Creating Deep, Rich & Impactful Back-lit Imagery – Keith Connelly

In the beginning of most of our photographic journey’s we strive for the best light from over our shoulders that illuminates our subjects in late afternoon golden loveliness. Which it must be said is truly wonderful and makes great images of course.


But…the moment I spun that first & last 10 minutes of glorious light on it’s head and had it over my subject shoulder, my photographic journey changed forever!

What is not to love about deep rich reds and oranges dancing across a dusty scene creating moody and wonderful wildlife images.


When it comes to creating these wonderfully colourful frames there is a fair amount of nuance involved so lets begin with unpacking some of those helpful tricks…

1.) Positioning & Timing
While I am out and about shooting in this wonderful back-lit light I am often amazed by photographers and their lack of positioning especially when these wonderful back-lit opportunities present themselves. Firstly we need to rid ourselves of the fear of positioning the sun behind our subjects, it really is glorious…go on give it a go.

The ideal position for these type of shots is to position the sun just off to the left or the right of the subject and not in a direct line with the camera. The more direct the light is into the lens the greater the unappealing lens flare will be.


The further you move to the side of the light source the less deep and rich the colour and back-lit effects such as rim light become, so the idea is to get as close to a straight alignment as you can without being to straight as to effect to much lens flare.

Of course timing is ultimately critical in creating these images…there is at best 10 mins. of this sort of light available in the mornings and afternoons and it is of course better in winter than in summer. Another aspect to timing is using the dust created by vehicles to enhance the scene, especially when there are a number of vehicles rushing back to camp in a national park, Find a group of subjects and wait for a few cars to drive past in that precious 10 mins. and presto…you got some dramatic shots!


2. Focusing
Very often just the thought of very bright back-lit scenes will send your lens and camera body into a mid state of hysteria which will send it searching for something to focus on, leaving with that very unwanted ZZZZZZZZ of the lens as it tries to figure out what the hell is going on. Often the best plan is to use a smaller focus point selection of just a single point or a cross hair selection if possible and then seeking out the area of highest contrast and focus locking on that. Often the areas of the edges of the subject that are rim lit are great areas for locking focus.



3. White Balance
One of my bigger photographic epiphanies was the exploration of white balance settings. The use of Auto White Balance is of course very common and with our modern sensors, most produce a very accurate white balance for the scene in front of us. However if we wish to create more depth and interest in a back-lit image we have at our disposal up 12k Kelvin to play with. Now you may say well I could just adjust the white balance in post with the same results, I’ll challenge you to compare your results with a in camera temperature selection and then match it on the same image with the same temp in post…you will see my point, the in camera colour is far better. Starting off you can play with your in camera preset like Shade, Sunshine ect and then where the real joy lies… selecting specific temps on a manual basis.


4. Diffusion
Using artifact in a scene such as tree’s, clouds or foliage can really add a fantastic dimension to back-lit images. It can also aid in gaining more detail in the exposure of your actual subject as it allows you to increase your exposure and brighten the scene leading to a very pleasing result.


While assessing a scene and figuring out where best to position yourself for such shots, have a look and the surrounding vegetation, cloud cover etc. and see if you can diffuse the Sun with one of these options.


5. Forward Thinking & Luck
” A bird in hand is better than two in the bush” is very applicable to wildlife photography. Often when I am in the field with clients I try and find suitable subjects earlier on in the afternoon and try and stay with them until the magic happens (Often I move with the subject trying think about where it will move and what the light will do in the scene). This is of course fairly easy with cats like Lions as they generally will be resting up in the heat of the day and may be active for some late afternoon back lighting.


Of course luck plays a crucial role in the mornings, but one of the great things about back lighting is that just about anything looks good in it…so even if you don’t have one of the iconic species available an Antelope or otherwise will work wonderfully.




Happy Shooting…