Lens-Artists Challenge #247 – Backlit

Vendors at Mazatlan’s Playa Gaviotas (Seagulls Beach).

This week, Ann-Christine challenges us to focus on images where the light source is placed behind the subject. She writes, “Backlighting is dramatic. It often creates silhouettes, yellow halos around the subject, and/or a brilliantly bright background.” You can read her entire challenge post here. Anyone who poses people or objects in front of a rising or setting sun knows or soon learns of the challenges of getting a properly exposed photo.

With the major upgrades in photo processing tools like Adobe Lightroom and Skylum’s Luminar Neo, I decided to reprocess all of the photos in this challenge to take advantage of the tools and what I’ve learned since rekindling my interest in photography over a decade ago. My opening image was captured with a Fujifilm Finepix 3800 in 2006. It is characteristic of metered exposures with a bright light source behind the camera. The background is overexposed and the subject is underexposed. A bright halo surrounds the subjects where the light hits them directly. I was shooting directly in jpeg format so I didn’t have all of the available range that a RAW image provides, but the little point-and-shoot camera did a nice job for me. I toyed with bringing up the exposure of the subjects using subject masking now in Lightroom but decided that actually detracted from the effect of strong backlighting.

Desert Botanical Garden at night.

In 2013, an exhibition of light art from the renowned artist, Dale Chihuly was opened at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden. For this program, the garden stayed open to guests in the evening. As I walked through the park, I noticed these sahuaros bathed in light from a light sculpture behind them. The original RAW file from my Nikon was quite noisy and the foreground plants had some reflected light creating distractions from the backlit cactus plants. I used Lightroom’s new Denoise tool to remove much of the noise in the image and masked the foreground with a linear gradient to lower the exposure in the foreground to eliminate those distractions.

Street Lamp.

While walking through a park in Yuma, Arizona, I happened to be just at the right distance to notice the sun almost directly behind a street lamp. I couldn’t resist putting the sun directly behind the lamp glass to give the illusion that the lamp is on.

Buckeye Sunset.

In my decade or so of wintering in Arizona, I captured many sunsets from a “special place” out in the desert. On Superbowl Sunday in 2021, I was watching the game when I saw the sun turning our family room into shades of gold as it began to light up the clouds that were approaching our house. I realized that I had no time to drive the two miles to capture the clouds lit from below so I settled for a cell phone panorama from my backyard looking west into the sunset. I tweaked this photo with a linear mask at the base to darken the concrete privacy fence along the bottom.

The Disneyland Mall area in Anaheim, California.

Just outside the main entrance to the Disneyland Amusement Park is a commercial area with many shops and restaurants. It’s an area that doesn’t require the payment of an admission fee since it’s not in the park itself. I was in the city for a conference, so I didn’t have time to explore the Magic Kingdom, but one evening, a colleague and I decided to explore this mall area and find a nice restaurant for our evening meal. As we walked by this flower bed, I saw the opportunity for a backlit view of the flowers.

Scenic drive near the Grand Teton Mountains.

In October 2020, we visited the Grand Teton National Park. On a scenic drive through the area, I saw the opportunity to capture the sunlight filtering through the golden leaves of the trees in their autumn peak colors.

Silhouette of a mesquite tree.

Adjusting the exposure either in camera or in post-production to properly expose the sky provides almost complete darkness for the subject. The darkened subject almost appears to be a cardboard cutout with no depth or detail. If the exposure isn’t quite perfect in the camera, a tweak of the exposure slider will improve the effect without adversely affecting the background. Of course, these days with AI-driven subject masks, the background exposure doesn’t have to change at all. This image was processed prior to AI tools and I liked it just the way it was. I only remastered it into 2K in Lightroom for display on my Flickr site.

Turtle River State Park.

In northern North Dakota, the Turtle River State Park attracts people throughout the year. On this September day in 2016, we arrived at the park early in the hopes of capturing some sunrise photos. The layer of clouds meant that the golden hour would be more like 15 minutes. We found a spot near a parking area that allowed a clear view to the east and waited for the sun to peek above the horizon. The golden sky gave the trees in the foreground a fiery appearance. In less than 15 minutes, the sun was above the cloud layers and the rest of the day was overcast.

Portrait of a sunflower.

I apologize for yet again featuring this image of a sunflower. The golden hour sunlight all but matched the color of the flower. The image is my favorite backlighted photograph in my gallery. Thanks to Ann-Christine for a fun challenge and for the opportunity to reprocess these images and to show them off in their new “clothes.” You can click on any of the images to view them in 2K HD or click here to view the entire album on my Flickr site.

Next week, the first challenge in May, Sofia leads the challenge theme she calls, “Mood.” You can find it at her site here at noon Eastern U.S. Time on Saturday. If you wish to participate and want some information to get started, check here.

John Steiner


  1. Lots of great examples of backlighting here John, and I like the way you’ve included info about your editing processes and decisions. Favourites have to be those night time cacti, the Grand Teton shot and Turtle River State Park, but they’re all spot on for the challenge!

  2. Awesome images for this challenge John! I also liked that you included some of your post processing secrets. Two favorites: your opening image and your Buckeye sunset.

  3. An excellent look, and lesson, in finding and acheiving backlit photos, John. I agree, Arizona sunsets are the best, but I loved the Turtle River State Park photo. I kinda laughed when you said you had a place to go for the right sunsets in Buckeye. I do the same. For me its about mile and on a ridge so I try to time it and walk if it looks like it might be a “good one”. All in good fun. I think my favorite photo was of the lantern. It does look like it is on with a blue evening sky around it. Nice.

  4. Your editing is always interesting and the more information we get the better. My favourites are the botanical garden at night and the sunflower but they are all excellent!

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