Sunday, May 31, 2015

Backlighting a Subject

There are a million other places online where you can learn about backlighting (back-lighting?), and most are better resources. You may want to close this tab right now and Google it! For those of you still with me, I thought I'd throw out a few samples and tips when it comes to this type of lighting situation, because it's currently my fav. This post will be about natural, outdoor lighting--I know practically nothing about studio lighting.

Mostly what prompted this post is that I've been questioned a few times recently when I am posing people with their back to the sun. It's understandable. I, too, grew up often looking into the sun with squinting, watering eyes when people took my picture. I think it's a common idea that we need to face people toward the sun to get enough light. I've certainly used that method myself. Exhibit A:

Sorry, L, that couldn't have been comfortable! Notice she is squinting, and there are shadows under her chin and nose. The background is very dark because the camera had to expose down for her bright skin.

And sometimes the sun just isn't cooperating. I might want a certain background (and I know, I know: light trumps background) and am unwilling to give up on it, so I do what I can and get something like this. It's not the worst, and maybe you are wanting this lighting scenario sometimes. Uneven light can create a certain mood and highlight or downplay aspects of your photo for a look that really works. It's just different, and not my current preference most of the time. There are many ways to light a subject, and a lot of what you see out there now is about trend, not what is more correct.

Backlighting is trendy, but it also makes a lot of sense in certain situations. Here's what I love about it:

It gives a nice glowy edge to your subject, aka rim lighting. It's pretty, and it helps set your subject apart from the background.

You can achieve some cool effects with flare and general sun-shininess.

It more evenly lights the subject. It's softer with fewer shadows, which is often much more flattering for the person's skin. It does a little bit of natural erasing of fine lines and uneven texture. Liane has great skin, so this isn't a very dramatic example, but I thought I'd show a comparison of sidelighting to backlighting. This was another case where on the left I couldn't turn her back to the sun because we were on a hill with flowers that I wanted to incorporate. I worked with it even though it wasn't my favorite setup. I much prefer how the lighting looks on the right. It creates a happy glow around her, while her face is even and soft. (I wrote those little labels inconsistently, I now realize, but I don't feel like fixing it.)

You can also see that in the photo on the left, her hair and the background don't have much separation in the darker spots. If I had her against a more solidly dark background, she would sort of blend in so that you would barely know where her hair ended and the background began. On the right you have a definite outline to help her pop out from the background.

It often makes the background look a little dreamier as it fades into sunshine. This depends a lot on the time of day and the background, but it's a much softer backdrop than if you are shooting from a different direction.

Backlighting a subject does take a bit of practice. You have to get to know the right circumstances that will give you the look you're after. Here are a few tips in the form of a diagram I made:

Click on that diagram for a large version you can actually read. I'll re-note a couple of the things it says:

1. Look for a background that helps filter the sunshine for a pleasing look. If you just have sky behind the person, it'll be very washed out (assuming you are exposing for the face, not the background). Sometimes that's okay! But just know that in case that's not the look you're after.

Here you can see how the sky is very flat and white.

And here's how a building can help filter the light if the sun is positioned correctly. In this photo I took for work, the sun is still high enough that it wraps over the building and still brightens up the edges of everyone, yet the background is not completely washed out.

If your background doesn't allow any light to filter through or around it, you're basically just photographing your subject in the shade. That is also fine, but it means you probably won't get the rim lighting or glowy feel.

2. Make sure you are in manual mode on your camera so you can control the exposure. If you just let your camera handle it, it's going compensate for the brightness of the sun in the background and give you an underexposed photo. You need to force it to let in more light so the faces of your subjects are nice and bright. This is also what washes out the background to give it a more dreamy appearance.

3. It really helps when there is a pale scene/surface behind you to reflect a bit of light back to your subject. It means the background will be less washed out to include a bit more detail. Honestly, this is not always something I seek out, but you'll start noticing spots that work better because of the reflective surfaces. Some are even overly reflective, and you can still have squinting even when the person's back is to the sun. It's all a balance that just takes experience. I certainly need more experience! Meanwhile, it's really fun to discover awesomely-lit locations to place a subject. Sometimes you get lucky and it's easy, other times you have to keep moving to find a better spot. You can start practicing by simply asking your subject to turn their back to the sun, and start taking some pictures. You'll begin to see what works and what doesn't.

I hope this is helpful! Let me know if you have questions about this or something else I might be able to post about!


  1. Hey cool! I like when you explain some of this mysterious photography stuff : ) Great examples too, they really pointed out what you were explaining. I never thought about why the picture of P and the two dogs, and the last picture as well, are so good. The backlighting really makes those two pics pop!

    1. Thanks, Dan! :) Thanks for reading.

  2. This was really informative! I really like the way you explain things... I find myself nodding a lot. :)

  3. I'm seriously considering buying a giant lamp to pull on a trailer behind me wherever I go. I think backlighting may be the key to helping me look better. Why haven't I thought of this before now?! Ha. But seriously, this is a good post. I am still sure I'll screw up backlit photography pretty much every time, but you make it look easy.

    1. Oh I'm sure you're serious! But bad news: it's not the back-lighting in itself that evens out the skin. It's the EVEN lighting. You still need lighting on your face, but the camera is able to expose for it. In real life, you would need something reflecting on you all the time. :)

      Well, that's a good attitude! How about just giving it a bit of practice? No one just does it perfectly from the start!




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