When I was first starting out as a photographer, one of my biggest “mistakes”, if we can call it that, was focusing almost entirely on the background, and not nearly enough on the light. I would try and scope out the coolest locations with the most interesting backgrounds – an old building, a barn, a wild field, etc. I would then always position my subjects in front of these great backgrounds, but I was often disappointed with my results. I’ve since learned that light is almost everything, and that perfect light makes the shot, not a perfect backdrop. I’ve really found my style as a photographer, which is essentially to capture light (specifically, backlight)and emotion. Perfect backdrops are a bonus, but are not essential. Not to me, anyways.
Being an on location photographer, the backdrop is always different, and the light is always in a different spot. While everyone has their own shooting style and positions their subjects accordingly, my shooting style is to almost always backlight my subjects. On overcast days, this is less important, but when the skies are clear and the sun is shining, the time of day and how you position yourself and your subject makes a huge difference. Huge. I always plan my sessions around the location of the sun. With locations that I use more regularly, the end result of a sunrise session will be completely different from the end result of a sunset session. The location is the same, but the sun is in a totally different spot. Sometimes this means forgetting the prettier background and opting for something more unexpected… but with gorgeous light. Again, every photographer is different. Some prefer shooting front-lit subjects. Some don’t care. Some prefer to always shoot in shade. And you can most certainly create stunning photographs in any lighting condition with the right approach. But as for me, creamy, delicious backlight almost always wins. And on rare occasions, this has even caused me to disregard otherwise “pretty” locations when the light is blocked or when I simply can’t work with the background in the direction I need.
Below are a few examples of times where I’ve chosen light over background and positioned my subjects accordingly.
While walking around downtown with this cute couple, we stumbled upon this cool empty parking lot. I really wanted to shoot them with the neat brick building (behind me) in the background, but that golden sun peeking through those houses was calling my name. I think I even said out loud “argh I wish the sun was on the other side of this parking lot!” - but we went ahead with it, and these shots turned out to be some of my favourites from the entire engagement session. In retrospect, those houses looked kind of cool. But in the moment, had it not been for the light factor, I would have never positioned my subjects this way. I was especially not a fan of the parked cars (which I opted not to try and photoshop out because of their tricky position). But in the end I am so glad I chose light over background.
This pumpkin patch was a location I had initially scouted for an evening session, when the sun would be setting on the other side of the field, with no houses or buildings in sight. Because this was a sunrise session, I positioned my subjects to be backlit, which meant there were rooftops and buildings in the backdrop. Of course I did my best with strategic positioning and angling and cropping to make these signs of the city less visible, but they definitely made it into the photos. In the top photo, you can see posts on the left and a house on the right. In the bottom left photo, tall buildings in the far left, and in the bottom right photo, a hint of a rooftop. While the logistics of this session were tricky (these photos don’t do justice to just how many homes and buildings are behind and to the camera right of the subjects), in the end I loved how this session turned out. The light was warm and soft and delicious – just the way I like it!
I’d been wanting to shoot at this abandoned highway-side diner for so long, but I had always envisioned shooting in the other direction, with the actual building behind my subjects. When I arrived and realized that the sun was setting on the other side of the highway, I was so disappointed. But we rolled with it, and I love love love the results. Sure, I had to photoshop out a few passing cars, and the actual dinner didn’t make it into the photos, but the light was perfect that night, and I’m so glad I was able to capture it!
While the background in this photo isn’t too bad, you can definitely see some buildings in the background, and it’s certainly not a spot I would have chosen had it not been for the light. This was actually a patch of grass/trees along the parking lot of a university building. Certainly not scenic or rustic, per se, but that sun was right there, and I’m so glad we grabbed a few shots in this spot!
There is nothing wrong with this background. But again, it’s a spot I never would have chosen in the context of the large park we were shooting in. I was focused on a lovely wooden pedestrian bridge and a tree lined pathway. And had I not been looking for light, this little patch of snow with golden sun rays would have gone completely unnoticed. But when I saw how the light was shining through those trees, I brought this family away from the bridge, laid a quilt down (hint: with a tarp under, so no one had a wet bottom when they stood up!) and took my favourite shot of the whole session.
Just a few examples for you. I suppose the point behind this post is to simply share a valuable lesson I’ve learned as a photographer, that delicious light doesn’t (usually) just appear out of nowhere and beautifully grace your perfect shooting location. Sometimes (often) you have to be more intentional about seeking out a location with really great light if this is something that is important to you. Something that really helps me once I’ve scouted a few new locations (because my sense of direction is no good on the spot!) is to go home and look those locations up on google maps to see where east/west is, and whether this location would be better suited for a sunrise or sunset session (or none at all) based on the background that I’d be working with at specific times.
Happy shooting, friends!