviewing each image on your camera’s LCD and consulting the histogram. Alternatively, if your camera supports live view with exposure simulation, you can check your exposure before triggering the shutter.
If your camera has the highlight overexposure warning sometimes called “the blinkies,” use it to ensure you don’t have any significant overexposed highlights.
Occasionally, the contrast range of your scene will exceed the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor. You may be unable to avoid overexposure of the fringe areas of a backlit subject (such as the feathers on on a bird), which may be acceptable as long as the overexposed areas are not unduly large or crucial parts of the image. If you cannot manage to retain detail in the shadow areas of the scene, consider rendering your subject in silhouette instead.