Collage of two images and one infographic stating shooting with backlight

Multiple factors go into creating images that stand out. And one of them is lighting. It’s important to ensure that you have the right lighting to deliver stunning images to your clients. When used creatively, lighting has the power to elevate your images from good to outstanding. On the other hand, poor lighting could, in fact, ruin an otherwise well-composed image. Think of harsh lighting and washed-out photos! When shooting your subjects directly in front of the light, backlighting is a technique that you can use to create quality images. For your help, we’ve shared the guide to explain what is backlighting in photography and how to create stunning backlit images!

What Is Backlighting In Photography?

A silhouette of a bride and groom at an indoor space with backlight at the backgroundImage Credit: ShootDotEdit Customer @erinm_photography

To begin with, to understand what is backlight or backlighting in photography, let’s take a look at a standard photography lighting scenario. In any lighting scenario, we have three main components - the light source, the subject, and the camera. And any or all variations in a lighting scene are a result of either change in the position of these components or the quality of light. Because apart from determining how dark or bright your image is, the way you light a scene plays a big role in setting the look and feel of your image - especially the mood and tone you choose to depict through the photos that you create. The principle is simple - how you manipulate light in the images that you take will be a key deciding factor in the creative approach you take in telling your visual story. Now, let’s get to the technique!

When shooting with a backlight, the (main) light source is often positioned behind the (primary) subject. This is in contrast to a standard lighting scenario where the light source is placed behind the camera in the direction of the subject. Whereas the golden glow that you might notice at the back or edges of the subject formed due to placing the primary subject between the main light source and the camera indicates that backlighting is what creates this effect.

The Purpose & Effects Of Using Backlighting

infographic stating backlighting helps create a sense of separation between the primary subject and the background

While you might be tempted to use this technique to add a glint of light to your images, backlighting might not be the ideal lighting setup for every scenario. In fact, at times, it might not even be right for your scene at all. That is because not all subjects could be easily backlit. However, the correct understanding of how and when to use this lighting technique can help you give your images the look you desire. So if you have been struggling to understand why and how to use backlight for creative purposes, this list might give you some clarity.

  • Creating A Sense Of Depth: One of the common reasons why many photographers tend to take backlit photos is to add a sense of depth to the scene by emphasizing on the contrasts behind the subject.

  • Adding Some Drama: Backlit images also tend to introduce a dramatic contrast between the subject and the background. Therefore, making backlighting one of the mediums for photographers to add a dramatic mood to any scene.

  • Separating The Subject From The Background: When the subject and the background completely blend with each other in terms of tonality, colors, patterns, etc., backlighting can help you break the monotony and create a more striking image by introducing an impression of separation between the subject and the background.

  • Giving A 3-D Effect: Like we just mentioned, backlighting helps create a sense of demarcation between the primary subject and the background and, by doing that, it also helps in giving a 3-D effect to your images.

  • Experimenting With Style And Technique: Apart from all the benefits mentioned above, backlighting gives you the scope to experiment with the lighting effect and try out different perspectives. There’s a lot that you can do using a backlight - because there are multiple ways to illuminate a subject from behind.

  • Suggested Read: 5 Tips To Identifying The Characteristics Of Photography Lighting

    Tips To Create Stellar Backlit Images

    Initially, backlighting in photography can seem like a bit of a challenge! But applying these tips and continuous practice could help you get it right!

    1. Switch To Manual Mode

    Before you even begin shooting with the backlight, switch your camera settings to the manual mode, rather than automatic. This will help you gain more control over adjusting the exposure. Sometimes, in harsh lighting situations, your camera can have difficulties in knowing where to focus, and what you might end up with is a blurry image. Moreover, backlighting in photography could be tricky to get right when the camera is set to the automatic mode. By default, the Auto mode is set to adjust the settings in order to lead to a perfectly well-lit image, which, in turn, could result in overexposing your backlit images. Therefore, switching to the manual mode will help you gain more creative control over the camera settings.

    2. Choose The Right Time Of Day For Shooting

    A couple posing for an engagement shoot at a streetsideImage Credit: ShootDotEdit Customer @photography_by_orlando

    Even though you can opt to shoot backlit images at any time of the day, a window of some specific hours favors the process naturally. That time of the day when the sun naturally acts as a soft natural light source and offers a beautiful glow can really bring the best out of your backlit images. Some of the best times to capture this radiant orange glow is either in the morning after the sun rises or right before it sets as the day comes to an end (often known as the golden hour).

    When the sun is closer to the horizon, the glow permeates the landscape amid which you shoot your couple. As you plan engagement shoots or wedding day photography, try to include the golden hour in your schedule so that you can capture images that bask in the golden hues.

    3. Position The Light & Your Subject Correctly

    How you end up positioning your subject, camera, and lighting determines everything. Place your camera in the direction of the subject and position your subject in a way so that the backlight is directly behind the subject. This will help create a light spill effect, where the light seems to spill from behind the outline of your subject. Moreover, if you are adding any center lighting to direct some light to your subject’s face, keep the source hidden in front of the subject. 

    And don’t forget to take some test shots! Adjusting the lighting, the camera, and the subject to achieve the desired effect might take some trial and error. In addition to this, posing your subject against a dark-colored background can help you draw more attention to the subject.

    4. Use Spot Metering

    infographic stating spot metering allows the camera to focus on a set spot and expose it as best as possible

    Spot metering allows the camera to focus on a set spot and, therefore, expose it as best as possible. This function is available on most of the high-quality professional DSLR cameras. Spot metering is perfect for backlighting, and with a bit of practice, it can become really simple! Shooting in light that is less than ideal can create an issue when it comes to properly exposing your subjects. Use spot metering to bring the focus to your subject and expose the scene for the subject than the background. If, for instance, your subject is a person’s face, try setting up the focus close to the subject’s eyes.

    5. Camera Settings

    Having the correct camera settings in place can help you make the most of the scene. And in backlighting, due to the position of the light source, the subject’s front might appear a bit darker than the background itself. Which might require you to have to overexpose the scene slightly. To help you gain the desired effect, set the aperture to a wide f-stop (anywhere between f/2.8 to f.5.6). Experiment with the shutter speed by adjusting it between 1/100 and 1/640, all the while, setting the ISO to a standard 100. However, note that as much as these settings might help you shoot better with a backlight, they are not absolute values. Always be open to experimenting and change as and when needed, depending on the situation at hand.

    6. Diffuse The Sun

    infographic stating use the surroundings of the subject as an object to create the sun flare effect

    When backlighting your subjects, the sun does not always need to be in the full frame of your camera. Knowing exactly how to master the sun flare look while still keeping your subjects properly exposed is not the easiest look to achieve; so start by diffusing the sun. Find a location where the sun can be partially covered by your camera, while still allowing the light to shine onto your subjects. How? Just look for spots that have buildings or trees. These elements will allow you to achieve a beautiful backlit portrait. And the interesting backdrops they create will be a bonus!

    Related Read: How To Take Good Pictures In Bright Sunlight

    7. Experiment With Different Angles

    As is the case in any type of photography, the importance and need of this step stays true for backlighting as well. Start out with a few trial and error shots, get those test shots and carefully analyze them for improvement. Once you get the lighting and the settings right, try to compose and take some safe shots that you know will work. But once you have a couple of safe shots, do not hesitate to experiment and try out different angles for more variation. There is always a scope for creative curation and improvement. Moreover, different camera angles could help you add different perspectives to your scene and subject.

    8. Set The White Balance

    Another integral factor that you need to get right to bring out the best of colors in the scene is white balance. White balance allows you to adjust the intensities of colors in the scene for the camera to process them as close to the natural colors as possible. However, since shooting with a backlight involves adjusting the camera settings as per multiple lighting setups, it could get a bit tricky to get it right. To learn more about what is white balance, and how to adjust it to achieve more natural colors, give this article a read. Even though you could try to fix your photo’s white balance during the post-processing phase, it is just less time-consuming and simpler to get it right at the very beginning.

    9. Use Of Reflector

    One of the best ways to bounce the light back to the subject’s face or front is through the use of a reflector. Especially, when you are photographing in a natural light setting, the light is ever-changing, and therefore properly lighting up your subject can be a bit of a challenge. However, with the use of reflectors, you can fill in the shadows that form on your subject’s face/front by using soft light.

    10. Adding Fill Light & Fill Flash

    A silhouette of a couple sitting by the bonfireImage Credit: ShootDotEdit Customer @kellyiswilde

    We have said this earlier, and we’ll say it again - make the flash a staple in your camera bag. We have covered several ways to use off-camera flash in previous blog posts, and when it comes to backlighting images, flash can be used in a variety of ways. Not only can it help add light to your subjects when the backlight is very strong, but an off-camera flash can also help CREATE backlight for your images!

    While backlit images can be achieved without a flash - allowing the natural light to give a soft glow or hazy look to the entire image - if, however, your signature style calls for a more dramatic image or perhaps, there is a lack of a strong backlight source, this is where a flash can really save the day! By placing one in front of your subjects, you will still retain the glow from the sun, but at the same time, the additional light from the flash will ensure that your subjects look more well-defined. 

    Throw in a stunning pose to this composition, and it might fetch you a thumbs up from your clients as well as their friends and family when they share the pictures on social media. And when it comes to social media, we don’t even need to tell you that the more the likes, the better!

    Quick Tip: If you are shooting on a day when the sun is not visible (or even after the sun has set), you can still create a backlit image for your clients with a little help from a flash. Just place the light behind the subjects, and you’ll see how it highlights them with a gorgeous rim light.

    Suggested Read: Flash Photography Tips: A Brief Intro To Artificial Lighting

    Unique Backlighting Techniques

    infographic stating experimenting with different backlighting scenarios and settings can help you yield different results.

    1. Silhouette Backlighting

    Although backlighting can be difficult to master at first, it is a helpful skill to have for a photographer. Moreover, experimenting with different backlighting scenarios and settings can help you yield different results. And in the points listed below, we walk you through some of those scenarios.

    Silhouettes are often an intriguing photo element and can be creatively used to evoke interest in a scene and bring attention to a subject’s outline. In order to create a perfect silhouette, completely obstruct the view of the camera and the main light source by bringing the subject directly in front of the light source. This leads to a blacked-out subject with no to very limited light toward them. 

    At times, this kind of backlighting can help tell a story and bring a change in perspective. However, to make the silhouettes appear interesting, it is essential to keep two things in mind -

    1) the surroundings and background of the scene;

    2) the outline or pose of the subject. The more spaced out and clearly defined the outline of the subject, the more striking the final image would turn out to be. Therefore, you could ask your subject to spread out or stretch a bit to create some gap between their legs and arms. This is done so that you do not end up with a black block instead of a creative silhouette. You could put the silhouette backlighting technique to use for a variety of subjects such as animals, architecture, and so on.

    Suggested Read: Silhouette Wedding Photography Inspiration From ShootDotEdit Customers

    2. Creating Sun flare

    Sun flare is a common occurrence in the process of creating images with backlight. However, it helps to learn how to create it effectively as a creative element to add to your scene. One of the ways to get sun flare (or a sunlight peek-a-boo effect) is to place the camera in the position of backlighting and then simply move the camera slowly until you come to a spot that gives you the desired amount of sun flare. In addition to your subject, also use the surroundings of the subject as an object to create the sun flare effect. Trees often make for a great object for peeking sun flare backlighting effect.

    3. Rim Light

    Rim light is a type of lighting setup where the subject is positioned to completely block the main light source, therefore creating a highlighted outline around the subject. This type of backlighting provides a dramatic halo-like look and is often used in product photography and moody and dramatic photography. Moreover, it helps to create a sense of separation between the subject and the background all the while highlighting the subject’s contours and shape.

    4. Natural Backlighting Photography

    infographic stating the golden hour is the ideal time for incorporating beautiful backlit portraits into your portfolio

    In natural settings, the sun acts as your primary light source. And when you position your subject against the sun with the camera facing the subject’s front, it acts as a natural backlight. You can further reflect the natural light to brighten the subject’s face with a soft ambient light. As we said before, the golden hour provides the perfect window after sunrise or before sunset for incorporating beautiful backlit portraits into your portfolio.

    Related Read: All About Natural Light Wedding Photography

    5. Artificial Backlighting Photography

    As a photographer, you are not always shooting outdoors or during the daytime, and even if you are, it might not always be a sunlit day. In moments like these, you can seek the help of artificial lights to recreate the phenomenon of backlighting.

    To achieve that, all you have to do is replace the sun as the main light source with an artificial light source. One of the simplest ways to do this is to place a strobe just behind the subject at some distance. Now to add variation to this, you can place the backlight and the key light in a way so that it creates a 45-degree angle. But more importantly, keep experimenting with the position of the backlight in order to yield different results. 

    Further Read: Profoto: A Lighting Game-Changer For Pro Photographers

    For you to continue to grow as a photographer and diversify your portfolio, mastering lighting techniques is a must. And a sound understanding of backlight photography could help you shoot under challenging lighting conditions and tackle harsh light. If you think that you do not have enough time to learn another lighting technique, we’d recommend you to identify areas of your business that don't need your immediate attention, such as your photography post-processing or album design, and outsource those tasks. This would free up your time and give you back the hours that you can spend mastering lighting of all kinds!

    At ShootDotEdit, we are committed to helping you hone your skills so that you can grow as a wedding photographer. And we also love providing you with our professional photo editing services to lessen your post-production workload and help you focus on building your business instead. To learn more about how we can help you, check out our pricing plans.

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