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Back Light is Nice Light

Please welcome Rick Sammon to the Photo Masters team! This is Rick's first article with us, and we hope to see many more. -Editor

Here’s a chapter from my one of my books, Evolution of an Image. In that book I describe the idea-to-image process of making a photograph – which is different than taking a picture. Enjoy!


Masia Mara, Kenya.


Capture the intimacy of the lioness and her cubs in the beautiful early morning light.

Thought process

The sun was low in the sky, so when I saw the lions, I knew a photograph with beautiful backlighting was possible. Photographically, because I was shooting in the AV (aperture priority) mode I knew I had to set my Exposure Compensation at EV -1 (for starters) to avoid overexposing the backlit areas of the animals. Logistically, I knew our safari vehicle driver was the key to getting me into a good position.

Behind-the-scenes story

In the Pride of the Mara chapter in this book, I give credit to our guide, Simon Sitenei, for his help in the making of that photograph. Here again, Simon gets some credit for the photograph.

Early one morning, while we were on a game drive, Simon pointed out the lioness and her cubs as they walked across the Mara – at a distance of about three football fields from our safari vehicle.

Simon said, “Let’s wait here and see where they go.” Luckily for us, they started to walk almost directly toward our vehicle. Or maybe it wasn’t luck after all. Simon was familiar these animals and their habitat and habits, so my guess is that he knew exactly where they were going.

As the animals proceeded to walk toward our vehicle, I started to photograph, but the light was just okay. I asked Simon to change position so the animals were backlit.

To condense this story, Simon moved our vehicle six times during the course of about 20 minutes as the lioness and cubs strolled across the Mara. He wanted me to get the shot as much as I did.

As you will see in the screen grab below of the photographs from the encounter, the light and the background kept changing. Luckily for me, Simon knew exactly where to position our vehicle for the perfect, backlit photograph.

My favorite shot

Out of all the photographs that I took that morning, the image that opens this chapter is the only “keeper” for me. The light is perfect, there is separation between the animals, all the animals have their eyes open, the cubs are looking at me, and I like the positions of all the lions’ legs (bent legs add a sense of motion to a still photograph).

Basic photography tips

To get a good exposure of animals (or people) in a backlit situation, the key is not to overexpose the bright area of the scene, the “rim light” you see around the heads of the lions in this example. When photographing in the AV (aperture priority) mode, as I was, start by setting your exposure compensation at EV -1. That’s necessary because the darker areas in the frame can fool your camera’s light meter into thinking the scene is darker than it is, which can result in those highlights being blown out.

The same exposure compensation recommendation goes for shooting in the Tv (shutter priority) mode. If you shoot in the manual mode, set either the aperture or shutter speed to one f/stop under the recommended setting, again for starters.

I started at EV -1, but because I didn’t want to underexposure more than necessary (because noise is increased the more you underexpose), I found that EV -0.33 was sufficient to get a good exposure.

Also, you must shoot RAW files, because more detail can be recovered from shadow and highlight areas in RAW files than in JPEG files.

When photographing into the sun, make sure to use your lens hood, which can keep direct light off the front element of your lens. Even a little bit of direct light falling on your lens can result in a loss of contrast in a photograph. If your lens hood is not long enough, shade your lens with your hand or a hat. You should also check out Ian's article on Lens Flare: Creative Use and Removal.

Image processing technique

My RAW file shows a third cub. Because I thought that cub set off the balance of the photograph, I decided to crop it out.

After cropping, I only made a few minor Lightroom adjustments:

  • Decreased the exposure – for a better exposure of the highlights;

  • Decreased the highlights – for a better exposure the highlights;

  • Open up the shadows – to better see the animals’ faces;

  • Cloned out some of the distracting background elements – for a cleaner shot.


Here is the screen grab of some my outtakes, 71 in all. As you can see, some of the shots are out of focus, some have the road in the frame, while others show the animals too close to the vehicle. The key is to keep photographing until you get the shot.

Closing thought

This is a shot of the same lions on a different, and overcast, day. The main difference between the two photographs: the light. Always remember: back light is nice light.

Tech info for opening image

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III

Lens: Canon 200-400mm IS lens @ 252mm.

Camera settings:

  • AI Servo focus – to track the animals right up to the moment of exposure;

  • High frame rate – to capture the subtle differences in the position of the animals;

  • ISO 1000 (needed to get a steady shot), f/7.1 (for enough depth-of-field to get all the lions in focus), 1/250th second (for a steady shot at the 252mm focal length setting), EV- 0.33 (to preserve the highlights).

Hey, before you go check out the video above to learn about the magic of the Mara, where I took a picture that I call, "A Mother's Love," which is actually the title of the chapter in Evolution of an Image.

Thank you for being here!

Click here to check out some of my other books. Enjoy! Note: There are no photographs in Photo Therapy and Photo Quest. In the reading of the books you'll understand why.

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2 Yorum

03 Eki 2022

How did you set a 70-200 lens to get a 252 mm focal length?

Rick Sammon
Rick Sammon
03 Eki 2022
Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Oops. Somewhere along the line the info was copied from another chapter. Sorry about that. Thanks for the catch. Fixed!

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