When you begin your photography journey, a common and effective piece of advice is to keep the light at your back when shooting.By keeping your camera between your subject and the light source, you are shooting in the same direction the light is shining, and if your subject is facing you, the light illuminates the subject from the front. If, however, you turn around and shoot a subject that is between you and the light source, now you are shooting INTO the light; if your subject is facing you in this scenario, the light illuminates the subject from the back. This is backlighting, and while it can be a little tricky for beginners (and your camera’s auto settings!), it’s a favorite technique of many photographers because of the magical halo it produces as the light wraps around the subject from behind.
This month, let’s focus on shooting into the light and explore some unexpected and creative approaches to incorporating backlighting in the frame.
NOTE: For this exercise, you’ll want to set your camera to spot metering and manual exposure (or use exposure compensation).
1. Go Beyond the Golden Hour
When the sun is low in the sky, the light rakes across the landscape and presents warm directional lighting that evenly illuminates the subject, shining directly on the face or wrapping around the back of the body. However, the Golden Hour is not your only opportunity to work with backlighting. Think about other sources of light that, like sunlight at dusk and dawn, come in around eye level. Window and doorway light, for example, provide backlighting opportunities anytime the light is streaming through them. And don’t limit yourself to shooting only natural light streaming indoors through a window; you can also work with door and window backlighting at night, shooting from a dark position into an illuminated interior. Similarly, you might try working with nontraditional illumination, shooting directly into the light as a subject stands in front of car headlights, an open fridge, or computer monitor.
2. Take Silhouettes to the Next Level
Silhouettes showcase only the outline of the selected element, with little to no interior detail apparent. As a result, subjects are rendered in anonymity, and human figures often all look similar. Add further visual interest to your silhouetted subjects by identifying elements whose silhouettes are unusual but still recognizable, seeking out striking patterns, or watching for opportunities to incorporate compelling body language: the way limbs are held, bodies lean, or heads are oriented. An additional, particularly powerful way to utilize silhouettes is to incorporate them in the context of an environment or supporting elements that do have some dimension and interior detail,s such as illuminated foreground or background elements; this brings layers of depth to an otherwise two-dimensional within the frame.
3. Identify Translucent Subjects
Translucence is a quality somewhere in between opaque and transparent, which means that some light can penetrate and pass through the subject. When you place a subject with translucent qualities between your light source and yourself, the object positively glows, and colors become very bright and richly saturated. Stained glass, colored plastics, thin textiles (such as cloth and paper), liquids, and gemstones are all highly translucent. Foliage, flowers, and many foods also have translucent qualities; think of the way a peeled orange, thin slice of cheese, or leaf of lettuce would be set vibrantly aglow if placed on a light box. Even skin has translucence, as we can see in the way ears glow crimson when backlit or nostrils glow when lit from beneath.
4. Work Your Angles
We typically think of backlighting as coming in at an angle roughly perpendicular to the ground — that is, at eye-level. Remember, however, that backlighting by definition occurs whenever there is a subject between you and your light source. By working your angles, you can find backlighting virtually anywhere and at any time of day. Think about where you need to position yourself to shoot directly into the light, then place (or look for) a subject between yourself and that light source. Is your light source directly overhead? Then get down low and shoot up into it. For example, you might lay beneath a tree at high noon and shoot upward as the light penetrates the leaves and sets the vibrant fall foliage ablaze with color. Sometimes, of course, the best perspective is just a matter of crouching down and/or shooting at slight upward angle.
5. Look for Dark Backgrounds
Rim, or edge, lighting appears as a very bright highlight that wraps around the outer contours of a subject. You can achieve the most dramatic rim lighting when the light source is very strong and your subject is set against a very dark background. Your perspective makes all the difference here as you move left, right, up, or down to find a viewpoint in which the area directly behind the subject is dark. This typically involves shooting from a position in which the subject is just below or adjacent to the direct stream of strong backlighting; a tree trunk, wall, deep shade, background building / treeline, or simply shooting from an angle that places the subject below the horizon line can do the trick here. Unlike photographing silhouettes, the key is simply to avoid shooting the subject against an overwhelmingly bright background (such as the sky). Because of the high contrast between the dark background and intense rim lighting, these particular images tend to convert beautifully to black and white as well.
6. Embrace the Haze
When you shoot into the light, your perspective may permit light to wash over the plane of your lens and significantly reduce image clarity. You can mitigate this haze — also known as veiling flare — by putting on a lens hood, cupping your hand around the lens, or adjusting your angle; often you need only to slightly change your position or tilt the plane of your lens. Instead of avoiding it, however, incorporate the light spill over deliberately. How can you use the reduced contrast and sunwashed obscurity? Does it lend a dreaminess, nostalgia, or even mystery that might enhance the story you’re shooting?
Haze can also appear in the atmosphere itself, a phenomenon irrespective of lens angle. In this scenario, light becomes diffused as it is scattered on particles of dust, sand, smog, smoke, or fog. Shooting into light shining through atmospheric haze can add rich mood and depth to your scene as the light recedes behind the subject.
Or Simply Photograph the Light Itself
While shooting into the light typically involves placing a subject between the light source and the camera, you can also obtain interesting and beautiful results by allowing the light to be your subject altogether. Examples might including shooting closed down for a starburst, shooting wide open or out of focus for beautiful bokeh, photographing rays of light or sunbeams scattering through fog or haze, or simply shooting interesting light sources themselves, such as a lamp, streetlight, or illuminated sign.
Experiment with shooting into the light, trying with the tips above to produce images that take you beyond the way you might normally seek out or shoot backlit subjects and backlighting itself.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges.
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