19 May 2008

Front or backlight?

I'm always reminding my students about the different properties of the direction of light and how important it is to understand what's going on. Frontlight (light behind the camera and front-on to the subject), I tell them, takes always the shadows and can make the subject look flat and two-dimensional. However, I am quick to point out, frontlight does have a trick up its sleeve: there may be colour hiding in the shadows, and by removing them by using front light you will of course see more colour. So a colourful subject often looks even more colourful when lit by frontlight.
Well, as always, there are exceptions to the rule, and photographing flowers and leaves is one of them. Depending on the thickness and translucence of the flower or leaf the thinner and more translucent the better - you can often increase the intensity of its colour by placing the light behind the subject and letting it shine through the leaf.
The photograph above is a good example. This is a very simple picture which relies on its colour for its visual appeal. The sunlight is almost directly behind the leaf and is shining through it; and so illuminating the green like a projector lamp.
In this case, the backlight has shown up the veins of inside the leaf and brought more detail and interest. Frontlight would have shown the colour of the surface of the leaf, but none of the depth of colour and shapes inside it.
Give this technique a try next time you are photographing flowers. Sometimes you can get the best of both worlds by having the light source behind the subject and using a reflector under or beside the lens to bounce some light back onto the surface of the flower.

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