Woodland and Back Light

Hi folks! I’m kind of a new member, but not really. I joined in October, but haven’t interacted much with the site until very recently. Still learning. So this is my first discussion question/topic. I cut the cable cord a few years ago and watch a lot of YouTube. One of my favorite photographers is Adam Gibbs. I just love how he creates those backlit woodland scenes, well, any scene actually. I’m sure many of you are also admirers of his.

So the other day I went out to the Everglades NP (recently re-opened May 4th) and it was rainy and overcast. So I thought I’d try shooting some back lit trees. It was about 3-4 hours before sunset, but every shot I took I blew out the highlights. (FYI I shoot with a new-to-me used Nikon D4, but also have a D7100 APS-C.)

So… what to do? I thought of a few solutions.

  1. Expose for the highlights and recover the shadows in post (the quality of which would depend on the dynamic range of the camera’s sensor, correct?)
  2. Shoot multiple exposures (1 for highlights, 1 for shadows) and blend in either Lr as HDR or Ps? (which would make easily wind-blown leaves difficult to blend); or
  3. Leave the highlights blown out (I’m just stretching to include a # 3 here)

Or is it the position of the sun or light source that makes a difference? Should I have:

  1. waited until later when the sun is lower on the horizon?
  2. photograph something that has a darker background (such as a mountain or thicker group of trees etc.)?

I’d like to hear what everyone has to say about this topic. I know this isn’t easy or everyone would be doing it. Haha

Thanks for bearing with my long post! :grin: Looking forward to hearing everyone’s ideas!

Hi @Barbara_Livieri

To me, it depends on the mood or feeling you want the image to “portrait”.

If you want to have all the scene exposed, and if the scene has more dynamic range than your camera blending is an option, of course you can “sacrifice” some of the highlights or shadows and try to get away with just a single shot. If your camera as enough dynamic range (when shooting the histogram can help you with that) you can try to recover some shadows (if you expose to the highlights) or highlights (if you expose to the shadows).

You can even try to wait for the sun to lower and reduce the dynamic range or even use a fill flash (not a lot of people use it, but it can be a option). Some of those images (from Adam I recall are taken on foggy days which (in general) also reduce the dynamic range.

Also you could want to get a different look on your image and creat a truly back light set of trees making the trees complete black against a colourful sunset for example. In this case you can expose for the back light and ignore that lack of light on the trees.

Or you can have the opposite situation, the trees correctly exposed and the back light over exposed creating a kind of high-key image with the over exposed areas being some kind of negative space.

The exposure on your camera is just a tool for you to create a image according to your will. Theres not a right or a wrong, there are some rules that are made to serve more as guidelines, but ultimately you decide what is more correct to you.

As you see this is a topic that can have so many different approachs. Theres a sentence by someone (Ansel maybe) that says something like (and if someone knows the correct one please correct me): Theres nothing worst then a perfectly technical photography ruined by a poor subject. (Something close to that)

Again where to expose depends on the final outcome you want on the image. Every decision you make when shooting has a part of you in it and that’s one of the beauties of photography

Hope it helps and I didn’t ramble too much.

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I love that answer Joãn! Like so many other things… it depends. You hear so much of “don’t blow out your highlights, or don’t clip your blacks!” I like that I can do it. clipped or not.

I’ll sift through the remnants of my images from Sunday to see if I can get something close. Then I’ll go out and practice some more. I could have sat there for hours.

You’ve given me a lot to think about, thanks!! Great answer!

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Rules are made to be broken. If you all shot by the rules we would have similar kinds of images.
Of course, to break them we must know them. And to know when we should break them or not.

When I started to learn to photography (started with film) I had been told to shot with different settings, get a notebook and note down the settings of each image, and see later what change did what. Of course with digital you don’t need the notebook ahah but it’s still the best learning methods try to change settings on a scene and see what does what. Later you know that to a given result you have to do this or that step.

Resuming, just shot and enjoy shooting.

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So true! I’m not averse to breaking a few rules. :joy:

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I personally prefer shooting forests during overcast or early morning or late evening. Backlighting can be a really tricky one even if you’re doing a lot of fancy blending work (which I rarely do). I think the shots that would work best with that type of light have some sort of foliage or well-defined interesting lines in the branches.

As for #1, that’s probably the first option I’d try. If not then if you have multiple exposures then I would use the highlight exposure as the base exposure then blend in some of the shadow areas but not make it too obvious. I think a lot of photos these days suffer from either excessive detail and not enough shadows, or too much shadows and not enough detail.

Thanks Richard, I’ll just try them all next time I’m in the woods. Hoping to get out next week when I go up north, in some normal midwestern woods, not these tropical hardwood stuff. :joy:

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Midwestern forests are really beautiful. I’ve never seen tropical hardwood myself. :slight_smile:

Yeah, in the Everglades. Heat, mosquitoes, and prehistoric critters. LOL I’m originally from WI and taking my Mom back there next weekend, she’s a snowbird. Splits time between there and central FL. Looking forward to it.

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Forests are where photographers go to die. I’m not familiar with the Everglades, but I’ve certainly spent a lot of time photographing the forests in California and the Northwest. My best photos are almost all when there is fog, or when it is cloudy and no sky is part of the photo, or in the shade. I have tried bracketing shots, but even 7 photos (the limit of my Canon) at 1 stop apart won’t capture the full dynamic range of a mid day scene. Even when I can capture the full dynamic range most images are just too contrasty. To get backlit scenes you need to think “long”, ie, shoot with a telephoto in the 70-200 range, and aim low, avoiding the upper branches where lots of sky will break through.


Thanks so much @Tony_Siciliano. I will certainly take your suggestions and put them to good use.

The Everglades mostly has bald cypress trees; very short and sparse. But some areas are dotted with what they call hardwood hammocks. These are very dense areas with big mahogany, gumbo limbo, and cocoplum trees, but a bit of sky still peeking through here and there. Nothing like the redwoods of CA, but much bigger than the bald cypress. It was a very cloudy rainy day but still too bright to include the sky, I’ve since determined that. Live and learn; which I will.

Blockquote - “Forests are where photographers go to die.” LOL I’ll remember that!