Glacial_Highlights-AC4x6Hi, everyone! Welcome to the fourth Tuesday of October and this month’s photography lesson. I can’t wait to discuss with you one of my greatest allies in the creation of striking photographs: highlights. There is something truly magical when the sun’s rays illuminate a photograph’s subject at just the right angle. It reminds me of a perfectly pitched high note in a song. Highlights are so important in photography because they allow the photographer to draw the viewer’s eyes to an image’s subject by making that subject appear brighter than its surroundings.

Let’s Get Started

Highlights work a bit like the Photography Rule of Contrast. If you will recall, I explained in my lesson on Contrast that the color of a subject can make it stand out more than anything else in the image as long as that color directly contrasts the colors used elsewhere in the photograph. A classic example of this is a bright yellow subject against a dark purple background. Instead of contrasting colors; however, the rule of Highlights contrasts amounts of light within an image. A subject that is highlighted will always be more brightly lit than anything else in the image (except the source of the highlight itself).

There are three main types of highlights: spotlights, leading highlights, and backlights. Spotlights are the most common and simplest type of highlights. Spotlights specifically illuminate the whole front or the top of a subject to make it stand out from its surroundings. Leading lights are a bit more complicated. These highlights are shown as a literal line of light which begins at one point in the photo and ends at the photo’s main subject. The most common leading light is a ray of sunlight coming out of a break in the clouds to highlight a subject below the cloud break. Our eyes follow the line of light from its start to its end to see the subject it illuminates. Finally backlights light up a subject from behind rather than in front like spotlights. Backlights can be used to create a sort of halo-lit subject or they can be used to make a full silhouette of a subject.

Let’s Break It Down

Front Spotlights

“Gilded Autumn”

“Japanese Red”

“Stone Straws”

Top Spotlights

“Metallic Pinwheels”

“Pasta Illumination”

“Sun Dabbled Dune”

Leading Light

“Glacial Highlights”

“Heavenly Highlights, No. 1”

Backlight Halos

“Crowned Glory”

“Sunlit Spines”

Backlight Silhouettes

“Hammering the Sun”

“Sunrise Florets”

Photographer’s Note

Try to shoot your photos during times of day like early morning or late evening when the sun is low in the sky and therefore gives you a better chance of using long rays of light to highlight specific subjects. Some of the best natural light happens during the 30 minutes after sunrise and during the 30 minutes before sunset on a sunny day. You can also use man-made light for this assignment. Look for narrow beams of light that illuminate only one particular subject. Also be careful not to overexpose your photos. Otherwise your subjects will look blown out or washed out because of too much light centered on them. Play with your camera’s ISO and shutter speed to help fix any over-lighting problems. Also keep in mind that good highlights can appear and vanish quickly so plan your shots so that you can work rapidly and efficiently.


For this assignment, I want you to shoot 12 or more photos using the various highlighting techniques that I have discussed. Make sure that at least two photos demonstrate each type of highlight: spotlights, leading lights, backlit halos, and backlit silhouettes. I suggest using static subjects for this round of homework. Have fun!

Until we meet again, I wish all of you brilliant flashes of perspective!

[ O*] Alycia