Backlit portrait of parade participants

The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting

Contrast in a photograph is a pain! Well, it’s good up to a point—until it isn’t. Even modern cameras can only handle so much contrast until either shadows block up or bright areas blow out, or clip. Images with high contrast appear harsh, uninviting. It’s generally not a pleasant look and if you are trying to create a complimentary portrait, it’s a disaster.

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey

There is a simple solution, however, and it doesn’t require diffusion panels, reflectors or piles of photographic lighting equipment.

Simply move your camera position until the primary light source, usually the sun, is behind your subject. Simple. Why is this so effective? With your subject backlit, you will be photographing the shadow side of everything in your frame, whether it’s a person, a building or a tree, and the shadow side of everything will generally be the exact same exposure.

This lighting pattern solves a lot of contrast problems and produces some stunning effects.

First, of course, most everything in the frame is lit at the same level, whether it is two feet from the camera or two miles from the camera. Meter reading can be tricky, but if your main subject is properly exposed, so is everything else.

Backlit Portrait of Yoga Instructor

Backlit portrait of a woman practicing yoga on a grassy hillside

Second, many subjects will have a beautiful, warm rim light, separating them from the background. This is especially important when the background is busy.

Backlit sailboats racing

Backlit sailboats racing in San Francisco Bay

Third, increased color saturation. Light passing through translucent wildflower petals or sailboat spinnakers produces brighter colors than light reflecting off those same subjects.

And lastly, when your model is facing away from the direct rays of the sun, they are much less apt to be squinting into the lens. Getting strong light off a person’s face makes it much easier to achieve those comfortable, revealing expressions we all strive for. The poor photographer will be looking into the sun and squinting furiously, but who cares? It’s worth the benefits. Right?

Next week we’ll cover some of the issues involved in shooting with backlighting.

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

Aerial Photo of Chinese food

Capture Stunning Aerial Photos Of Your Lunch

Have you ever looked at high-angle, or aerial views, of food and thought that would be a fun way to photograph meals during your next vacation? Or a holiday is coming up and you have always wanted to immortalize the amazing spread of delicious dishes before it all becomes leftovers and dirty dishes?

With a window and at least one chair, you can replicate the style of those beautiful, high viewpoint images that you sometimes see on Facebook and Instagram feeds or Pinterest boards.

They aren’t as hard as they look, but on the other hand, they aren’t as easy either. The first step is to pick a table near a window with diffused sunlight coming in. If there is direct sunlight streaming through the window, the lighting will be too harsh for anything to look good. The diffused light of indirect sunlight creates large highlights that make food look much more appetizing and lowers the contrast of the scene.

Aerial camera setup to photograph food

Aerial camera setup prepared to photograph Chinese food

The next step is to find a chair sturdy enough to stand on. A bench seat is even better, if there is one next to your table, and a small stepladder from the kitchen is best of all, if you have the nerve to ask for one. One way or another, your camera needs to be directly above the table.

I usually use a tripod for support, placing the legs on the table and adjacent chairs. It’s more trouble than hand holding your camera, but I don’t have to raise my camera’s ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to steady both my camera and myself while balancing on a chair.

The fun step is arranging the various dishes on the table that you want to include in your photograph. Roughly center the largest dish, the main dish or the most exotic dish and then add the peripheral dishes to fill the frame. Don’t forget to add a drink or two, sauces, tableware—anything that supports the ethnicity of the cuisine and indicates that a group of friends are sitting down to a great meal.

Aerial photo of cheese fondue

Aerial photograph of friends sharing a cheese fondue

Although not always necessary, I usually bounce light back into my still life with a reflector opposite the window. It controls contrast and produces more highlights, making the food look more tasty. Have someone hold a white menu for this if you don’t have a reflector handy. And don’t hesitate to have a friend reach in to try one of the dishes. A hand gives scale to the photo and makes it a little less sterile.

If your friends haven’t already started grazing on your still life, shoot quickly before everything cools down. Holding back fellow diners is often the hardest part of the job. If you are successful in controlling the mob, or maybe just your spouse, frame the image rather loosely and do your final cropping in post-production without the pressure of hungry friends or relatives.

These aerial photographs of food have an unexpected viewpoint that is very graphic and can be used to illustrate a range of dishes from a particular culture all in one image. Give it a try on your next trip and try not to fall off the chair. It makes a real mess of the food. Just saying.

architecture photograph of cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

3 Steps To Creating Monumental Architecture Photography

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes “monumental” as “serving as or resembling a monument, massive, highly significant, outstanding”.

Often, during travel assignments, I have been called on to photograph iconic building and structures that define a particular area. They are not always large, but they are always important in that they often denote the culture of that area. Because of their importance I always try to make these buildings seem monumental in my photographs.

Photograph of Victorian architecture in Cape May, New Jersey

The Abbey Bed and Breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey

Although photography, at this point, is a two-dimensional medium, there are many ways to create a sense of volume in an image. My first step in photographing most buildings is to find an angle that covers two sides of the structure. Ideally one side is lit while the other is in shadow. This play of light against dark creates a very three dimensional effect, creating volume in this photograph of a bed and breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey.

architecture photograph of cathedral in Mexico

Gothic architecture of the main cathedral in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

My second step has often been planned out before I left on my assignment. I determine which direction the building is oriented using maps and Google Earth so that I know whether this location is a sunrise or sunset shot. The warm, directional light at either end of the day adds a beautiful glow to the cathedral in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Details are strongly enhanced and the location becomes much more welcoming.

Photograph of Taos Indian Pueblo architecture

Taos Indian Pueblo adobe architecture, Taos, New Mexico

In order to give the scene an even greater sense of depth, my third step is to find something interesting in the foreground that gives the viewer a greater sense of the location. A highly textured adobe oven in front of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico provides visual depth as well as highlighting the material from which the entire pueblo is constructed. The round shape also works well to balance the very square lines of the pueblo itself.

This approach will not work with all buildings, of course, but whenever possible, I try for the “monumental” look in order to pay homage to the areas history and culture.

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.

portrait of apple farmer

The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease

Have you ever found yourself putting on a long lens to photograph someone because you were too shy to approach them? Even if you brace up your courage and ask to photograph a stranger, how do you pose them? How do you put them at ease? How do you bring out their personality in an image? The answer is–it’s tough.

After years of photographing people on location for various magazines, I have found there are essentially 5 steps to the process of putting a model at ease in front of a camera.

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

Step 1: Discard the notion that you are the shooter and your subject is the target. Rather, start thinking about a portrait as a partnership or relationship between you and your subject. It’s a dialog. You only have thirty seconds or so to establish the necessary trust between the two of you. Show interest in what they do. Be respectful, but also curious. Get them talking about themselves and be a good listener. Get their focus off your lens and on to you.

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

Step 2: Have them hold something. People visibly relax in front of a camera if you give them something to do with their hands. There was a reason you asked to photograph this person. Give them a prop to hold that gives the viewer more info on what the person does or how they live.

portrait of a baker holding bread

portrait of a baker holding bread

Step 3: Ask how they would like to be photographed. I know, this is your photo, but don’t forget the partnership. Admittedly, sometimes their suggestions are not going to work well for your image, but sometimes the subject comes up with a brilliant idea. In any case, you will need to try all their suggestions just to maintain the trust you have established with them. This is a step many photographers skip, but the collaboration can sometimes produce a much stronger image.

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

Step 4: Compliment your model. Don’t go overboard on this and sound like a caricature of a fashion photographer. Just pick out something about them to compliment. Everyone likes a compliment. If they still seem a little stiff—harass them. I have found that kidding a subject about their mannerisms or attitude can loosen up some people much more effectively than a compliment. As a photographer, you need to “read” people quickly and be flexible in your approach.

portrait of restaurant hostess

portrait of restaurant hostess

Step 5: HAVE FUN! Before you start the shoot, work out the lighting, posing, depth of field and lens focal length in your head so you can concentrate on the relationship while shooting. If you worry about the technical stuff while you are shooting, the model will pick up on that tension. If both you and the model are having fun, it will show in the final images. As a bonus, I have walked away from shoots with strangers carrying all kinds of gifts, from cupcakes, bread, fresh eggs and chanterelle mushrooms to wine and even cookbooks. If it’s not fun, you are doing it all wrong.

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

Apply each of these steps to your next location portrait session and watch how your subject relaxes and develops the confidence to let their character peak out. It’s well worth the effort and you can finally move away from that nagging feeling that you are stealing someone’s portrait with a long lens ambush.

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.

The 2 Conditions That Create Beautiful Photographic Reflections

A great blue heron glided into my image, landing right where I would have placed it—if I had a trained blue heron. Better lucky than good! I was photographing a book on San Diego, working with reflections of the ornate Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in Balboa Park. Afternoon was not a particularly colorful time, but as the sun moved lower, the warm tones of the buildings were intensifying and I was photographing the saturated reflection of the architecture in the Reflection Pond. Almost at sunset, the surface of the Reflection Pond was shaded while the buildings caught the last rays of the sun. The golden reflection of an ornate Spanish Revival building was contrasting beautifully with the cool tones of the green lily pads and blue reflected sky, producing a unique image of Balboa Park.

Blue Heron in reflecting pool, Balboa Park, San Diego, California


If there is a trick to photographing dynamic reflections, it is making sure that the subject is well lit while the reflecting surface is shaded. Almost any shiny surface can be used to produce a colorful reflection, including store windows and car hoods. My favorite, however, remains water. For me, nothing else conveys the serenity of being on the ocean as does warm light relected off of fishing boats or a coastline at the beginning or end of the day. Even a choppy ocean surface can reflect well with a long enough exposure.

Cathedral Rocks, Red Rock Crossing , Red Rock State Park, Sedona, Arizona


Still water acts exactly like a mirror, to the point where some of my tight reflection images have been published upside down. I now add lilly pads or some reference object, if there is no background, to indicate which side is up. I will have to admit, however, some reflections are fscinating viewed upside down and in either case, a reflection provides a unique view of the world and a great change of pace for a photographer.

Capture Easy Color For Powerful Photographic Images

fruit is sold in the mercado in Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico

A student recently asked me how I consistently produce images with so much color. I have been working as a professional photographer for over twenty-five years and do many things automatically. I had to think about the question for a few minutes before I could explain it properly.

The short answer, of course, is that I look for color everywhere I travel.
For me, color is an integral part of the travel experience. A vendor’s stall of colorful fruit in a Mexican mercado at sunrise or the rainbow hues of Native American regalia at a powwow draw me like a magnet.  Throw in an occasional sunset and you have the photographer’s “easy” color.

Most travel photographers look for the right light, rather than just colorful subjects. Color tends to be emphasized in certain situations and we capitalize on that. The first and last hour of the day is definitely the most popular time to shoot for many professionals, from nature and travel shooters to architectural photographers. That warm light streaming through your image sets a mood that is hard to beat.

Sienna, Italy

I was standing there, panting, at the top of a bell tower in Sienna, Italy. I had dragged my gear up what seemed like, at least, a thousand stairs, but I knew the image I was about to make would be worth the effort. The sun was on the verge of setting and delicate pink light was sweeping across the ochre-colored town below me, long shadows giving the buildings volume. I merely had to crop tightly with my 80-200 mm zoom lens to capture the intricate mosaic of a beautifully lit Italian hill town.

This opportunity was not an accident or plain old good luck. I had planned this image before I had even left home. I try to plan my shooting schedule so that, for each location, I have at least one main subject to cover each sunrise and sunset. My research even tells me what direction each main building faces, so I know what time of day will give me the best results.

Creating images during the “Magic Hours” of sunrise and sunset can certainly give a photographer great color, but rather than capturing just another sunrise/sunset, use that warm light to create atmosphere as it washes over a new location or subject. Break the “sunset habit” and turn your back on the sun. You may find the color just as saturated and the subjects considerably more interesting.