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Become A Pro At Using Backlight In Your Photos

Create and enhance that summer feeling in your shots by mastering backlighting.

| General Photography

Become A Pro At Using Backlight In Your Photos: Lucy

Photo byJoshua Waller

Even though we’re told that you should shoot with your light source behind you to produce an evenly lit photo, there are times when switching your light source’s position can really make your images ‘sing’ and at this time of year in particular, evoke a feeling of summer in the shot.

Before we talk about how this technique can work for you, it’s worth noting that this isn’t something that will work successfully with all subjects or shooting scenarios but as with all photography, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting, plus there’s quite a few things on the ‘will work’ list which includes portraits, still life shots, wildlife and subjects such as flowers, where the petals are partially transparent, look great when backlit as the light picks out all of the detail, patterns and textures of the plant.

You can use artificial or natural light to produce a backlight but during the summer months, it makes sense to get outside and use the sun as your light source. You may think midday sun will be perfect as it’s at its strongest at this time of day and yes, it can work so long as you keep the sun directly behind your subject and make use of darker backgrounds. However, for a softer glow, shoot when the sun is at a lower angle which is in the morning and evening or during the winter months when the sun has a lower arch.

If you’re new to this type of photography it’s probably best heading for a location where the sun can be partially if not fully hidden from your camera’s view as you’ll still be able to use backlighting, but the conditions won’t be as tricky to work with.

To produce a good backlit shot you really need to get your exposure spot-on and the main point to remember is that you need to expose for your subject and not the background so use spot metering to exclude the background from the reading or switch to manual mode otherwise your subject will be dark and the background correctly exposed for. You may end up using manual focus too as auto focus can struggle although many cameras now are pretty good at focusing unless the light source is pointed right at the camera / in the frame.

Using a darker background can help the backlight stand out in your shot but this doesn’t mean it needs to be black, there just needs to be enough contrast between light and dark for your subject to stand out. You want to avoid blown highlights and deep shadows, though so this is why it’s a good idea to shoot when the sun’s lower in the sky as contrast levels won’t be as harsh. If you find your subject still looks a little too dark you can use a + exposure value, but keep an eye on your histogram so you can check for blown out highlights. You may also find a reflector or flash useful for bouncing extra light onto the front of your subject (a reflector was used in the shot below) so do pack these accessories in your bag when heading out. Without them, you may find unsightly shadows appearing and if you’re shooting a portrait, eyes can look lifeless. You can also use objects around you to reflect light onto someone's face. The shot above was taken in front of a row of yellow flowers which gives the model's face a warm, yellow glow.

To create the rim-light effect that gives subjects a glow around their head you need to ensure your subject as well as your light source is in the correct position. You want the light that surrounds them to be even on all sides and check that lens flare isn’t creeping into your images. Having said that, a bit of creative lens flare can work in some shots but fit a lens hood if you’d prefer to minimise this.

If you don’t already, consider shooting in RAW as this will give you more flexibility when it comes to adjusting the exposure and white balance when you have your images open on your computer.

Become A Pro At Using Backlight In Your Photos: Lucy

Photo by Joshua Waller

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ChrisV 16 2.3k 26 United Kingdom
12 Aug 2014 12:22PM
You talk about not blowing highlights, but surely you've done just that in the background? Nothing at all wrong with that of course - it's detail that really isn't of any importance to the image and if you didn't do that you probably wouldn't have enough dynamic range to correctly expose that lovely face. Which is what we're all interested in after all...
joshwa Plus
12 927 1 United Kingdom
12 Aug 2014 12:55PM
Hi Chris, I think the section about blown highlights is in relation to using a dark background. The paragraph above this recommends exposing for the subjects face, but I agree it is pretty difficult avoiding blown highlights when shooting like this.
ChrisV 16 2.3k 26 United Kingdom
12 Aug 2014 1:07PM
I'm pretty relaxed at blown highlights in blurred [especially well out of focus] portions of portraits myself. I guess what you really want to avoid is where they clip harshly, which can make it look like you've got a flaw or a hole in the image. Shouldn't really happen with a decent lens, but you also need to rely on your printer having good control of levels too. The soft transition to zero value [as above] looks natural and pleasant - it's white and black blobs you need to avoid. Did I mention how envious I am about your new muse?
14 Aug 2014 11:13AM
Fab info! This is something I want to try. Smile

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