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 portraits for eye catching photos. This same lighting techniques apply to backlight photography with flash and natural light.

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

Top backlight technique 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, also referred to as photographing 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 backlight separates your subject from the background, it makes your subject stand out.

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

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 greatly improves your images and encourages you to look at different ways to light portraits for more variety from photoshoots. Lighting that shows up in photos differently from how the eye normally sees light is always eye-catching, because it’s different.

Backlighting techniques

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

When 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 isn’t 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 golden hour photography is that the sun isn’t so bright, so shadows are softer than, for example, at midday.

Exposure tips for backlit subjects

Backlighting confuses your camera’s exposure meter. So I strongly advise using manual mode for backlit portraits. It gives you the ultimate control over your camera’s exposure settings in tricky lighting conditions.

1. Metering mode for backlight photography in natural light

For backlit photos you need to expose for your subject and not the background.

  • Set your camera’s exposure meter to spot metering 
  • 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 your camera settings again. Although, at the golden hour the light changes fast as the sun is sinking, so it’s a good idea to check your exposure every 20 minutes or so.

Using a handheld light meter gives you the most accurate reading for setting exposure. However, if you understand your camera’s metering modes and how they work, you can get accurate exposure with natural backlight.

2. Exposure compensation

Alternatively, you can use exposure compensation. I’d set it at at least +1 EV (in other words plus one stop) when backlighting subjects with natural light.

Setting plus 1 stop exposure compensation tells 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.

3. Locking exposure

A third method for metering exposure for backlit subjects is to use your auto exposure lock camera setting.

Steps for metering exposure for AE-Lock. 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 (AE-Lock) 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.

 

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’ll 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.

The best AF area to use for backlight photography is single area autofocus. Position the point over the eye of your subject for sharp focus. If they’re turned slightly sideways, make sure you focus on the eye closest to you.

What equipment do you need for backlit photos?

To avoid completely blowing out your background, you need these essential bits of kit for photographing backlit:

  • Lens hood
  • Reflector
  • Or flash

1. Lens hood

I always photograph 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.

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 and the eyes lifeless.  

A reflector bounces light back onto the subject to fill in the shadows. Plus an added bonus is that the reflection of the reflector in your subject’s eyes adds a lively catchlight, which looks much better.

If you don’t have a photography 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. The diffused light that bounces back will be beautiful, soft and even.

Water is also a good reflective surface to use for fill light.

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 off camera flash to fill in the shadow side of your subject. It’s best not to use on camera flash as the light it casts isn’t flattering for portraits.

Rather set up a speedlight or a mains or battery powered strobe off camera as fill light.

Processing tips for backlit photos

How you edit backlit images 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. You can do this with the contrast slider in the basic panel or with the tone curve.

2. Blacks

Use the blacks slider in Lightroom to add in blacks by sliding it to the left.

3. Shadows

If your subject is underexposed, lift the shadows with the shadows slider by sliding it to the right.

4. Highlights

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

Bonus tip for backlight photography

This brings me to my last bit of advice for better backlight photography.

Photograph in RAW rather than JPEG 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.

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If you enjoyed this tutorial on backlighting, you will also learn a lot from my tutorials on side lighting portraits and front lighting portraits.

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