Picture Doctor: 3 Ways to Better Backlight

Shift your horizon, follow the sun, keep your backlight burning, and other photo remedies.

Picture-Doctor-3-Ways-to-Better-Backlight
Picture-Doctor-3-Ways-to-Better-Backlight

Why It Works

•Fundamentals: A skewed horizon line, strong color contrasts.

•The tilt: The deliberately tilted horizon goes way back in the history of photography (perhaps the greatest practitioner: Aleksandr Rodchenko). Like any effect, it can be misused and overused. Here it works for a variety of reasons. It creates a momentary disorientation on viewing the picture. It makes the triangle of the rice farmer, the reflection in the water, and the boy in the background more dynamic. And it leads the foreground figure's reflection into the corner.

•Color contrasts: With a diagonal dividing line, the photo effectively plays off two complementary colors -- the blues of the sky with the greenish-yellow of the water. The hat, clothes, and hoe repeat the scheme.

•Lighting: An overcast sky, with the sun low on the horizon, keeps the shadows open.

•Rule of Thirds: Turn the picture so the horizon is level, and the picture loses interest. The subject is now in the middle of a dead-center horizon. The tilt, in fact, throws picture elements off-center and into power points in the grid of thirds. Clever!

3 Ways to Better Backlight

Perhaps you've heard the advice to beginners to keep the sun behind you when shooting outdoors. Nonsense! Shooting into the sun so that your subject is backlit can create exciting pictures.

1. Light a fire. Translucent objects such as leaves and flowers seem to glow with an internal fire when backlit. You'll likely want the glowing subject recorded about 1 stop brighter than medium gray to keep it lively. So meter on the subject with a spotmeter or by moving in close to fill the viewfinder, then add 1 stop to the indicated exposure, recompose, and shoot. A digital histogram will tell you if your exposure is good; with film, bracketing is a good idea.

2. Draw strong lines. If your subject is opaque, backlighting can outline it in white, separating it from the background and surrounding it in a magnificent halo. This is how I shot these prickly pears (below, left). If the subject is darker than the background, you should meter exclusively on your subject when setting your exposure. (This is the strategy for getting rimlit portraits -- meter your subject's face and use that as a starting point.) If there is no light falling on the front of the subject, it will become a pure black silhouette. In this case, meter the background instead of the subject, as I did with these trees (below, right).

3. Fight flare. When shooting toward the sun you risk lens flare -- ghostly light that often ruins an image. Provided the sun is not actually in the frame, prevent flare by shading the front of the lens from sunlight. Lenshoods sometimes work for this, but you're better off using a hand, card, or hat.

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| Photos by Timothy Edberg (2)| Problem Solver

•Follow the sun: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Right? Not really. The sun travels due east to due west only during a short period of the year (the March and September equinoxes at the equator). It pops over and under the horizon at different bearings at other times: more southerly during the winter, more northerly during the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway). It's handy to know where for landscapes (so you know what landform the sun will rise over) and outdoor portraits (where the sun will set behind the subject). The Depssi card, from Blue Pond Images in the U.K., lets you figure this out. Use a compass (not included) to point the red arrow on the card due north, and it gives you the sunrise and sunset bearings for different months of the year. The Depssi (which stands for DEPth of field, Sunrise, and Sunset Indicator) also has a table of hyperfocal distances on the flip side. It's heavily laminated and fits in a wallet. Order it from www.bluepondimages.com for £3 (about $6).

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