When the light is directly in front of you, lighting your subject from behind, it is called “backlight”. This is my favourite type of light because I am drawn to the deep contrast between the highlights and shadows. Backlight can create dramatic silhouettes and can also catch particles in the air creating beautiful rays of light.
If your subject is translucent, like flowers, leaves, or waterfalls, the light will shine through it making it appear to have an inner glow and emphasize its colour. This is especially effective if you have a dark background.
Backlighting can also be used to create silhouettes when a dark object is placed in front of a light background. Look for well defined shapes and lines against a sunset sky. Keep the design simple for the greatest effect.
There are two difficulties a photographer encounters with backlight: getting the correct exposure and dealing with lens flare.
When the scene contains a great contrast between the light and the shadows your camera will be unable to expose for both. You have to decide whether the light or the shadows are most important. If your subject is primarily in the light expose for the light and let the shadows go black to create a silhouette. If the subject is primarily in the shade, expose for the shade to retain details and let the highlights go white.
Selecting proper exposure is easier if you decide what is most important in the scene and then use the spot meter to meter on that subject rather than using evaluative metering which has difficulty in a high contrast scene.
For example, in this architecture shot I wanted to retain detail in the shadows so I metered on the shadow and let the highlights go quite bright without completely blowing out.
Use the exposure lock button on your camera to meter on the right area of the scene and lock in the exposure. Then you can recompose and focus normally by holding the shutter half way down without changing the exposure settings.
Photographing directly into the sun can create lens flare, which is bright spots of light or a generally washed out look. Using a lens hood greatly reduces the likelihood of the sun’s rays hitting your lens, but if it does, and the sun is outside the frame, just hold up your hand or your hat to shade your lens.
If the sun is in the frame, try to position yourself so the sun is behind an object like a tree or building.
Lens flare is not always a bad thing and can be used creatively. If you want the sun in the photo, position yourself so it is just peeking out from behind an object and use a small aperture, like f/20, to create a starburst effect.
Don’t forget to check your histogram to see how much of your photo will be in complete darkness and how much will be completely white. As long as these proportions are not too great your photo will have a dramatic high contrast look.
See my earlier post for more types of natural light that will drama to your photography.