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Backlight: Illumination from Behind

How to achieve beautiful backlight in photos

In photography terms, it is exactly the same.  We have all seen images with a beautiful, sunny haze and glow behind the subject.  Whether the light source is the sun or artificial, backlight can be used to create jaw dropping images.  Shooting backlit images can be tricky, and it is my hope to give you a few tips to try it out successfully.  

When I first started shooting, I played it safe. I only shot in open shade.  The light was always even and predictable.  I could always nail my exposure and focus.  I did get some great images, but I felt as if something was missing.  It was the sun.  For the majority of my backlit images I use the sun followed by window light. 

Shooting into the light creates some challenges.  The biggest, I feel is the difficulty in focusing.  It is extremely difficult for your camera's autofocus to work when shooting into the sun or other light source.  I would get so frustrated when I first started shooting into the sun.  You know that sound, that uurrr uurr of your lens unable to focus?  It is irritating and could cause you to toss your ideas aside.  If your camera focuses, it is often locked in on something other than your subject.  But do not give up!

To avoid this problem there are a few solutions.  Personally, I almost always use my free hand to block the sun going into my lens.  That allows me to lock in my focus.  I then move my hand and shoot.  Often times the use of a lens hood can help block enough of the light to get a perfect focus.  Also, if you have an assistant handy, they can hold an object (like a reflector or something similar) in front of the light source so that you can lock in  your focus.  

 

To achieve a backlit image, you must put your subject between you and the light source.  When scouting for locations, I always look for a spot where I can shoot into the sun.  Open fields will always give you that option.  I do like to shoot with the sun coming through a line of trees as well.  Large windows also are perfect light source.    Honestly, if you can see the light during the day (outside or inside), you can position your subject to get a backlit image.

Often times the light source is in the frame.  You can also have the light just on the edge of the picture or directly behind the subject.  Both give different effects (sun flare, exposure on subject, etc) and are fun to play with to achieve the look you wish.  The lovely effect of rim light (the thin outline of light around the edge of your subject) is also easy to create using backlight. 

Using backlight, you are also able to create silhouette images.  Instead of exposing for your subjects, use your light meter to expose for the background.  Whether it is the sky or an artificial light source, a crisp silhouette can be created.  

Backlit images are best shot while using manual mode.  It is also helpful to shoot a RAW file.  Controlling all of the settings will allow you manage the perfect exposure on your subject.  Typically when I shoot a backlit image, I will shoot with my aperture wide open (around 2.0).  I will also shoot with a low ISO (400 or less).  It is important to use spot metering and manually choose your focal point.  That will ensure you are getting proper exposure on your subject's face.  (If your subject's face needs a little more light, try to use a reflector to bounce light back on his or her face.) 

Figuring your settings to properly expose your subject often leads to overexposed skies in the background.  This is when the importance of shooting in RAW is helpful.  You can bring back so much information in images that are shot in the RAW format.  Doing so in Lightroom is an easy task.  

Here is a before and after image.  The red areas in the before picture show the areas that are overexposed.  (and yes, my white balance was a little way too cool.  That's the bonus of knowing how to use Lightroom to its fullest extent.)

Backlit images are romantic, dreamy, and maybe a little mysterious.  The hazy light helps create a mood in your images.  The most memorable photographs evoke emotion.  Using backlighting in your images will help make your photography achieve those things.  

 


Allison Wheeler
is a lover of lifestyle photography from Norman, Oklahoma. Her eyes were opened to photography by toying with Instagram in 2010. She got a camera soon after and learned to use it by documenting her life with her husband and three young sons. She now happily does the same for others, from births to weddings and almost everything in between. To see Allison's most recent work, visit her Facebook page. She often gets on Pinterest to avoid cleaning her house.

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