Let’s face it… what photographer doesn’t enjoy a super dreamy backlit photograph?

That golden flare beaming through a set of trees, creating deliciously creamy bokeh or the soft sun light that outlines the tiny tendrils of a child’s hair can introduce a feeling of warmth and heighten visual interest for the viewer.

However, it can be tricky to navigate how to properly identify and work with backlight. It is something we all strive to master, but with a little practice and these easy to follow tips and tricks, you will be on your way to creating those gorgeous light-filled images you envision.

What is Backlight?

It isn’t uncommon to hear the term backlight or backlit frequently used in the photography world, but if you are fairly new to the industry, you might find yourself wondering exactly what is backlight and how is it used. The official definition of backlight is “illumination from behind”. In other words, it is using either natural or artificial light to light a subject or scene from the back. It is shooting into the light with your main subject between you and your light source so that the light illuminates your subject from behind.

backlit photo of mom and daughter by Jamie Rubeis

Working with Backlight

You might be surprised to hear that there are several different ways you can work with backlight to control the intensity and amount of light that is coming into your lens which also determines the amount of haze that will be seen in your final image. The type of light you want to create is entirely subjective and based on your overall vision. Your lens choices and camera settings will also effect the overall outcome.

Pairing a telephoto lens with a wide aperture setting will compress the depth of field and allow more light to stream into your lens. If you are shooting in an open field or area where there is nothing to filter the light and your light source is almost directly behind your subject, this will create a stronger hazy effect in your final image. Shooting at golden hour is the ideal time of day as the sun’s intensity is at its lowest. In addition, you will be able to pick up all the wonderful golden tones the sun radiates in this golden hour.

Controlling the intensity of the light or amount of haze is as easy as using something to filter the light, either natural or manmade, or simply repositioning yourself in relation to the sun. Lens hoods, a reflector or even a hand can help block some of the light streaming into your lens. You can also use a building, or a set of trees to help filter the light.

According to Rachel Nielsen in Enchanting Light, Authentic Interaction and Beautiful Processing, “You can move so that the light is just peeking through and hitting your subjects. This kind of light tends to be soft and can create streaks of light coming through the trees (or anything else you filter it with) and can be really beautiful.”

Filtering light through a set of dense trees will also help to create that golden glittery bokeh you might be dreaming of.

picture of mom wearing baby by Katie Woodard

photo by Katie Woodard

Where you stand in relation to the sun and your subject can also dramatically change the appearance of the light. Standing slightly above your main subject, moving left or right or even positioning your light source directly behind your subject will help to control the amount of light coming into your lens and create more natural contrast in your images.

backlit photo of woman and man by Jamie Rubeis

Many people associate natural backlit images with the sun being above the horizon, but one of my favorite ways to backlight a subject, is in those few moments just after the sun sets behind the horizon. The light becomes incredibly soft and creates a dreamy, subtle rim light around the main subject.

In some instances where your backlight is more intense, using a reflector or some form of off camera lighting will help to either bounce light back onto your subject naturally or create some fill light from a strobe or off camera flash. You can see in the following example by Michelle Turner how beneficial using a simple reflector was:

backlit photo without reflector by Michelle Turner

without reflector

how to use a reflector by Michelle Turner

placement of reflector

picture of boy in a field with reflected light by Michelle Turner

final image with reflector used

Editing Backlit Images

Controlling the intensity of light always starts in camera, but there are also a few things you can do in post process to further enhance or limit the amount of haze in your final image. Just like you read your histogram on your camera to help you determine proper exposure settings, you can also read your histogram in post process to give you a little insight on adjustments you can make to further improve your image. The more light that leaks into your lens and the more haze you have in your image will cause your histogram to lean more toward the right leaving a gap on the left hand side.

before photo of backlight picture in Lightroom by Jamie Rubeis

Decreasing your blacks slider in the Basic Panel, or even your dark midtones slider in the Tone Curve panel will help to close the gap on your histogram, decreasing the amount of haze and adding in more contrast.

using the blacks slider in Lightroom by Jamie Rubeis

Alternatively, you could also use the Dehaze slider (new to LR 6 & CC) in the Effects Panel to limit or enhance the amount of haze in your image with one simple adjustment.

how to use the dehaze slider in Lightroom by Jamie Rubeis

Finishing out your edit with a few sharpening and/or Clarity adjustments will help to define the details in your image and help to complete your overall vision.

backlit maternity photo by Jamie Rubeis

Creating backlit images doesn’t have to be difficult. Taking a few extra moments to scout your location and study the light can make all the different in the world. Determine the intensity of the light and look for ways to help filter it. Have a game plan in mind of where and how you want to shoot to create the images you envision. Keep in mind that things happen and if your light disappears for reasons beyond your control, just roll with it and have fun! In the end, its the memory of that moment that will always be cherished.