Backlight photography tips for magical photos

We’re starting off our Angles of Light series with backlight photography and how to make the most of backlighting for eye catching photos. This applies to both to backlight photography with flash and natural light photography.

If you’re in a rush and want just one nugget of backlighting techniques…

Top backlight tip – expose for the subject, not the background.

What is backlight in photography?

When you backlight a subject you place your subject between you and the light, with your subject facing you.

You’re then photographing into the light, or against the light.

Backlighting refers to all types of photography lighting coming from behind your subject. The light can be anything, such as:

  • The sun (natural light)
  • A speedlight (flash)
  • Studio lighting
  • A table lamp

How to use backlight for magical portraits

Why use backlighting in photos?

The beauty of backlight in photography is the rim of light created around your subject’s edge.

Because the backlight separates your subject from the background, it makes your subject stand out.

When used well, backlight takes an image to the next level.

Further reading: Rim light – the simple technique behind dramatic photos

What can you photograph with backlighting?

Any translucent or semi-translucent material looks great when backlit, such as:

  • Glass – a wine bottle looks great when backlit
  • Ice – looks so much better with magical backlight shining through rather than lit flat from the front
  • Leaves – nothing says summer more than sun shining through delicate green leaves
  • Flags – as flags are made of thin material, when the sun shines through from behind they look great

But you can backlight any subject:

  • People
  • Objects
  • Animals
  • Buildings

Learning how to use backlight will greatly improve your images. Lighting that shows up in a photos differently from how the eye normally sees light is always eye-catching.

Backlighting techniques

1. Cut out the sky (for natural light photos)

If you’re photographing people outdoors using natural light as a backlight it’s a good idea to try and cut out the sky from your photo.

The reason for this is that, when photographing into the sun, the sky will be the brightest part of the image. In fact, the sky will be completely blown out if you’re not using other lighting to fill in the shadows and light your subject from the front.

If you’re okay with a white sky, that’s fine. Otherwise choose a location with trees or buildings so that the sky is not visible in the photos, or at least partially blocked.

Blown out sky because of the backlight

Here you can see the difference in the sky between when the shot is lit from behind and when it is lit from the front. As it was a very fast moving shoot, no reflector or other kind of fill light was used. There were no trees to block out the sky. In the backlit photo above, the sky is blown out.

In the photo below the family is frontlit (the sun was to my back) so the sky isn’t blown out.

Front lit photo with accurately exposed sky

2. Shoot in the golden hour

Apart from the fact that natural light during golden hour is beautifully golden, the sun will be low, so at a flattering angle. The reason we avoid photographing portraits at midday is because the overhead sun causes shadows under the subject’s eyes.

The other advantage of the golden hour is that the sun is not so bright, so shadows are softer than, for example, at midday.

Further reading:  The golden hour – what is it and why is it so amazing?

Exposure tips for backlit subjects

I strongly advise using manual mode when shooting with backlight. It’ll give you the ultimate control over your camera’s exposure settings.

1. Metering mode for backlight photography in natural light

When using your camera’s exposure metering, because you need to expose for your subject and not the background, use spot metering when photographing with backlight.

  • Go close to your subject and fill the frame with your subject, then take a meter reading
  • Once you have your exposure settings, set your camera. Unless the light changes, you won’t need to adjust them again. Although, at the golden hour as the sun is sinking and the light changes fast, it’s a good idea to check your exposure every 20 minutes or so

Further reading:

How to read a camera’s exposure meter to control exposure

Metering modes and how exposure metering works – controlling exposure part 2

Using a light meter would be ideal to take an accurate reading and then set your camera accordingly.

2. Exposure compensation

Alternatively, you can use exposure compensation.

I’d set it at at least +1 EV. This will tell your camera to up the exposure by 1 stop regardless of the exposure measurement it takes.

Be aware though that this is a far less accurate way of setting your exposure.

Further reading:  How and when to use exposure compensation

3. Locking exposure

A third method is using your auto exposure lock. To meter the exposure, go in close to your subject so that they fill the frame. Then:

  • Use spot metering
  • Focus on the subject to get the exposure
  • Hold your thumb down on the auto exposure lock button at the back of your camera
  • Keep your thumb down on this button
  • Reposition yourself, refocus, then start shooting (while still holding down the auto exposure lock button with you thumb)

Once set, you can take several shots without the settings changing as long as your thumb stays down on that button.

Further reading:  How to use auto exposure lock for easy accurate exposure

While this is handy for being able to take an accurate exposure of your subject, it’s a bit of a fiddle. As soon as you release the auto exposure lock button you will lose the settings and will need to repeat the process to set it again.

How to focus on backlit subjects

When photographing into the light your camera’s focusing system can get confused. If you’re using auto area autofocus in particular the camera camera could end up focusing on an element in the background instead of your subject.

For this reason it’s best to set your autofocus area to single area autofocus. When photographing people, position the point over the eye of your subject. If they’re turned slightly sideways, make sure you focus on the eye closest to you.

Further reading:  Nail your autofocus, get the shot

What equipment do you need for backlit photos?

If you don’t want to completely blow out your background, there are two essential bits of kit you need for shooting backlit:

  • Lens hood
  • Reflector
  • Or flash

1. Lens hood

I always shoot with a lens hood on my lens. Apart from it providing shade over the front of my lens, and therefore helping to avoid lens flare, it also offers a bit of protection for the glass as it sticks out further than the end of the lens.

A lens hood works for your lens the way your hand helps your eyes when you shade your eyes from the sun.

You can help out further by shading the end of the lens with your hand as well. That’s if you can hold your camera with one hand.

If you position yourself, or to be more specific, your camera, in shade it’s even better.

Further reading:  Why you need a lens hood to save your photos and your lens

2. Reflector

Use a reflector for fill light to bounce light back into backlit subjects. With the light behind your subject, the side facing you will be in shadow. So, when photographing backlit people a reflector is essential for adding in catchlights.

If you don’t have a reflector, you could use a white sheet on the ground. If your subject faces a white wall onto which the sun is shining, you’ve actually got a huge reflector and will have beautiful, soft, even light bouncing back.

Water is also a good reflective surface.

Further reading on reflected light:  How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Reflect light back from the backlight

You can see the difference reflection makes. Although the boy is backlit by the sun, he’s also lit from the front by sun reflecting back up from the path.

3. Flash

Alternatively, you could use flash to fill in the shadow side of your subject. In this case it’s best not to use on camera flash. Rather set up a speedlight or strobe off camera as fill light.

Further reading:  

Getting started with off camera flash

Using fill light – essentials you need to know

Processing tips for backlit photos

This of course depends entirely on your style and the look you want to achieve. Nevertheless, here are a few pointers that you might find handy for processing photos in Lightroom.

1. Contrast

When photographing into the light your images will have less contrast, so you need to increase the contrast in post production.

2. Blacks

Use the blacks slider in Lightroom to add in blacks.

3. Shadows

If your subject is underexposed, lift the shadows with the shadows slider.

4. Highlights

If your background or rim light is too bright, use the highlights slider to reduce the highlights.

Bonus tip for backlight photography

This brings me to my last bit of advice.

Photograph in RAW to retain as much information as possible in the image in case you need to adjust your image on the computer afterwards.

However, before you switch to RAW, make sure that you have editing software that can read RAW files, otherwise you won’t be able to view your photos on your computer. That would be heartbreaking after all the effort you put into taking your beautifully backlit photos.

Further reading: Image Quality – the pros and cons of RAW vs JPEG

Don’t miss out

We’re looking at how to use light in a series of tutorials. If you don’t want to miss when these and other great tutorials are published, pop me your email address. You’ll receive my lighting clock cheat sheet instantly and, as a bonus, I’ll send you my weekly bulletin of helpful photography tutorials. You can unsubscribe at any time, no hard feelings.


Other tutorials in the Angles of Light series:

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about backlighting photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my backlighting photography tips have helped you to understand how to use backlight in photos, share that too.

Leave a Comment