In this article, I’ll explain how to photograph into the light.
This technique is sometimes called contre-jour, a French term that literally translates to “against the light.”
Now, there are various ways you can approach this style of photography. You can choose to photograph stunning silhouettes, or you can attempt to mitigate dark areas in your photo through post-processing.
To discover the best ways of photographing into the light, read on!
Why should you photograph into the light?
Photographing into the light is a great way to add drama to your photos.
(Note that photographing into the light is also known as backlit photography.)
But to get nice images, you’ll need to have a good understanding of how the light will interact with your camera.
Now, almost everyone will have shot against the light at some point (e.g., when photographing a sunrise or sunset).
But if you can understand how to control the light across your frame, you can create especially incredible results.
For instance, one of the most obvious effects you’ll see when doing backlit photography is a silhouette, which I discuss in the next section.
How to create stunning silhouettes
Silhouettes are shapes formed by objects in front of a brighter background.
They’re very appealing to photographers because you can produce powerful shapes, which will give your images a very graphic feel.
You won’t get good silhouettes by just pointing the camera into the light, however. Some planning is needed to get the best result.
Specifically, you’ll want:
- A low angle: Silhouettes are best when the entire silhouetted shape sits against the bright background. Since the background is usually the sky, getting down to a low angle to photograph upward is best.
- A clear horizon line: Other than the objects you want to silhouette, try to avoid placing other elements on the horizon line. This often means a clear horizon line is best. Also, avoid having objects overlap with the main subject you’re silhouetting.
- To expose for the sky: Expose for the bright background; this will lead to dark, beautifully silhouetted foreground objects.
- Other elements: Include other elements such as framing, lines, and repetition that draw the eye toward your silhouette.
Drama in the sky
The sky is an important part of your photos, especially if you’re a landscape photographer. And photographing into the light can lead to some of the best results.
What you’re looking for are beautiful sunset colors, rays of light coming through clouds, and perhaps a starburst effect from the sun.
You’ll need to choose the correct time of day to improve your results – often sunrise or sunset. The hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise are also optimal.
The final key element is often about 30% cloud coverage.
Here are a few quick tips for photographing backlit landscapes:
- Pay attention to the weather forecast: Check ahead for the forecast and use satellite images of the clouds in your area. That way, you can know with greater certainty if the sky will look good.
- Arrive early: Arriving an hour ahead of the ideal light will help you plan your photo, and you’ll be ready if you get unexpected rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds ahead of when you want to photograph.
- Compose with leading lines: If possible, use leading lines to guide the eye toward the sun or to an interesting area of the sky.
Balancing the light
When photographing silhouettes, an underexposed foreground is what you want – but what if you’re after a detailed background and a detailed foreground?
For the best result, you’ll need to balance the light throughout your photo. Otherwise, you’ll produce an overexposed sky or an underexposed foreground.
There are two approaches you can use; one is in-camera, and the other uses post-processing.
- Filters: Graduated neutral density filters are a great way to balance the light across your photo. These come in different strengths, so you can adapt your setup to the scene in front of you.
- Digital blending: Combine a series of bracketed photos in post-processing. This approach uses luminosity masks and layers in Photoshop.
- Combination: The best approach is to combine the above methods. Get the exposure as correct as possible in-camera, then use post-processing to enhance your results further.
How to handle flare
Photographing into the light can lead to flare in your photos.
While flare can be used artistically, you’ll at least want to control it. And you’ll sometimes need to prevent the flare entirely.
Use the following tips to control flare in your photos:
- Choose your lens carefully: A lens with a smaller number of elements will cause less flare. So use a prime lens when possible.
- Add a lens hood: Use your lens hood to block stray light.
- Use a narrow aperture: When the sun is partially obscured by clouds, tree leaves, or the horizon line, use a small aperture such as f/11; you can give the sun a starburst effect.
- Block the sun: Stick your hand in the image and cover the sun. Then take a second photo, this time without your hand. You can combine these two images in post-processing using layer masking. The final image won’t have your hand or flare.
Natural or artificial?
Photographing into the light usually means photographing toward the sun, or photographing from a dark location (e.g., under a bridge) toward the light.
In such cases, the light source is natural and can’t be controlled. However, if you use off-camera flash, you can control the direction of the light.
So try using strobes to produce silhouettes or to backlight your subject. And at night, try light painting, and make sure the light source is behind your main subject.
Photographing into the light is right!
Successfully photographing into the light can be a bit of a challenge.
But with the right approach and the correct camera settings, you’ll get great results!
Now over to you:
Do you enjoy photographing into the light? What are your favorite situations for producing backlit images? Share your thoughts and photos in the comments below!