Looking up at sunlight filtering through trees
Lens-Artists,  Photographic techniques,  Themed galleries

Gallery: backlighting to add drama and atmosphere

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

George Eastman

Yes, lighting is everything in photography. It can make an ordinary subject look intriguing, while the lack of it can make an interesting one look dull.

Light that falls on your subject from the front will make it look flat and two dimensional. Side lighting is more interesting, creating shadows and bringing out textures. The last option is backlighting, something that the most basic photography manuals may tell you to avoid. Don’t shoot into the sun, they say. Rubbish, backlighting can be beautiful and dramatic, if done with care and on the right subjects.

It creates silhouettes and emphasises transparency and translucence, whether a richly coloured stained window or the delicate petal of a flower. It can form halos or bokeh patterns around your subject. And can you imagine a sunrise or sunset without backlighting? Of course not!

For Ann-Christine’s Lens-Artists challenge this week I’ve searched out some examples that I think illustrate this technique. Most are from my archives while a couple are from our recent trip to Tirana. I’ve tried to avoid sunsets and silhouettes, as I’ve shared so many in the past. Please click on any photo to open a slideshow of each gallery, with captions.


I love to photograph flowers with the sun behind them, the backlighting bringing out the detail of veins in the petals. Trees and leaves look great like this too, and even mosses.

Photographing the tracks through Bardia National Park in Nepal, beautifully backlit in the early morning sunshine, kept me occupied while waiting for the elusive tigers to (not) appear. Terri has asked to see paths and roads for this week’s Sunday Stills; I hope these tracks, being somewhere between a path and a road, will fit the bill. My feature photo was also taken here, but looking up at the trees.


Backlighting works well for fountains. You can really show off the sparkling water as the sun shines through it. The same is true of naturally occurring ‘fountain’s’, such as those produced by the elephants enjoying their bath time below. Backlighting also creates beautifully glinting water as a backdrop to silhouettes.


Light streaming through a stained-glass window is an obvious winner when it comes to backlighting, but any coloured glass can be effective, as can clear glass holding a coloured liquid. Anyone for a beer?!


Shooting into the sun can make it harder to pick out the details of any structure but the silhouette effect emphasises the form of a building. It can also add drama, as in the shot of Pyongyang’s Juche Tower below.

I’ll finish with three very different images that didn’t fit any of my chosen categories but which I couldn’t resist including, even though two, I think, have been shared before!

Bike leaning against a tree in strong sunlight
Bike parked in the Place Saint Sulpice, Paris
Large dramatic rock with sun behind
The Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
Bare trees against a sunset sky
Walpole Park in winter, Ealing


Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!