Backlit California poppies in bloom

The 2 Big Hurdles To Creating Amazing Backlit Photographs

In our last post, “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting”, we discussed how backlighting helps control contrast in a scene, creates beautiful rim lighting effects, enhances color of translucent subjects and helps models relax in front of the camera by eliminating the need to squint into the sun. In this post, we’ll go over some of the pitfalls of backlighting and how to work around them.

fisherman rim lit with backlighting

A fisherman on the beach is rim lit with backlighting

Camera metering is the first issue, and it can be a bit tricky. Placing the sun behind your subject can fool your camera into thinking there is more light on your main subject than there really is and causing it to underexpose. It’s all that light flooding around the sides of your subject. The trick is to either move closer to your foreground subject or zoom in so that no backlight shines on the front element of your lens. Fill the frame with your subject, blocking out direct sunlight, and take a meter reading. Move back to your original position, recompose and shoot using the same exposure. Your camera will probably be shouting at you that you are overexposing, but just ignore that. This technique guarantees that the shadow side of your subject is properly exposed.

Metering is much trickier when photographing backlit translucent subjects. In the case of wildflower petals, fall leaves or colorful sailboat spinnakers, you must override your meter and overexpose the subject. Don’t hesitate to open up, or overexpose, one to two stops to correct for the backlighting. It all depends on how translucent your subject is. Watch your histogram and push the highlights right to the edge of clipping.

desert flowers lit with backlighting

brittlebush flowers and cholla cactus are lit with backlighting

The second hurdle is to block direct sunlight from hitting the front element of your lens during exposure. Sun bouncing around inside your lens creates flair, a kind of fog that degrades contrast, color and detail in an image. It can also appear as spots of light, depending on the aperture setting for that exposure. Generally you want to avoid flair, but there are times when the effects of flair can be used to create a type of hazy atmosphere—a warm summer day kind of feel.

Lens flair adds atmosphere

Lens flair adds atmosphere at an afternoon Farmers Market

The easiest way to avoid flair is to place your subject directly in front of the light source. Blocking or diffusing the light reduces the intensity and cuts out flair. A subject can also be positioned so that the sun is in a quarter backlit position, either to the right or left behind your subject. In this case, the lens shade that comes with a lens will often do the job of blocking direct sunlight, keeping an image flair-free. When shooting landscapes with my camera mounted on a tripod, a hat or a gray card often does a great job of shading my lens.

One of my first lenses was an ancient Kodak Ektar, mounted on a 4×5 camera, that exploded with flair any time the sun was positioned even slightly in front of the camera. Modern lenses have coated elements that eliminate a lot of flair, but not that Ektar. It was a curse, but I quickly got expert at shading my lens during exposure. The beauty of backlit images quickly made up for the hassle of working with that lens.

Controlling contrast, adding golden rim light and increasing color saturation all guarantee that your backlit photographs will be the most dramatic images of the day. Give it a try, but watch that flair!

Cambria coast

Give Yourself A Photography Assignment

Early in my career I often found myself wandering around various towns, frustrated, looking for something to photograph. I came to realize that there are always lots of subjects to shoot in any location. All I really needed was a framework, or storyline, about the subject or location. I needed to have something to say before I picked up my camera. I needed an assignment!

Instead of wandering aimlessly, I began to give myself self-assignments, something I continue to do to this day. This forced me to see what was really important about a particular subject and work on creating images that illustrated my viewpoint. My photography quickly got better and I found I was enjoying photography even more.

What do you like to photograph? Do you like to explore small towns, wineries or farmers markets or photograph orchids, sailboats, historic sites or portraits of people? What’s your passion?

Town of Cambria

Quaint tourist destination Cambria, on California’s Central Coast.

Self-assigned photography assignments often fall into three main categories—locations, series and events. Locations can be anything from a National Park to a city or town. What is unique about that location? Is it the physical beauty, the culture, food and wine or maybe even the weather? What makes it interesting to you personally? I had a talented student go to Oaxaca in Mexico to photograph the brightly painted building in the Colonial Center of the city. When he returned, he showed me a beautiful portfolio of colorful buildings, but each had a brightly painted, jewel-toned VW Beatle in front of it. It seems Oaxaca has a tradition of restoring old VWs. He had taken a location assignment and turned it into a series, or collection, of Volkswagen portraits.

Southwest Indian Ruins

Selection of Indian Ruins in the American Southwest.

A series assignment can be anything, from a group of portraits of local chefs to a series on lighthouses, antique cars, California Missions—anything with multiple versions of the same subject. This often requires a greater commitment of time and a larger amount of research before beginning the shoots. This also forces you to create a variety of images while shooting similar subjects multiple times. As a bonus, you get to immerse yourself in the subject during a long-term photography project.

Summer Solstice Parade

Summer Solstice Parade characters in Santa Barbara, California

Event assignments usually require the shortest amount of time, but can be quite an intense experience and often physically demanding. Parades, celebrations, competitions—these can run from a few hours to a week or so. Again, doing some research in advance guarantees you will be in the right place at the right time to capture those powerful images that define an event.

Sit down now and list half a dozen projects that would be fun to photograph. Fill in each with shoot notes—subjects, locations, dates, special equipment—anything that will help you capture great images and expand your coverage. Then go do it!

Stop the aimless wandering looking for something to photograph. Give yourself the framework of an assignment and shoot what really defines the subject. The quality of your photography will improve dramatically and you will have fully developed photo essays to share with those around you. And please use the Reply Box below to share your favorite subjects with other photographers following this blog. Everyone needs ideas.Thanks.

Nurse log among Coast Redwood trees, Redwood National Park, California

Create A Sense Of Depth In Your Photographs Using Leading Lines

One of the age-old dilemmas of photography has always been the desire of photographers to create a three dimensional feel in their images using a two dimensional medium. A number of compositional techniques have evolved to create this sense of visual depth, with leading lines being one of my favorites.

aerial view of vineyard at sunrise, Santa Ynez Valley, California

aerial view of vineyard at sunrise, Santa Ynez Valley, California

Essentially, a photographer includes diagonal elements in an image that create visual lines leading back into the image. These lines can be objects, such as rows of grape vines in a vineyard or they can be composed of just light and shadow, which I used to focus the viewers attention on two racing sailboats on San Francisco Bay.

sailboat race, Big Boat Series, San Francisco, California

sailboat race, Big Boat Series, San Francisco, California

Almost anything can be used to create leading lines. even the simple tracks of a lawnmower leading to Opus One Winery in the Napa Valley.

Opus One Winery, Napa Valley, California

Opus One Winery, Napa Valley, California

Leading lines often have a destination. The curved walls at Pueblo Del Arroyo Ruins in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park in New Mexico draw you back to another part of the ruins. Just as often, however, they merely draw the viewer back into a scene, creating that sense of depth, as does a large log lying in a redwood grove in Redwood National Park in Northern California, seen at the top of this page.

Pueblo Del Arroyo Ruins, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park

Pueblo Del Arroyo Ruins, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico

Have you ever shot a landscape and felt it was a little flat, just two-dimensional? Sometimes a flat composition can be very graphic, but often it is just plain flat. Look for those objects or shadow patterns in the foreground that will give your audience that visual path that creates a sense of depth. After a while leading lines will become part of your compositional approach to creating imagery, eliminating those dull, flat photographs of the past.



stormy sunset over the Santa Barbara Channel

Just Wait For It: The Rewards Of Photography At Dusk

California’s rainy season is coming up soon. At least we hope it is. During the rains, building exteriors look dull and the sky is either gray or white. I usually head indoors in weather like this, photographing historic sites, museums or restaurants, but I always make sure I am in the right location for a shot of the city at dusk. Many times the skies stay gray and gloomy, but often enough the setting sun lights up the storm clouds, putting on a light show that is hard to beat.

Like most cities, San Diego looks beautiful dressed in city lights and a sunset sky. It had been raining off and on all day but I was hopefull I would get a break in the clouds at sunset. There is a great view of the city from a residetial neighborhood on the Point Loma Peninsula overlooking the harbor marinas and the distant city and mountains. I set up there with a 70-200mm zoom lens waiting for the magic to happen.

Sunset came and went and the clouds remained dull gray. I had given up and began to pack my gear when a soft pink glow in the clouds began to intensify. By the time I had my camera back on the tripod, the sky had flooded with color and the lights of the city were burning brightly. Below the horizon, the sun had found a break in the clouds and brightly colored light was bouncing along the bottoms of the storm clouds all the way back to San Diego. It was a great end to the day and I almost missed it. I now wait until thirty minutes after sunset to break down my gear, just in case.

stormy sunset, San Diego Bay, San Diego

stormy sunset, San Diego Bay, San Diego, California

A dusk shot is often a longer exposure than normal and you will need some way to steady your camera. A tripod is ideal, but you can also sit your camera on something flat and use the self-timer to fire it. If you have preset exposure modes, you probably have one for shooting cities at night.

About twenty minutes after sunset, the city light and ambient light of the sky and clouds balance each other. Use a cable release or remote release, or a self-timer, so you don’t introduce vibration by touching the camera. Make sure you have enabled Long Exposure Noise Reduction in your menu and make sure you have turned off Image Stabilization on your lens. Image
Stabilization fights with the stability of a tripod and gives you soft images at long exposure times.

San Diego is a beautiful city at any time of day, but it puts on the best show just as night falls. No matter what the weather, be ready to capture some of the most dramatic images of the day, after the sun goes down. Just wait for it.

Photograph Rainbows And Find A Pot Of Gold


I love it when a plan works out. I had been photographing petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park all day and towards evening, rain clouds began to build over the Tucson Mountains. Although hazy much of the day, it looked like rainbows might be a possibility right about sunset if the sun popped out under the building storm clouds. I found a good vantage point with my camera pointing directly away from the setting sun and sat down to wait. Times like this, you have to have confidence that the weather will deliver. Would the sun actually come out? Would a shower be in the right location to deliver a rainbow? Would I get sunset-tinted clouds along with a rainbow? If I had worked out the odds of all that happening, I probably would have just gone back to my camper for dinner, but sometimes luck really does favor the prepared and I got everything I wanted. It really did feel like a gift, the proverbial pot of gold.


Although rainbows are a fairly rare event, sometimes repeating weather patterns makes it possible to anticipate their creation. Oddly enough, Santa Barbara, with its consistently clear skies, is one such location. During the winter, when we do have actual clouds, the sky tends to clear at the end of the day. Maybe it’s the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other controlling our westerly winds, but even on rainy days, the clouds tend to break at the end of the day. A shot of a double rainbow over the Santa Barbara County Courthouse was a result of this specific pattern.

Logan Temple and rainbow, Logan, Utah

Rainbows can occur any time during the day, of course, and the only trick to photographing one is making sure your own shadow does not appear in the image. Photographing the Mormon Temple in Logan, Utah, for a book by the Smithsonian, required me to sit down to avoid having my shadow break up the beautiful pattern of a fence surrounding the property. I had not noticed it before, but the second rainbow of a double rainbow always reverses the order of the colors.

We are coming up on rainbow season in my part of the world and you can be sure I will be looking for subjects to frame with a bright band of color. Scope out your location, place the sun at your back and enjoy photographing one of these great gifts from the clouds.