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How To Effectively Use Backlight in Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

In this article we’ll show you how to use backlighting for flattering portraits and how to create a correct exposure with it.
Backlighting in photography happens when the main light is behind your subject and facing the camera.
Don’t mistake this for background lighting. That illuminates the background. Backlighting illuminates your subject from behind.
Backlight photography can be challenging, especially if you’re used to using the auto exposure modes on your camera. It’s easy to create an unpleasant exposure with a strong light behind your subject.

A portrait of a young child jumping with joy, shot using backlight photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Why Is Backlighting Challenging?

Light behind your subject facing towards your camera has a strong influence on exposure.
If you do not take a careful light meter reading and set your camera well, your subject will appear too dark and underexposed.

A backlit photo of purple orchids
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

With auto exposure settings you will need to compensate for the strong light affecting your camera’s choice of exposure.
With manual mode you must choose appropriate exposure settings so your subject is well exposed and looks the way you want it to.
At times you will want your subject to appear darkened, creating a silhouette effect. When you want your subject to be well exposed, you will need to ensure your camera meter reads the light reflecting off your subject only.

How Can You Expose a Backlit Photograph Well?

During the workshops we teach I find that most beginner photographers have their camera light meter set to default mode. Many of them are often not aware of the other metering options.

A close up portrait of a female model shot using backlight in photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Method 1: Use Spot Metering

I prefer to set my camera’s exposure meter to the ‘spot’ mode for backlit photographs. In this mode the meter will take its reading from a very small area of the composition, rather than the whole frame.
It will most likely take a light reading from the point that it’s focused on. Different makes and models of camera vary on this, so consult your camera manual to be sure.
If you take a spot meter reading from the wrong place in your photo your exposure will be incorrect.
Learning to use the spot metering system will help you make more accurately exposed backlit photographs. It will also help you gain a better understanding of light.
You can make use of the spot meter in any lighting situation, not only for backlighting. I use it frequently, so have programmed one of my camera’s function buttons to activate the spot meter when I press it.

Method 2: Use Manual Mode to Determine Exposure

Alternatively, you can use your camera’s monitor to determine the exposure. Many cameras, when set to manual mode, will show how the exposure will appear on the monitor in live view mode.
By paying careful attention to the light reflecting off a backlit subject you can make exposure adjustments to obtain the look you want. You will see the effect of these changes in real time on your camera’s monitor.
You can leave your exposure set to the default mode if you are unsure about using the spot meter or manual mode. When you have taken a photo of your backlit subject, check your monitor to see how it looks.
If it is too dark, use the exposure compensation and dial in plus one or plus two compensation. Take another photo and review. Keep tweaking the compensation until you are happy with the way your subject looks.
This method will be slower to use because of the need to take a number of photos and check each before making exposure adjustments.

Use a Reflector to Soften the Contrast

I almost always use spot metering for portraits, taking a reading from my subject’s face. This gives me the information I need to create a photo so their skin tone will be exposed correctly.
Typically, I will use a reflector to bounce light back into their face so the contrast in the photo is not so high.

A portrait of a rice farmer at work shot using a reflector to bounce the light
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Adding reflected light onto a subject will help bring a balance. In my portrait of this rice farmer, I used a large reflector to enable the exposure on his face to be similar to the exposure in the background.
The photo below was made without a reflector and my exposure was set for the background, so my subject is dark.
Had I set my exposure for his skin tone and not used a reflector the background would have been very overexposed.

An overexposed portrait of a rice farmer at work - how to use backlight for portrait photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Exposing For The Background

Sometimes you will want to expose your photo so the light in the background is good and your subject is underexposed. You can create silhouettes like this.

The silhouette of a pagoda against a stunning sunset
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Making a spot meter reading from the background will give you a more accurate exposure setting than if you make an averaged reading.
If you have your exposure meter set to read from the whole frame it will also take your subject into account and give a reading accordingly.
This may cause your background to be somewhat overexposed. This will vary on how much of your composition your subject takes up.
However, you choose to make an exposure reading, be very careful of the light source. If your light source is very strong it will have a significant effect on your exposure.
Photographing directly towards the sun when it is at a low angle is a situation where your exposure can be adversely affected.
I wanted some detail to be retained in the foreground of this photo of a shelter in the rice fields. Had I included the sun fully and used averaged metering, my photo would have been a lot darker.
I would have lost all detail in the foreground because it would have been underexposed.

The silhouette of a rice shack at evening time - what is backlighting in photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

I positioned myself so the sun was partially blocked by the tree. Setting my camera to use the spot meter, I then made a reading from the cut rice in the foreground.
After making an exposure I then checked the image on my camera’s monitor and tweaked the exposure until I was satisfied with it.

How to Use Backlight for Creative Photography

Backlighting most often results in a composition which is not evenly exposed. If you’re of the belief that a nice bell-shaped histogram is desirable, give it up now. It’s not going to happen in backlit photos.
But this is not a bad thing. In fact, forgetting about technical perfection will let you capture some interesting effects using the backlight.
Take this image of a fern, for example.

A fern leaf shot with backlighting photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Composing the photo of a fern, I could see all the detail in the background. I purposefully set my exposure for the fronds of the plant. The background would be underexposed.
Having the light coming from behind the fern, and the background being in the shade, my main subject was isolated.

Get Creative With Translucent Subjects

Translucent subjects look fabulous when they are backlit. Some of the light passes through smoke, water spray, leaves, flags and other translucent things.
This enhances them with a somewhat surreal luminosity.
Look for these types of things where you can compose them with a dark background to make them really pop.

old asian woman smoking a pipe in colourful clothing with a black background
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Place the Light Source Low to Create Artistic Flare

Backlighting in photography can produce many varied styles of pictures. Depending on where the camera, subject, and light source are in relation to each other you will have different results.
A light source which is low, down, and behind your subject can cause lens flare. This is great if it’s the effect you want, or lens flare can ruin a photo.
To minimize lens flare use a lens hood and position yourself so the light is not coming into your lens.
Hiding the light source behind the subject can work when your subject is large enough and close enough to your camera.

A dreamy portrait of a female shot using backlight
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

When the light source is higher, you may still get some flare. If I do not want this, I will often shade the front of my lens with my left hand.
The higher above your subject the light source is, the less dramatic the backlighting effect will be.

A pagoda surrounded by water - backlighting in photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Move around your subject. Watch how your camera position changes the way the light looks as it falls on your subject.
If you can control where your light and subject are in relationship to each other, you can position them to your satisfaction.
If you cannot move them, you may need to consider returning at a different time of day to capture the image you have in mind.
Using the sun as a light source requires that you are in a position to make your photos at the right time of the day.
If you are someplace in the morning and the light is not right, consider how it may look in the evening. You might be able to produce a photo with far more interesting backlighting.

Take Balanced Street Portraits With Backlighting

Strong contrast in backlit photos can create drama. When you add another light source or reflector as a fill light on your subject it brings balance to your exposure. This is how I prefer to light my portraits.
In the street, I am looking for situations where backlit subjects have something reflecting light onto their faces.
This example of a woman shopping at the market has light reflecting off the white plastic box in front of her onto her face.

A portrait of two street market vendors shot using backlighting
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Controlling the light by using a reflector helps me obtain better exposures when I am making portraits using my outdoor studio.
Without any reflection back into the subject’s face, their skin tone would be too dark. In this photo of the Karen woman there is also light reflecting off the tray of rice.

A portrait of a karen woman against a black backgrounf - backlighting in photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Post-Processing Backlit Photography

Backlit photos often benefit from at least a little tweaking in post. JPEG files will not stand up to so much manipulation, so don’t forget to shoot in RAW.
Typically with photos where there’s high contrast, the camera will not render details in both the lightest and darkest areas. Post-processing backlit photos to enhance these areas will help make more interesting photos.
In the photo of the market scene above, I lightened the man’s face. There was not so much light reflected onto his face as there was on his customer’s face.
The photo looked a little unbalanced, so I dodged his face and shirt a little. I also darkened the background and foreground to bring balance.
With a dark background I will most often deepen the shadows and blacks to heighten the effect. With portraits, I am careful to retain clarity in my subject’s face and good skin tones.

A portrait of a Lahu Man - How To Use Backlighting in Photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

Experiment! Backlighting can be tricky. The more you practise, the more you will understand how each situation, subject, and light source behave differently. And you’ll be able to use backlighting more effectively.

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