One of my favorite kinds of light to use when photographing landscapes is backlighting. In some ways backlighting goes against the basic principles of photography. We are taught early on that we should have our source of light behind or on the side of our subject. This was especially true during the days of film photography.
Latitude and dynamic range with film photography was very limited, especially with transparency or slide films like Fuji Velvia or Kodachrome 25 or 64. You could certainly backlight subjects during with film, but often you would have little to no details in the shadow areas and the results would be a hard silhouette.
Todays digital sensors have so much dynamic range, that there is still plenty of detail in the shadow areas of the frame which allows one to become even more creative with the light. If you combine backlighting with first light or the soft lighting the occurs just before dawn or right after dusk, you can open up opportunities to photograph subjects and locations at times that typically might not be considered perfect.
This was the case on Saturday as I had a client out in the field. The original plan was to photograph Dream Lake at sunrise. The winds were blowing pretty good when we left downtown Estes Park, headed for the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. I knew if the winds were blowing this hard into town that we should just figure on at least doubling the gusts by the time we reached the Bear Lake parking lot.
Sure enough it was blowing pretty hard up at Bear Lake but with some light snow flurries coming down and some nice cloud structure in the sky over RMNP, we figured we could deal with the wind up at Dream Lake and possibly be treated to a really nice sunrise over Hallett and Flattop Mountain.
Heading up the snow trail towards Dream Lake, and orange glow like an orb began to form over the high plains of eastern Colorado. With sunrise almost an hour away the clouds were over Rocky Mountain National Park were already starting to glow magenta, red, yellow and orange. Blowing and falling snow were adding to the atmospherics and things were looking good.
We took a little longer than expected to get up the trail as my client had just flown in the night before and was working and a short nights rest. Looking over Glacier Gorge towards Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the winds showed great promise as the kaleidoscope of color formed over Rocky’s tallest peak and only 14er.
We stopped to give my client a rest and shoot the predawn light that was really starting to explode. While the color was great the winds were howling now. From time to time, I could just see the tomahawk edge of Hallett Peak come in and out of the clouds which had cloaked most of the divide at this point. Amazingly, Longs Peak and Glacier Gorge were for the most part free of being cloaked in clouds and only had clouds move in and out of the landscape periodically.
With Dream Lake appearing to be a bust, and the sunrise really starting to ramp up, I opted to set this shot up with my client and take advantage of the backlighting and color east and south of Longs Peak. While we weren’t going to be able to capture sunrise at Dream Lake this morning, I knew we would have some great backlighting that would be more dramatic than we would have had up at Dream Lake.
It’s a good lesson in not only having a backup plan when out shooting, but also one in which you look to work with the conditions presented to you as opposed to the ones you hoped for. We could have pressed on to Dream Lake and ended up with windburn, but instead we chose to photograph Longs Peak at the wrong time of day. Regardless we came away with some beautiful images of Longs Peak in dramatic winter lighting, while we learned the importance of taking advantage of the conditions given that particular morning.