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Light has three directions in relationship to the camera. The way light falls on your subject determines how you will set your exposure. Front-lit subjects are easy to expose. With no contrast or shadows to deal with, the exposure is well within the range the sensor can handle, so I simply compose and click. Backlight is the opposite of front light, with the light coming from behind the subject and casting it into silhouette. Sidelight adds drama, texture, and shape to your images.

Front Light

Front light lacks shadows. Consequently, it lacks the texture, shape, or dimension of sidelight or backlight. It is, however, a very easy exposure to make. Simply meter your scene and choose the best exposure combination to suit your subject. With a simple click, you have a nice image. Using a fisheye to photograph Emerald Pool in Yellowstone National Park with front light reveals a glimpse into the depth of the pool (Figure 4.11). The lack of shadows reveals the detail in the feathers of a tricolored heron pausing to preen (Figure 4.12). Selecting a wide aperture renders the heron in sharp focus and softens the background, making the subject pop.

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 Cold air and morning light were key elements in setting the mood for a dramatic image of Emerald Pool.

ISO 100 • 1/500 sec. • f/8 • 16mm

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 Front light on the preening Tricolored Heron shows the details in its feathers.

ISO 100 • 1/1000 sec. •f/4 • 600mm


Backlighting (shooting toward the light source) turns your subject into a silhouette. Images that have an interesting shape and form make great subjects when photographing into the sun. The mood of a backlit scene varies depending on how I handle the exposure. Because my camera can’t handle the exposure range between shadow and light in a backlit scene, I use the shadows to accentuate the shape of a familiar landmark, the Mittens in Arizona’s Monument Valley. By positioning myself so the sun was partially blocked by the formation and closing down my aperture to its smallest setting of f/22, I was able to add a creative starburst to the pinpoint of sunlight (Figure 4.13). With the knowledge that I would get a starburst effect from shooting into the sun with a small aperture, I took creative license with my fisheye lens to capture a person for scale (more on scale in Chapter 6), backlit against the North Window in Arches National Park. The scatter of light added creative lens flare (which normally is something I try to avoid) (Figure 4.14).

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 The rising sun backlights the Mittens in Monument Valley, Arizona.

ISO 100 • 1/10 sec. • f/22 • 24mm

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14 Shooting directly into the light often produces flare. Although I try to avoid it when possible, I carefully positioned myself to enhance the flare as a creative element.


Sidelight occurs when you are positioned at a right angle to the light source, working the shadows to define shape, form, and texture. The contrast of shadow and light adds a three-dimensional feeling to a two-dimensional image. The simplicity and lack of color in the image of a lighthouse window made for a very high-contrast, graphic look (Figure 4.15).

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15 Sidelight adds shape, form, and texture to the lighthouse window.

ISO 100 • 1/2000 sec. • f/5.6 • 200mm

Using sidelight for dramatic effect, I turned my lens on an alligator as it lifted its head out of the water. With only a moment to capture this image before the alligator dropped back into the depths of the lake, I had to act quickly. Knowing how my camera would react to the light, I was able to make a split-second exposure decision and capture the fleeting moment. The water acted as a reflector, bouncing light up into the alligator’s face (Figure 4.16). The exposure range was too great to capture detail in the shadows, emphasizing the alligator’s teeth and eye, which is where I want the viewer’s eye to travel within the frame. Just as your lens selection determines what you include (as much as what you exclude) in your frame, the use of shadow and light can further enhance this effect. By excluding part of the alligator’s face in shadow, the sense of drama and mystery is increased.

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 Water acts as a natural reflector, bouncing light up into the alligator’s face.

ISO 100 • 1/400 sec. •f/8 • 390mm

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