Wildlife Photography

Backlight and Bokeh in Wildlife Photography

Mastering backlight and bokeh in wildlife photography can be challenging, but learning to use light can take your images to the next level. A backlit image can be dramatic and beautiful, and those annoying circles of light can be astonishing!
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Understanding Backlight and Bokeh

Words & Images by Diana Andersen

When you start your journey with wildlife photography, light often seems to be your enemy rather than your friend. Shooting a subject can be plagued by harsh daytime shadows, blown highlights in fur and plumage, and dull images in overcast conditions. In addition, and often the most challenging, is light coming from behind your subject. To add to your frustration, in certain circumstances, you also get big round or hexagonal objects, sometimes white, in the middle of your image! How annoying!

Getting a great photograph can seem out of reach. However, as you begin to understand it, you realise that light is the key to taking your wildlife photography to the next level. Learning to use it to your advantage can differentiate between ordinary and extraordinary. A backlit image can be dramatic and beautiful, and those annoying circles of light can be astonishing!

Cattle Egret image featuring backlight and bokeh.

A backlit image can be dramatic and beautiful.

Features of Backlight and Bokeh in Images

Some photographers say every photograph is better with backlight, but I can’t entirely agree. Many factors contribute to a successful backlit image. These include the time of day, the angle of the light, and the subject. In addition, your camera’s dynamic range and the lens you are using also affect your image. Any of these aspects can influence the success or failure of a photograph.

Similarly, not all bokeh is pleasing! The term comes from the Japanese word ‘boke’, meaning ‘haze’ or ‘blur’, referring to the blurred effect resulting from a wide-open aperture. It is not a feature that is exclusive to backlight. Instead, bokeh can be part of any image, and some lenses render more appealing bokeh than others.

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DIANA ANDERSEN
Diana Andersen is a professional photographer with a Bachelor of Arts in Design. Major Australian galleries and collections hold her award-winning work. After years as a practising designer and a lecturer in design, Diana turned her attention to her other passion, animals, and became a zookeeper working in conservation. A published author, Diana initially used photography to illustrate her books, but it has since become a passion. Diana founded Animalinfo Publications in 2007.
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Understanding Bokeh

To fully understand bokeh, there needs to be some clarification about what it means in different situations. A smooth bokeh, or background blur, helps isolate your subject from distractions behind it. Bokeh can be a feature in any image, regardless of the direction of the light in the photo. Lenses capable of wide apertures, such as f/2.8 or larger, create the best bokeh. However, prime telephoto lenses capable of f/4 can also produce beautiful creamy bokeh. Likewise, increasing the distance between the subject and the background can create beautiful smooth bokeh even when using a smaller aperture like f/8.

Smooth bokeh helps to isolate your subject.

A smooth bokeh, or background blur, helps isolate your subject from distractions behind it.

By utilising distance between your subject and background you can get smooth bokeh backgrounds at higher apertures like f/8.

By utilising distance between your subject and background you can get smooth bokeh backgrounds at higher apertures like f/8.

On the other hand, bokeh objects are how the lens renders points of light in the background or foreground that are out of focus. Again, these can appear regardless of where your light is coming from. They vary from straight-sided hexagons to smooth circles, depending on the shape of the aperture blades in the lens used to take the image. Lenses with more rounded aperture blades create circular bokeh, which tends to be more visually appealing.
Bokeh shapes result from how your lens renders points of light in the background and foreground.

Bokeh objects are how the lens renders points of light in the background or foreground that are out of focus.

Rather than adding to an image, bokeh circles can overwhelm a subject, particularly the brighter ones. This effect can draw attention away from your subject more than enhance it. Therefore, to be successful, we need to see bokeh circles in our viewfinder and treat them like any other visual component in our composition. Bokeh circles are also affected by focal length and aperture, with more pronounced ones resulting from choosing a higher aperture like f/8. In addition, the size of the bokeh shapes increases in the foreground and background with longer focal lengths. This effect is due to the magnification created by long focal lengths.

We need to see bokeh circles and treat them like any other visual component in our composition.

We need to see bokeh circles in our viewfinder as a visual component in our composition.

The size of the bokeh shapes increases in the foreground and background with longer focal lengths

The size of the bokeh shapes increases in the foreground and background with longer focal lengths.

What creates bokeh circles?

It is essential to understand that for bokeh shapes or circles to appear in your image, light needs to reflect off something in the photo.

Things like water droplets, light bouncing off ripples and waves created by a breeze can all produce an appealing bokeh effect.

Even glossy leaves behind a subject, or reflective objects floating on the water’s surface, will render a circular object in your image.

Bokeh shapes in wildlife photography result from reflected light.

Even glossy leaves behind a subject can render as bokeh circles.

Position and Backlight

Choosing the correct settings to create a compelling image often relies on recognising the quality and direction of light and how it falls on our subjects. In addition, in backlit situations, the position of your lens also has more impact than in other shooting situations. By definition, a backlit image has a light source behind the subject. In wildlife photography, this often means that your animal is against the sunrise or sunset, as the first and last hour of the day results in the most successful backlit photographs.

As the sun climbs, it creates more shadows, and the light temperature gets cooler. The resulting images are harsh and much less appealing. In the early morning and late afternoon, often called the golden hour, the light from behind has a lower angle and a much warmer temperature. However, this is only a suggestion and by no means a hard and fast rule. You can tackle more challenging light at other times of the day if you creatively capture a scene.

Darter against backlight and bokeh circles.

You can tackle more challenging white light at other times of the day if you creatively capture a scene.

Shooting into the sunset or sunrise creates its own set of problems. Being at a low angle means light floods your lens, creating flare and haze, and the resulting images can lack any contrast. While some creative use of lens flare and some work in post-processing can help your photos, you are often fighting an uphill battle. Prime lenses and camera bodies with a better dynamic range cope better in intense light.

Also, long hoods on large prime lenses help prevent light from leaking into your images. However, the solution may often involve choosing your position to avoid shooting straight into the light. Moving your shooting angle to the side will significantly increase the contrast in your pictures. You can also look for objects in the background that can help block the full impact of the rising or setting sun.

Silhouettes

There are also different types of backlit images. Silhouettes are all about shape, colour, and dramatic contrast. The bird or animal should be recognisable without needing detail on the animal itself, so your light source must create a bright background around your subject. In doing so, when you select your exposure settings for the light areas behind, your animal is silhouetted against the light. For competition purposes, judges can penalise a silhouette showing some detail in the subject, so it is best to aim for solid deep dark shadows. As you rely entirely on a shape to identify your animal in a silhouette, you must consider the best angle to capture your subject.

Many judges like to see the entire body shape with light between the legs. In addition, it is worth noting that you can create a silhouette image without the light coming from behind. Often the sun can light up the background without falling directly on your subject. By exposing for the bright background, the animal in the foreground will be dark, resulting in a silhouette.

For competition purposes, it is best to aim for solid deep dark shadows in a silhouette.

For competition purposes, it is best to aim for solid deep dark shadows in a silhouette.

Often the sun can light up the background without falling directly on your subject creating a silhouette.

Often the sun can light up the background without falling directly on your subject creating a silhouette.

Rim Lighting

Rim lighting is another striking form of backlight photography that relies on a light source behind the animal. It also works best if the subject has a textural aspect to its shape that catches the light, like fur, or a translucent element that allows light through, like feathers. Rim lighting enhances the shape of the subjects, which can be partially or entirely silhouetted but are not always.

When you capture rim light on animals with detail in their form, avoiding excessively blown highlights can be a struggle. It can be a juggling act to retain detail on your subject without losing too much detail in the bright areas of your image.

Enabling the highlight alert function in your camera’s menu will help you manage the highlights. This function will cause blown highlights to blink when you review the image after you take it. Referring to your histogram is also helpful.

Often the image works best against a dark background which usually means that the light source is striking the subject at an angle that avoids hitting the backdrop. In that case, avoiding blown highlights is easier as you can use exposure compensation to underexpose your image until you get detail in your rim light or at least reduce the impact of your white rim lighting depending on how much detail you wish to capture in your subject.

Ultimately, the creative choice is yours when capturing rim light. You can capture detail in your subject or progressively underexpose until only the rim light is visible.

Capturing rim light is another striking form of photography utilising backlight.

Capturing rim light is another striking form of photography utilising backlight.

Rim light on a Kookaburra underexposed by one stop.

Underexposed by 1 stop.

Rim light on a Kookaburra underexposed by two stops.

Underexposed by 2 stops.

Rim light on a Kookaburra underexposed by three stops.

Underexposed by 3 stops.

Getting the Correct Exposure for Backlight and Bokeh

Backlight and bokeh can combine to create unique and striking images that don’t rely on an exotic or beautiful animal to make the photograph work. However, the settings can be challenging, often requiring a little experimentation to master.

Metering

Your choice of metering mode will vary depending on what type of backlit image you are trying to achieve. For example, evaluative metering can be very effective for silhouettes as it will consider the bright background. Even so, you may need to underexpose manually or apply negative exposure compensation to deepen the shadows in your subject.

On the other hand, as rim lighting often relies on having a dark subject against a dark background, you may require much greater exposure compensation. Evaluative metering or spot metering will brighten your image considerably in anything other than full manual mode. Therefore, negative exposure compensation, often up to three stops, is required to get some detail in the highlighted rim areas. My choice for wildlife is usually Auto ISO combined with negative exposure compensation. However, this may not be enough with an extremely bright backlight, so you will need to shoot in full manual to get the required exposure.

For rim light on subjects without a dark background, evaluative metering will be your best choice. However, in that case, some exposure compensation may be required to manage your highlights and avoid the lightest areas blowing out too much. In addition, bright white bokeh circles can require negative exposure compensation to avoid losing all detail.

Backlight and bokeh can combine to create unique and striking images that don't rely on an exotic or beautiful animal to make the photograph work.

Backlight and bokeh can combine to create unique and striking images that don’t rely on an exotic or beautiful animal to make the photograph work.

Aperture

As previously mentioned, a wide-open aperture produces the best smooth bokeh. However, suppose you are trying to get some definition in your bokeh objects. In that case, you may need to utilise a higher aperture to avoid the bokeh circles being so soft that they blend in with the blur or the background.

It is easy to get carried away with the moment when shooting wildlife. However, mastering backlight and capturing bokeh requires some forethought. Take a moment to consider your position in relation to the light and your subject. Identify if the background will create bokeh shapes or rim light or whether shooting a silhouette is your best option. If you take too long to make these choices, you might find that your animal has left, so choosing your aperture and other settings must become second nature.

It can be helpful to practice with a non-living subject like a tree branch or even a stuffed animal so that you can do a series of test shoots that help you judge when to increase your aperture to create more defined bokeh shapes versus a smooth blur. In addition, it enables you to train yourself to see bokeh as part of your composition so you can adjust your aperture accordingly.

Focusing and Shutter Speeds

Shooting backlight and bokeh is no different than any other situation involving wildlife, so the possibility of sudden movement means a high shutter speed and continuous focus are desirable (AF Servo, AF-C and similar variations).

While not always the case, one benefit of shooting into the light and often using negative exposure compensation when required is the opportunity to shoot at low ISO and fast shutter speeds.

Rim light and smooth bokeh helps to isolate your subject.

Identify if the background will create bokeh shapes or rim light or whether shooting a silhouette is your best option.

Creative Backlight and Bokeh Wildlife Images

Creative imagery featuring backlight, bokeh and combinations of the two can be challenging to master. It requires understanding your camera equipment and the light in the scene you are capturing, not to mention being lucky to find a subject in the right place at the right time.

In addition, as a wildlife photographer, responding quickly to changing light situations and knowing what you want to capture and how comes with practice. So before looking for exotic locations and subjects, develop your skills locally on easily accessible species, and you will eventually be able to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary!

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