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We’re starting off our Angles of Light series with how to use backlight.

What is backlighting?

When you backlight a subject you place your subject between you and the light, with your subject facing you. You are then shooting into the light, or against the light.

The light can be the sun, a speedlight (flash) behind your subject or studio lighting.

Why use backlighting?

The beauty of backlighting is that it creates a beautiful rim of light around your subject. This light separates your subject from the background and makes it stand out.

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

What can you photograph with backlight?

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. In portraiture learning how to use backlight would greatly improve your images.

Tips for how to use backlight

Cut out the sky

If you are shooting a portrait it is a good idea to try and cut out the sky from your photo. The reason for this is that, as you are shooting into the sun, the sky is going to be the brightest part of the image. In fact, the sky will be completely blown out if you are not using other lighting to light your subject.

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

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.

Front lit photo with accurately exposed sky

Shoot in the golden hour

Apart from the fact that the light during the golden hour is beautifully golden, the sun will be low, so at a good angle. The reason we avoid shooting portraits at midday is because the sun overhead causes shadows under your 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 on the golden hour: The golden hour – what is it and why is it so amazing?

Exposure – how to meter backlit subjects

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

When using your camera’s exposure metering, because you need to expose for your subject and not the background, use spot metering when shooting 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 is a good idea to check your exposure every 20 minutes or so.

If you’re unsure of how to read the exposure, check out this post: Understanding the exposure indicator

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.

A third method is using your auto exposure lock. As with using manual mode, you will need to go close to your subject so that it fills the frame. 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. You can take several shots without the settings changing as long as your thumb stays down on that button.

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

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

Further reading on setting exposure: Understanding how exposure metering works

How to focus on backlit subjects

When shooting 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 is 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’re focused on the eye closest to you.

We’ve written about how to use autofocus: Nail your autofocus, get the shot

What equipment do you need to shoot backlit photos?

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

  • Lens hood
  • Reflector or flash

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 is if you can hold your camera with one hand.

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

Reflector

Use a reflector to bounce light back into your subject. As the light is behind your subject, the side facing you will be in shadow. When photographing 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’ll got a huge reflector and will have beautiful, soft, even light bouncing back. Water is also a good reflective surface.

Find out all about reflectors and how use them here:  How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Flash

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

Long lens

A non essential bit of kit, but a really helpful one for separating your subject from the background is a long lens. A long lens is great for creating a narrow depth of field and therefore a blurry background. This makes your subject stand out in the shot.

For more reading on depth of field, check out: 

The easy way to a beautifully blurry background

Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

Reflect light back from the backlight
You can see the difference reflection makes. Here the sun is bouncing off the highly reflective bark covering on the ground.

Editing 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 in Lightroom.

Because you’re shooting into the light your images will have lest contrast, so you need to increase the contrast.

Use the blacks slider to add in blacks.

If your subject is a underexposed, lift the shadows with the shadows slider. Maybe also use the highlights slider to reduce the highlights.

This brings me to my last bit of advice. Shoot in RAW to retain as much information in the image in case you need to adjust your image on the computer afterwards. Before you shoot in RAW, however, 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 and that would be heartbreaking after all the effort you put into taking your beautifully backlit photos.

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 us your email address. You’ll receive our aperture cheat sheet instantly as a bonus and we’ll send you our Through The Lens weekly bulletin of helpful tutorials every Monday.

Upcoming tutorials in the Angles of Light series:

Top backlight tip: Expose for the subject, not the background.Click To Tweet

If you have any questions about how to use backlight, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our backlight tips have helped you to understand how to use backlight, share that too.

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