Backlight is probably my favorite light! In fact, I used it so much my daughter said to me one time, "I want contrasty light, not your kind of light." My kind of light is backlighting and I am excited to share some tips and tricks with you. Now backlight can be tricky...it is definitely a lighting scenario that lends itself well to shooting in manual. But never fear...there are ways to get around it when shooting in other modes, specifically Aperture Priority. I wouldn't recommend shooting in Auto for backlight because you can end up with a dark subject. If you've ever shot into the light with your iPhone you most likely have dark or silhouetted photos. I want to show you how to get that dreamy backlight without ending up with dark unusable photos.
that beautiful halo of light
Backlighting creates gorgeous rim light. Basically, where the rim of your subject is evenly lit. This is most pronounced in hair but if you start looking for it, you'll see it lots of places. If you are like me, you'll start oohing and ahhing when you see it because it is just so pretty. Start paying attention to your favorite TV shows and movies and I guarantee the Directors of Photography are consistently using backlight to create beautiful ambience on their sets.
One thing I didn't know when I first started experimenting with backlight was that the background matters (a lot!) Shooting against a dark background will really make a difference in the overall effect. When you start to see the backlight, you'll notice that sometimes it only takes a small step left or right to change the background of your image from a bright sky to a more contrasty background like a row of trees or a building. Here are two examples from a shoot I did in Palm Springs. The light was incredible and about to set behind the mountains. In fact, it set behind the mountains and we got in the car and literally chased the light to a new spot where the sun was still visible.
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Here you have perfectly even rim light (both sides are illuminated evenly) lighting up her hair and skirt. The lens flare (in my opinion) adds to the beauty. You do have to be careful that lens flare, if present, doesn't land on your subject's face or otherwise distract from the image.
well executed backlight
Well executed backlight makes your subject POP off of the background. Especially if you have a subject with dark hair against a dark background. It will give definition and illuminate your subject. Here are a couple of examples of what I would consider really good rim light that makes the subject light up. Backlight + genuine expression + natural movement=amazing portrait!
Water, sand and dust never looked so good
You will start to look at sand, fog, smoke, water, dirt in a whole new way! If you've ever watched the Handmaid's Tale (the lighting on set is AH-Mazing!) you'll notice a lot of dust floating in the light coming through the windows. It really helps define the beams of light just like smoke at a concert gives you all of the lighting effects.
Well, you can take advantage of this too. Look for sun backlighting the water from a sprinkler, smoke from the grill, dust from the vacuum...once you train your eye to look for it, you'll be amazed at what you see. Trust me!
Here are some examples from my own personal archives...
the technical stuff (yuck, i know!)
As I mentioned earlier, backlighting can be tricky because the amount of light flowing into your camera via the lens can send that little computer inside your camera into a tizzy as it tries to calculate the perfect exposure. That's right, it's just a tiny computer that's trying to find the perfect combination of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO to give you the perfect image. But all that light just makes your camera crazy. It finds it hard to focus, and usually spits out dark pictures because it is tricked by the light.
The solution? Take control of your camera. That's at the heart of shooting in manual. YOU do the thinking not the tiny computer inside of your camera. YOU choose what aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focal point to get the photo YOU envision.
That being said, this is a blog geared toward beginning photographers and manual can be difficult. Especially when you are first learning. So I have a little hack...some may poo poo it but it has worked well for me. It involves Aperture Priority Mode (Av on Canon, A for everyone else) + Exposure Compensation.
In Aperture Priority mode, you set the Aperture. So if you want a blurry background, you set the Aperture to a small number (for more specific instruction on achieving a blurry background click here) and then the camera takes care of the rest. This can result in a dark image so I like to set my exposure compensation to +1 or +2 depending on how bright it is outside. (If you don't know how to change the exposure compensation on your camera search "How do I change my exposure compensation on my Camera/Make/Model" on Youtube. Guarantee you it is there!) Then, the camera says to itself (in the most un-technical terms possible) "I think this is the perfect exposure but she is telling me to make it brighter so I am going to do that." And then you chimp on the back of the camera (that means you take a look at the final picture) and make adjustments from there. In general, this is a great place to start if you aren't familiar with shooting in manual. It also gives you much more control than shooting in Auto where your results will be inconsistent at best.
What to watch out for when backlighting
It isn't "if" you see the following...it is "when" you see the following it is important to understand how to remedy the situation. I've had entire shoots that I thought would be incredible turn to s&*t because I didn't understand how to fix the issue.
Muddy skin/lack of light in the eyes
Because the sun is behind your subject, you need to make sure that there is some light behind you or bouncing back onto your subject or you can get dark, muddy skin and no light in their eyes. Some ways to avoid this is to have a reflective surface behind you (a white wall, water, sand) or use a piece of white foam board to bounce some light back at your subject. You can also brighten your subject in Photoshop or Lightroom but remember, you can't fix a very dark subject. It will just get grainy and super dirty looking so best to get it right in camera.
Haze can be beautiful but too much haze can ruin an image. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder so it is really up to you how much haze is good haze. I'd say if the haze completely washes out your subject, most likely it is too much haze.
unwanted sun or lens flare
Pay special attention to this one! Aside from the fact that your camera can have a hard time focusing in backlight, it is really hard to see the screen in bright, backlit situations. It is easy to think you've gotten a great shot, only to find out when you get it on the computer that the entire series was out of focus.
Your camera uses contrast between light and dark to determine focus. Oftentimes, when trying to focus into the light, your lens will hunt and peck for focus. That is that mechanical sound you hear when your camera can't grab the focus. You can turn slightly and focus against something with more contrast, hold your focus by keeping the button depressed and then reframe your shot.
Incorporating backlight into your repertoire is not only beautiful but another way to elevate your photography. This is something that's very difficult, if not impossible to do on your phone camera.
The keys to great backlight
Related Articles: My Biggest Focus Fails and How You Can Avoid Them
Andrea Ferenchik, Founder
Andrea started The Big Girl School because she loves sharing her passion of photography with other women. As a former trainer at Microsoft and current professional photographer, she has the unique ability to break down technical jargon of the camera into easy to understand language. She loves nothing more than to see her students grow and thrive in their photographic journey.
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