Make your photos pop with these backlighting tricks used by the pros.
Standard "10-and-2" lighting can achieve extraordinary images, but more often leaves them looking flat, shadowless and, well, standard. You can enhance your portfolio by adding backlighting skills to your shooting repertoire.
Backlighting broadly refers to the illumination of a subject — in part or in whole — from behind. While this might seem straightforward, the variation of a light source’s distance and direction relative to the subject yields very different results.
When shooting macro backlighting, the most commonly used light sources are hard-wired strobes and torches, held in position with extra-long strobe arms or by a cooperative buddy. The sun or bright sky are more suitable for wide-angle images. For ultimate flexibility, use optically triggered remote strobes mounted on small tripods to enable precise positioning.
Obscuring a strobe directly behind a subject and pointing it back toward the camera lens can create an internal-glow effect if the subject is translucent enough. This technique can also accentuate the outline of the subject and illuminate particles in the water, giving the illusion of radiating energy. The required strobe power and the strobe-to-subject distance depend on factors including water clarity, subject translucence, subject size, desired effect and lens choice — so take advantage of instant feedback on your LCD screen and zero in on the best settings.
Try pivoting the strobe around the subject 30 to 45 degrees to cast a highlight along the edge profile of the subject closest to it. Since the strobe will not be hidden from the lens, use a snoot to control stray light and minimize the chance of lens flare. Referred to as “rim lighting,” this technique can be used as either a primary or secondary lighting element in an image.
Positioning the strobe behind the subject but directed at the background of a scene creates unique silhouettes, but this is effective only in macro photography. Focus on the subject, intentionally overexpose the background, and avoid direct frontal lighting to maximize the contrast between background and foreground.
Choose the Right Subject. Not all subjects were created equal. When backlighting for the first time, you’ll find that thin, stationary subjects are much easier to backlight than thick, mobile ones. Sea fans, soft corals and crinoids are usually easy to find and are perfect for experimenting with both macro and wide-angle lenses.
Minimize Ambient Light. The presence of too much sunlight can diminish the impact of strobe backlighting. To counter this, and intensify the backlighting effects, minimize ambient light by using a combination of a high shutter speed, narrow aperture and low ISO. A snoot can help prevent stray strobe light from hitting unwanted areas.
Use Remote Strobes. Mounting optically triggered remote strobes on small tripods will enable precise and consistent strobe positioning; moving the camera independently will give you ultimate flexibility for creative compositions. Be mindful that the light from your master strobe does not inadvertently overpower the effects of the remote strobes.
Backlighting Best Practices
Equipment: Add extra arm segments to one of your strobes to make it long enough to reach behind a subject. Or set up a strobe on a tripod with a remote slave sensor.
Subject: Avoid choosing subjects that would require putting the backlighting strobe in a position that endangers any marine life. Thin, slow-moving subjects that have interesting textures and shapes are ideal.
Style: Visualize how each different backlighting style will accentuate the subject’s features. If you already have some “normal” shots of the subject you intend to backlight, then this step can even be done on land.
Settings: Dial in your shutter speed and f-stop to create the desired ambient light and depth of field first. Then, manually set your backlighting strobe’s power (TTL won’t work) and position it. Review the image and adjust to taste.
Even at the age of 28, Keri Wilk already has 18 years of experience in underwater photography. He co-owns and develops products for ReefNet, and has been a regular contributor to divephotoguide.com since 2009. His work has appeared in magazines, journals, field guides and books, earning more than 100 awards in international underwater photography competitions To see more of his work, visit keriwilk.com.