This is a guide covering backlights and backlighting in photography.
Backlighting can create beautiful images when used correctly, so let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What is Backlighting in Photography?
Backlighting is all about positioning the key light so that it aims at the camera. It also involves positioning the subject between the key light and the camera.
Backlighting can render some cool effects to your images, provided you know exactly what you are doing and have complete control over the exposure.
Backlighting is a challenging genre because it requires you to light the subject from behind.
That means the subject of focus is in silhouette or partially lit. The technique involves both a good knowledge of metering and post-processing.
Every photographic composition requires lighting. The main light is always referred to as the key light.
For a quick refresher on the main light, key light, and backlight (three-point lighting system), check out this visual:
The subject should be facing the camera. However, this is not mandatory because in some compositions as we will see in the following paragraphs, the subject is completely in silhouette, and therefore it makes no difference whether the subject is facing the camera or not.
As a technique, backlighting can be achieved using both ambient light as well as artificial lighting.
You can achieve backlighting in multiple different ways, the result being always that the subject comes in between the key light and the camera.
Why Is It Called Backlighting?
The simple reason that this lighting process is known as backlighting is that the key light is placed behind the subject and aimed at the camera rather than the normal process where the light is aimed at the subject.
What is Backlighting Used For?
Backlighting can help you create several interesting compositions depending on how you place the subject and play around with the key light.
Backlighting is extremely useful for shooting portrait photography as well.
You would normally expect to shoot portrait photography with the key light in front of the subject rather than behind.
So, using backlighting techniques is going against the conventional method. But the results can be very pleasing.
When you are shooting portraits using backlighting you will notice that the subject has a thin strip of light going across his or her shoulder up around his or her head and then across the other shoulder.
This is known as rim lighting and is a beautiful example of how backlighting techniques can be used in portrait photography beautifully.
When using the backlighting technique in portrait photography ensure that the subject is standing against a dark background. Otherwise, the rim lighting effect will not be as effective.
If the subject is standing against a very bright background like the sky, for example, the rim lighting effect will be lost.
Another advantage of using this backlighting technique, especially in portrait photography, is that you can avoid hard shadows, especially when you are shooting under the mid-day Sun.
If you have experience shooting under the midday sun you must have seen that this is an extremely challenging light to shoot portraits in.
The subject will have shadows under the nose and the eyes plus the chin area.
We recommend that you use this technique only when the subject is faced away from the sun therefore the illumination is more homogeneous across the face.
In this discussion, we shall look at several scenarios and backlighting examples and understand how backlighting can be useful as well as the best-case scenarios when backlighting is best done.
What Does Backlighting Do for an Image?
Backlighting can add depth to an image and is one of the primary reasons why many photographers prefer to use backlighting in some of their compositions.
Apart from depth backlighting adds an interesting perspective to a photograph which is impossible to achieve using the standard front lighting or side lighting techniques.
Major Problems in Using Backlighting Technique
Backlighting isn’t without its side effects though. Let’s take some backlighting examples to understand them.
One of the major problems of using the backlight lighting technique is that the camera’s metering system can go haywire when it sees a completely dark silhouette in the frame while the rest of the frame is very bright.
Resultantly, the camera is unable to meter properly for the scene often ending up overexposing the brighter areas while trying to push the shadow.
Which is fine if the camera is set to the right metering mode.
If, however, your camera does not attempt to push the shadow you may in that case use the exposure compensation button to push the exposure slightly so that the face of the subject is properly exposed.
Another suggestion is not to use the exposure compensation method at all.
If you have one of the latest DSLR cameras which has excellent dynamic range and a very low noise threshold you should be able to expose for the bright background and yet retain enough detail in the shadow areas which can be recovered during post-processing.
How Do You Backlight Someone?
As has been explained above backlighting technique involves putting the subject between the backlight source and the camera with the backlight source facing the camera (whether it’s the sun, studio light, etc).
Some photographers prefer to use a fill light or a reflector to bounce some light back onto the subject’s face.
This helps to bring out the subject against the bright background. Ideally, these are the best setups for shooting backlit subjects.
Which Are the Best Times to Shoot Backlit Photography?
The best times to shoot backlit photography are during the early part of the day and the later parts of the afternoon, the proverbial golden hour when the Sun’s rays are almost parallel to the surface of the earth.
During these times of the day, the light is extremely directional and therefore produces the best results.
Backlighting Photography Tips
Backlighting is an interesting photography technique but it is easy to go overboard with it if you are not careful.
We have curated a few pointers for you so that you can understand the best ways to use this technique.
Backlighting is nothing more than a technique of lighting up our subject for a photograph. It is an experimental lighting process, and the results are always proportional to the risks that you are willing to take.
Not many photographers would prefer to backlight the subject because they’re not sure if the results will be anything close to what they envision.
This is completely fine because backlighting is an experimental technique after all.
And that brings us to the caveat emptor part of this tutorial. Backlighting is likely to fail as many times as it is likely to succeed.
There are plenty of reasons not to choose to backlight and there are plenty of situations where backlighting will not work.
1. Don’t Try When Sun is Directly Overhead
For example, backlighting will not work when the sun is directly overhead.
When the sun is directly overhead the light is coming down straight almost perpendicular to the surface.
Backlighting, if any, will happen only at the top of the subject’s head.
Or if you’re photographing architecture backlighting will happen only at the top of the buildings.
2. Try For Silhouettes
Silhouettes are essentially the subject appearing completely dark in the frame with the foreground brightly illuminated and the source of the key light which is usually the Sun’s rays saturating the rest of the frame.
Backlighting allows you to capture silhouettes and is one of the primary reasons why photographers prefer to use this technique.
The technique of creating silhouettes is not a new one. Photographers have been using this technique for ages even during the time of film cameras.
3. Lens Flare
Lens flare is yet another by-product of the technique of backlighting. As a beginner photographer experimenting with backlighting techniques, we don’t recommend that you use the lens flare technique to start.
This is because it is very easy to go wrong with this technique and end up with completely washed-out images or images with large blobs of light on them.
However, if you do want to try this out make sure that you are very careful when trying to photograph lens flare.
It is recommended that you use the subject by shooting from an angle that way partially obscures the light flare.
Otherwise, it can cover the entire composition and ruin the backlighting shot.
To further explore the subject of backlighting and how to master it, check out this in-depth video by Julia Trotti:
The backlighting technique is interesting, but it requires a lot of practice and a lot of experimentation to fine-tune.
It is probably one of the most difficult lighting situations to shoot in because of the limitations of a camera’s metering system. It often requires a lot of practice before one can reach a certain level of proficiency.
Hopefully, the above points should be able to give you a strong footing as you begin your journey into backlight photography.
You can fine-tune your techniques as you grow in experience and use what gives you the best results.
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV! You can find my Model Mayhem profile here.