passing cloud

Shooting into the sun can result in breathtaking images, but the technique brings with it a number of creative and technical challenges. Peter Watson shows you how to overcome them to achieve stunning contre jour photos


Just as painters apply paint to their canvas, we photographers apply light to our image sensor or film. Light is our precious raw material and, of the many factors that can contribute to the success of an image, it is, without doubt, the most important. Even the most spectacular location will fail to impress if it is captured in inferior light, and there is no escaping the fact that when photographing outdoors the quality of the light is always the prime consideration. In the landscape environment, this quality is, to a large extent, determined by the direction of the light, so the position of the sun is of critical importance.

The general rule is that landscape subjects should be lit from the side, as this will give shape and modelling to a scenic view. There are, however, exceptions to this. Occasionally, spectacular images can be created if we allow the sun to take centre stage and its light to become the main subject as it backlights the landscape.

COMPOSITIONAL ELEMENTS Although the sunlight and sky become the main features in a backlit composition, on their own, they rarely make a lasting impression. To make the most of captivating light, they must be depicted as an integral part of the landscape. This is the creative aspect of using backlighting and it reguires a considered approach. My advice is to first look for a viewpoint that enables you to include other elements that act as focal points, because this will prevent the sky from being too dominant. Small buildings are often ideal for this and, in winter, silhouetted leafless trees are very useful, too. Lakes and rivers are also attractive features to include because reflections on their surfaces will contribute to the impact made by the sky.


The sun bursting through a brooding, stormy sky can be an exhilarating moment but the light might be short-lived, so the safest approach is to capture the display as soon as you see it. Once the initial shot has been taken I suggest you then wait and watch the movement of the clouds. The optimum moment might not yet have arrived, so take your time. Look for beams of light formed into clearly defined rays; they can appear suddenly then just as quickly fade, so remain poised and ready to capture the sky when it reaches its peak condition.


The position of the horizon in the frame is a personal choice and will depend on the cloud structure, the height of the sun and the type of landscape.

A low horizon will obviously place more emphasis on the sky, and such an arrangement can be very successful. Even though the landscape will be small, it can still make a contribution, and often its diminutive size can, perversely, help to draw attention to it. A relatively high horizon can also look striking if, for example, there are strong features in the landscape that are being spotlit to dramatic effect by piercing beams of sunlight.

What is a backlit landscape?

A backlit landscape is simply a landscape that is lit from behind, i.e. the sun is in front of the camera. There are, however, different degrees of backlighting. As is the case with frontally lit landscapes, an element of sidelighting also occurs. If the sun is positioned anywhere from 0° to 80° and 280° to 360° then, because the source of the light is in front of the camera, and therefore behind the subject, the landscape is described as being backlit.


To ensure you are in the right place at the right time, research and visit a location in advance, or check it out on Google Earth. Also, look at sunrise and sunset times to enable you to determine the best time of day and year to make your visit. There might only be a brief period when the sun is in the right position, and forward-planning can save many wasted trips.


Potentially the most exquisite type of light, backlighting is also by far the most difficult to control. Contrast levels are likely to be extremely high and, without your intervention, there is a likelihood that your pictures will suffer from a severe lack of detail in the highlights, and possibly also in the shadows. This can, to a degree, be rectified in post-processing (which will be explained later), but there is a limit to what can be achieved once the image has been captured. It is, therefore, crucial that contrast is reduced as much as possible at the time the exposure is made. This can be achieved in a number of ways.


The most important tool in our armoury is the neutral density graduated filter (ND grad). They are available in various strengths up to a maximum of four stops, starting at half a stop, increasing in steps of one third or half stops. The benefit of using these filters is their ability to absorb light from a specific part of an image, and normally this is, of course, the sky. It is virtually always brighter than the landscape beneath it (even a cloudy sky is likely to be around two stops brighter) so, by darkening it, both the landscape and sky will be correctly exposed when photographed.

When the landscape is front-lit or side-lit ND grads are perfectly adequate but, while they are still essential in a backlit image, they will probably not be able to cope with the extremes of brightness in the sky. The reason for this is that contrast levels can be so high that using a strong ND grad filter can overly darken the middle tones in the photograph, which will cause an unacceptable loss of detail in the cloud structure. As a rule of thumb, I recommend using ND grads no stronger than two and a half or three stops. Because this is unlikely to be sufficient to suppress the brightest parts of the sky, we need to look at other methods of reducing contrast, and one very effective way to achieve this is to use the natural features of the sky. By waiting for a passing cloud to cover the sun and the surrounding area, you will find that the highlights will become subdued. This can, depending on the density of the cloud, often solve the problem because overall contrast will be reduced and an exposure can then be used that, with the help of a ND grad, might be capable of recording details across all brightness levels.


Another option is to compose your picture in such a way that the brightest highlights are excluded. One way to do this is by positioning the horizon in the upper half of the picture. Depending on where the sun is, this can often enable the brightest parts of the sky to be avoided.

If by doing this you then have too much foreground, the simple solution is to remove it by cropping the picture to create a panoramic format. Another alternative is to use features in the landscape to obscure the sky s brightest highlights. Trees are very helpful in this respect because their height enables them to be positioned directly in front of the sun. They are often used to hide the sun in a backlit forest scene.


Relying on your camera s in-built metering system can be unreliable when shooting into the sun. Because of the very bright highlights, there is a strong possibility that the image will be underexposed. The safest, and most accurate, method is to take readings from different parts of both the sky and landscape. A handheld spot meter is ideal for this or, alternatively, you can switch your camera s meter to spot mode (most DSLRs have this facility), and take readings from the brightest and darkest parts of the scene. You are likely to find a range of several stops between these areas (seven or eight stops is not uncommon). Once you have taken a number of readings, you then base your exposure on the average value. This is likely to render the landscape as a fairly dark tone but the use of a ND grad filter, as explained in the last section, should prevent it from being reduced to a silhouette.

The priority is to prevent the sky from being overexposed, and a subdued landscape is, in any case, often preferable, because it will help to create drama and impact.

If you are using film, then bracket your exposure in steps of half a stop. If shooting digitally, then check your histogram. If the image is correctly exposed, pixels will be distributed across the length of the graph. If pixels are stacked heavily to the left, this indicates underexposure, and to the right means it is overexposed. Exposure should then be adjusted based on what your histogram is telling you.


The good news is that poor weather can often produce the most striking backlit images. If the forecast is for changeable conditions and a risk of showers then the chance of breaks in the cloud appearing is that much greater. This type of weather is, as you no doubt already know, unpredictable, so a good deal of waiting and sky watching will be necessary if those fleeting moments you are seeking are not to be missed. Weather forecasts are helpful to a degree, if taken one day at a time. Long range, however, they are —and I can speak from experience —rather unreliable and not really worth paying a great deal of attention to. For periods of up to 24 hours, however, they usually provide a reasonable idea of what to expect.


When you are out in the field you can get a feel for what s happening in the skies above by simply watching the movement of the clouds. If breaks begin to appear it might be a sign of an impending improvement. If you can find an elevated position then it might be possible to see what s developing in the distance —look in the direction from where the wind is blowing. This can provide a useful indication of short-term changes and might give you sufficient time to reach your location and be ready to grab any opportunities that materialise. In windy conditions the sky can change very quickly, so be prepared to act fast. Minutes —even seconds —can be the difference between success and failure so it s often best not to stray too far from your chosen destination.


It will probably come as no great surprise when I say that frequent rain showers often accompany the best backlit images, so it pays to be well-equipped. An umbrella is a useful accessory because the best moment can also be the wettest moment, and working with a cable release in one hand and an umbrella in the other is a technique that I suggest everyone learns to master!


Backlit skies can suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, erupt in a blaze of glory and, if the moment is not to be missed, a quick grab shot might be the only option. When seconds matter —and often they do —an image stabilised lens or camera will enable you to capture the fleeting display without having to spend precious time setting up your tripod.


Dawn is a magical time to capture the beauty of backlighting, as the presence of mist or fog brings an extra dimension to your image. Mood, atmosphere and perhaps even a little drama will be created by sunlight delicately penetrating a mist-enshrouded landscape. Timing is, however, of critical importance when capturing this type of picture. For it to succeed, there must be the right balance of mist and landscape. Too little mist will only help to diminish the moody atmosphere, while too much mist will leave you wondering what on earth it is you re looking at through the thick, impenetrable cloud of monotonous grey.

As the sunlight penetrates the murky atmosphere, the temperature will rise and gradually the mist should begin to dissipate. Small details and features will, slowly but surely, begin to appear and they will give the eye something to latch onto. This is the time when the photograph can be composed and, when there seems to be the right combination of land and mist, the exposure can be made.

Just as with photographing in snowy conditions, if the sky is hidden by mist your cameralight meter can be tricked into thinking that it needs to decrease the exposure. When shooting a backlit scene through mist, contrast will be reduced and it might not be necessary to use a ND grad. You can use your exposure readings and histogram to determine this, but if in doubt, and if you have time before the mist clears, try capturing the scene both with and without a filter, then compare the results.


You will quite possibly have seen images that have been affected by lens flare; it can appear as circular or polygonal bright spots, or sometimes it appears as a haze across an image. When present, it will reduce contrast and saturation. It doesnlook attractive in a photograph and should always be avoided. Whenever a camera is pointed towards the sun, the risk of flare is always high and the only way to eliminate it is by preventing sunlight falling directly onto the lens. With a cloudy sky, you can let nature do the work and simply wait for passing cloud to obscure the sun. This is always worth doing anyway when shooting a backlit scene, as it will improve the appearance of the sky and reduce contrast. The other solution is to use an umbrella or some other form of shade, such as a Flare Buster, a piece of stiff card or even a hat, to cast a shadow onto the front of the lens —but take care to avoid it creeping into your picture; its appearance will do nothing for your sky! It will be easier if you are using a cable release, as this enables you to stand away from the camera and check that the shadow is being cast onto the lens. Beware also of flare caused by reflected light, particularly if there is water present. A lake, river or calm sea can be the source of very strong reflections that can also spoil an image. Once again, waiting for a passing cloud to cover the sun can be used to prevent this.


Many backlit images will benefit from a small degree of fine-tuning in post-processing. Despite the steps taken at the time of capture, contrast is likely to be high, and highlights, in particular, can often be improved by a little tweaking. Little is the operative word, however, because if the photograph is to succeed then adjustments should be kept to the minimum. Improvements can often be made by the delicate use of one or two Photoshop tools (other editing software packages also have similar tools).


My personal preference is to use the Shadows & Highlights tool in Photoshop. This enables the darkest and lightest areas to be adjusted without affecting the mid-range tones.

This tool has separate sliders for shadows and highlights, which enables them to be adjusted to a very precise degree. Ticking the  Show more options’box opens up additional settings for the amount, tonal width, and radius, and I recommend that you use these because they give you much greater control over the final picture. My preferred method of working is to start with the amount and tonal width sliders set at 0% and the radius at 30%, and then gradually increase the percentage for the amount and tonal width until there is detail and colour across all the highlights (or shadows), while at the same time making small adjustments to the radius percentage. No Individual slider can be perfectly adjusted in isolation of the other two, because it is the combination of the three settings that matters, and a fair degree of trial and error and fine-tuning is normally necessary. If, after adjusting the highlights and shadows, overall contrast still requires tweaking, it can be altered by using the mid-tone contrast slider.


Using the Burn tool can also darken highlights. I adopt this method only very rarely but it can, occasionally, be useful. As usual, a delicate touch is required. I prefer to use a low exposure setting, normally between 3-5%. The size of the brush depends on the extent of the area being adjusted; unless it is fairly large I use a radius of between 30-50 pixels with a hardness setting of between 10% and 30%. Because the tool is set at a low strength the darkening effect occurs very gradually and several applications of the brush might be necessary before the required tone is achieved. This might take some time but itbetter to do it gradually and continually assess the effect as you go. Shadows can also be lightened in a similar way by using the Dodge tool.

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