Creative Flower Photography – Tip #5: “Embrace the Backlight”

by F.M. Kearney | June 17, 2013

© F.M. KearneyFlowers are usually best photographed on overcast days. The cloud cover acts as a giant softbox, effectively evening out the light by eliminating all dark shadows. Sometimes, this flat, contrast-free lighting is exactly what I’m looking for. Other times, when I’m in the mood to spice things up a bit, I seek out the harshest, most direct lighting I can find. I don’t necessarily want this type of light on my subject, but rather behind it to create a nice backlight.

While waiting for the rose garden to open one morning in the New York Botanical Garden, I noticed a row of white shrub roses near the entrance. Nothing about them really caught my eye, and under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t even have given them a second look. But since I had time to kill, I figured I might as well try to see if I could find something interesting about them to shoot. After surveying them under standard frontal lighting, I began to suspect that my initial assessment was correct: “Nothing to see here, move on!” But, I was absolutely amazed when I walked around to the other side and saw just how much better they looked backlit. No longer static and boring, they literally came to live in this dramatic lighting. Sparkling highlights were dancing everywhere. However, backlight isn’t the easiest kind of light to work with. Unless you’re going for a complete silhouette, additional lighting and techniques will be needed to properly expose your subject.

Shrub rose with water droplets © F.M. Kearney

Shrub rose

I positioned my tripod to compose a shot with a small group of roses in the foreground and a few others several feet away in the rear. I used my depth of field preview to determine the optimum aperture that would render the background as a field of soft, glistening highlights. Although the background looked good in the viewfinder, the image as a whole was very faded and washed out. A quick visual of the front of the lens explained why. The glare from the sun was shining directly onto it. A lens hood was definitely in order, but I don’t have one permanently connected to my lens. Instead, I use a Cokin modular hood, comprised of several individual 3/4 inch stackable rings, allowing me to build a custom lens hood of precisely the length I need. With the lens now completely shaded, the true color and contrast of the image was restored. To compensate for the strong backlight, I mounted a flash on my camera and set it to “TTL-Fill.” I also used a reflector and aimed it at the opposite side of the flowers from which the flash was pointed. I find that this type of multi-directional lighting can produce almost studio-quality results in the field. At last, I was finally ready to shoot.

This may sound like a lot of work, but once the initial set-up is in place for the first photo it’s a much more streamlined process for all the others. The accompanying photo I titled, “Garden Highlights,” is one of the images I shot that morning. It might require a bit more prep, but the spectacular results possible with backlighting are certainly worth the effort.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of photo tips by F.M. Kearney on thinking outside of the box when photographing flowers. See all of F.M.’s articles in this series »

About the Author

F.M. Kearney is a award-winning fine art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. His work has been exhibited in galleries, and featured in numerous magazines, calendars and gift cards. He is a frequent contributor to NANPA's newsmagazine, Currents, and the weekly photography blogger for Contemporary Art Gallery Online.

Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for local New York City newspapers. Using the subway as his primary means of transportation to and from his assignments, he became quite familiar with the system. It eventually became the inspiration for his newly-released horror novel, They Only Come Out at Night. A slight departure from photography, it's a supernatural thriller set in the New York City subway.

To see more of Kearney's photography and to learn more about his book, please visit

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