I am often asked, “what is the best way to get beautiful light in my images?”, and, without knowing what gear they have or the time of day the shoot is happening, my answer is always, “backlight your subject.”
So what is backlighting in photography?
Backlighting is simply, placing the light behind your subject. It really isn’t that hard, and by doing this you create soft shadows on the face that give the image a portrait feel. Take a look at the sweet graphic I created below to see what I mean:
By doing this, you put the shadow on their face, while the bright side is to their back. This automatically softens the light, because the light that is hitting their face is soft light that is being bounced off the ground or buildings, or whatever else is close by.
To get beautiful light that creates beautiful images, you need a large, defused light source.
By putting the light behind your subject, you are placing your main light source (the sun) behind and allowing only bounced light to illuminate your subject’s face.
The bouncing of sunlight off the ground, a structure or anywhere, creates the large, diffused light source you need for beautiful soft light. Take a look at these images below.
Same couple, same time of day, different angle. I shot both because I knew the couple would want an image with the front of the car. But I knew I would prefer the lighting if they were back lit.
The first image, the couple kissing is harsh, direct sunlight. The second image is backlighting. What differences do you notice?
This first image, with the front of the car doesn’t look bad, but that’s because I worked the heck out of it in Lightroom. You can tell because there is no real back-point (true black) in the image, and her dress is almost a dishwater color.
That’s because I was fighting to bring detail into the car and their faces with the Whites and the Highlights sliders which sacrificed the dress a bit. It is an acceptable image, don’t get me wrong, but it is not beautiful light, that’s for sure.
The second image -the couple looking at the camera, I have backlit the couple. The sun is behind their backs. Look at the great lighting on their faces! Beautiful. It’s almost studio lighting with one side of the face in soft shadow to give dimension to the image. This is because they are being lit by light that is bouncing off the front of the car and the cement.
With these next images of the high school senior, the school letters are in the worst possible place! I wouldn’t have selected this location because of the shadows, but she wanted it. So I shot it for her, but look at the shadows coming through the trees and the sun on her face. Not that impressive. Not to mention the fence and the ugly school in the background.
But, after getting the obligatory shot, I got the shot I wanted next. I backlit her by having her turn her head away from the light and cropped out most of the letters she is sitting on and focused on her and the cherry blossoms. Which do you prefer?
Don’t be afraid to back light!
It does take making some adjustments to how you shoot (which we will cover later in the email, but it’s worth it for the great lighting.
It was so bright during this engagement shoot, but even still, with backlighting it came out looking great. From everywhere around, light is bouncing onto them and creating a soft, pleasing image.
Shooting in Open Shade
Open shade is a great way to get that bounced beautiful light in your images. The images below are all open shade. In the first image below we were up a canyon, so we were shaded by the mountain. That made it easy.
This next image has a man who is, ahem, folic-ly challenged, or bald for my less PC crowd. And with this type of client it is imperative that you find open shade. No one want their head to be the brightest spot in the image. No one.
Problems from backlighting your subject
Now shooting like this, can present some problems. But like any problem, there are solutions. So before you give up whole-cloth on backlighting, try to adopt some of the solutions first.
When you backlight your subject, your camera is naturally going to underexpose your images. Unexposed simply means your image is darker than you would like it to be.
The reason this happens is because your subject is in the shadows (the shadows caused by having the sun at their back) and your camera allows the shadows to darken, -like you would want with any shadow.
Fixing this problem is easy.
First, we could always fix it later in Lightroom. To be honest, I have underexposed my images many, many times and Lightroom has saved me each and every time. However, it is always better to fix it in camera.
To fix this issue you need to become familiar with your Exposure Compensation Dial. Look for a button on your camera that has the + and the – on it. See the image below.
What this button does, is tell your camera that you want the exposure to be BRIGHTER or DARKER than what the camera thinks it should be. As you hold this button down and use the scroll wheel to go into positive numbers, your camera will overexpose your next images by the amount of stops you select.
The opposite happens if you go into the negative numbers, your camera will underexpose the next image you take by the amount of stops you select. This oft-overlooked setting will allow you to shoot backlit.
So if you shoot an image that is backlit and see on your camera screen that it is way too dark, simply set your exposure compensation to a +1.0 and take the shot again. You will see a marked difference.
During a shoot I change the exposure compensation MORE OFTEN than I change any other setting on my camera. More often than f-stop, focal length (zooming), shutter speed, or anything else.
So get to know your friendly exposure compensation button. Now, if you think you’ve found the button on your camera, and it has a little lightning bolt by it, that is NOT the right button. That is exposure compensation for your flash, so keep looking. A lot of modern cameras have them in the display menu on the back and not a button on the outside.
FLARE & FADING
Another issue with backlighting is that your camera is facing into the sun, causing flare and a fading & desaturation of your images. Flare is hugely popular right now, I even sell some Lightroom Presets that lets you add sun flare to any image, but that doesn’t change the fact that at times, it is not wanted. This is fixed most often by a lens hood.
A lens hood should have come with your lens, but if it didn’t you can get one Amazon. Simply search the lens hood section for the one that fits your specific lens. Click here to see the lens hood selection at Amazon. But the sole purpose of a lens hood is to keep the sun out of your lens, exactly what we need when we are backlighting our subjects.
LOSS OF BRIGHTNESS IN THE EYES
This is a big one for me. I love to see the life in someone’s eyes when I am photographing them, and I hate it when my pictures don’t allow thier brightness to shine through in my images. This can be overcome with the help of a reflector. It doesn’t have to be a large one, but one that simply puts that light back into their eyes.
The two engagement images below were both backlit, but the sparkle in the couples eyes have been brought back because of a reflector. By using a reflector on this very bright day, I was able to backlight them to get the soft light on their faces while still getting that sparkle in their eyes.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
We’ve all heard the phrase, practice makes perfect, right? Well, it definitely applies to photography. So, your task is to practice what you’ve learned. For the next couple of days practice shooting your subject backlit.
Photography is the capture of light, so it is absolutely imperative that you are aware of, and trying to get, the best light you can for your images. If you don’t have time to practice actually shooting with your subject backlit, try to notice it with your eyes. Look at bushes, trees, and telephone poles. Notice which side is backlit and which side is not. By doing this, you will automatically know which direction you would need to place your subject if your were going to take some images.
Start noticing people’s faces when they are backlit and when they are not. Notice the harsh shadows when they are not backlit as opposed to the soft light if they are. I can’t help but notice the lighting in TV and movies now. It just stands out to me, and that’s because I spend my days seeking good light in my photography.
Ready to Learn More?
To learn more about about photography, check out my books to really help you learn how to become an awesome photographer. Two books cover what I taught you here, my book, “Get the Picture: A Photographer’s Guide to Essential Camera Skills,” and my book on light, “Seeing Light: A Photographer’s Guide to Mastering Light.”