Put your hand up if you love backlight but struggle with it?
Yep, that was me, too.
But there is something particularly magical and elusive about backlight and it’s so worth learning.
Truth be told, backlight used to scare the bejesus out of me. I avoided it at all costs.
Then, I challenged myself to shoot backlight only for a whole month. Now it’s my most favourite light to use. It adds depth, emotion and magic to images.
I spent hours upon hours analyzing backlit images I loved from other photographers, read every tutorial I could get my hand on, and practiced a ton. There were epic fails when I practiced but the more I pushed, the less fails I had.
Since then, I’ve discovered there are a few lighting scenarios where I can’t resist backligting!
When the sun has just set.
I love a great silhouette, where your subject is nice and dark, but with just enough detail to understand their shape and emotion and lots of detail in the sky so you get to enjoy all the rich colours of the sunset.
- Spot meter for the highlights in the sky. I often find I am underexposing by metering at least 2-3 stops to the left in these situations.
- Make sure your subject has a defined shape and you can see details like fingers or hair blowing behind her. You don’t want her to look like a blob.
- Get all that sorted before photographing your subjects.
When the sun is just above the horizon line.
What about a bright sunlight silhouette? This situation can be a bit hard as the light is so contrasty.
- Again, I find spot metering for the highlights very useful, stopping down as many as 5 stops here.
- Make sure the light is highlighting your subject, creating beautiful rim light and separating him/her from the background.
- Consider converting to black and white to get the rich contrast blacks and highlights give, adding depth.
This created one of my favourite images of my daughter (below left). We love going to the beach so she can dig and make sandcastles. As we were walking along, I noticed the sun streaming over the mountain and I just couldn’t resist taking a shot.
There’s a whole lot I love about this image. I love how the little bit of out of focus gives her movement and we see the shape of the spade so well and she looks so intent on where she’s going. The puddle of light at her feet brings your attention straight to her, the rim of light in her hair and the flair where the light is coming over all help to add magic to it.
When the sun is streaming through the trees.
Golden backlight is my favourite. When the sun is low and warm, it creates a magical haze around my subjects. It makes everything look dreamy. The best time for this is literally 10-15 minutes before the sun sets or after it rises.
- The biggest key here is to have the sun just out of your viewfinder. You may need to move and slightly turn your body away from the light by a few degrees but you’ll be amazed how this helps.
- Then use the same principle of metering for the highlights, with spot metering.
- In this situation, focusing can be tricky. I like to use the focus and recompose method. I focus without the flare and then recompose slightly so the flare filters into my lens.
Here’s another favourite of my daughter. Coming back from the park one evening, she was tossing the ball in the air and I could see the bugs in the light.
When my car headlights are on.
Who says backlight has to come from the sun? Any type of light source can create beautiful and intriguing situations for backlighting. One that I love is car headlights.
- Because it’s so dark in this scenario, use an extra light source like a flashlight or phone to shine on your subject to focus, turning it off just before taking the photo.
- Expose for the highlights in order to create a silhouette that will subtle details like my daughter’s hair and dress in the photo below to see feel the moment.
When I’m using off camera flash.
If there’s no light at all, you can still create your own by using a flash or continuous light off camera. I especially love photographing food this.
- To get a high key picture where the background is blown out, expose for your subject. I find I expose a few stops to the right for this kind of shot.
- For a different look, you can expose for the midtones so you have shadows to add to the depth of your images
- The other thing to do is add a reflector to fill in the light a bit or possibly a smidge of fill flash.