What Is Backlighting in Photography?


When executed correctly, backlighting can be a great technique to add to your photography skill set. It involves illuminating the primary subject from the back. This might seem to contradict everything we’ve been taught about lighting in photos, but after reading this article, you’ll understand why it’s such a popular […]

When executed correctly, backlighting can be a great technique to add to your photography skill set. It involves illuminating the primary subject from the back. This might seem to contradict everything we’ve been taught about lighting in photos, but after reading this article, you’ll understand why it’s such a popular technique.

We’re going to discuss what backlighting is, why photographers use it, and give some tips on how to optimize your backlighting technique.

What Is Backlighting?

Photo of Person With Backlighting

Every photographic composition has a main light source. Backlighting refers to a particular position of that light source. It’s the method of positioning the light so it faces the camera—or facing the camera towards the light—and placing the subject between the light and the camera.

The majority of the light will come from the back of the subject, hence the term “backlighting.” There are various ways backlighting can be achieved with natural or artificial light. And, when done right, it can produce numerous types of effects on an image that are dramatic and stunning.

Why Should You Use Backlighting in Photography?

There are countless methods of photography, and with every one comes a number of unique effects. Let’s have a look at why photographers use backlighting.

Add Depth

The position of a light source will control shadows in the composition. Backlighting typically highlights the outer part of a subject, which emphasizes the depth of the space behind it. In other words, it’s a great method for capturing a three-dimensional world, whereas other lighting methods can make a composition look flat.

Related: What Is Double Exposure Photography?

Create Contrast

Backlighting creates a contrast between the subject and the backdrop. The brightness of the background and the subject can vary to pretty much any degree—it’s the highlighted outline of the subject that results in the division between it and the backdrop. This creates a more dramatic composition.

It’s not just the opacity of the light that can create contrast, but the effect that the position of the light has on textures. This means that textural contrast will also be amplified.

Capture Silhouettes

Backlighting Silhouette

Not all backlit subjects are silhouettes, but all silhouettes have a lit backdrop. Backlighting is essential for creating this popular, age-old effect.

Silhouettes typically consist of an underexposed (dark) subject with a light source behind it. This creates a brighter background that highlights the subject by wrapping around it. With the right camera settings, you can capture striking silhouettes this way.

Play With Lens Flare

Backlighting Lens Flare

Similar to silhouettes, you can’t capture a lens flare effect without employing a backlighting method. With the right angle, you can capture the scattered rays of the light source, which adds an artistic element to the composition.

It can be achieved by pointing the camera straight at the light source, but this can easily backfire without the right settings. Another method is to angle the subject partially in front of the light, such as the sun, and letting the rest of the rays scatter out from behind it. This blocks out most of the glare and prevents overexposure.

Enhance Translucent Subjects

Backlighting With Translucent Water

Backlighting isn’t essential to capture translucency, but it is a perfect opportunity to make it look more magical. Smoke, water, feathers, leaves, and some fabrics make for great translucent subjects. Backlighting will enhance their textures and shadows, as well as highlight their bright points.

Backlighting Photography Tips

Want to try your hand at capturing a stunning backlit photo? Here are some tips to improve your backlighting technique and style.

Know When Not to Use Backlighting

If you’re new to photography, it might be tempting to try every technique in the book. But it’s important to know when and where to employ these techniques. Backlighting can’t be achieved in just any setting.

If you’re using natural light, it needs to be at the right time, and even artificial lighting won’t suffice if the angle isn’t right. You also need to consider your subject, the environment you’ll be working in, and what type of composition will work best with it.

Natural Lighting Is Best

Golden Hour Backlighting

Natural lighting in photography will always remain top tier, especially during golden hour. Not only do photographers love golden hour for its soft and directional light, but it provides the ideal angle for backlighting.

Backlighting requires the main light source to be behind the subject, and since the sun is so close to the horizon during golden hour, it will illuminate the subject from behind at a horizontal angle. Keep in mind that your time to capture this shot will be limited before the sun moves.

Use Artificial Lighting

Photo Shoot of Woman With Backlighting

Just because natural light is ideal, that doesn’t mean artificial lighting is inferior. As long as you position the light at the right angle, you’ll be able to get a backlit shot. Try to get the light parallel to the subject, and also be mindful of the type of background you’re shooting, as it can affect how well the light translates in the composition.

Sometimes, a bit of light from the front can help make the subject a little more visible in a setting where the backlight doesn’t reflect properly onto its surroundings. So packing a reflector, fill light, or flashlight with your gear isn’t a bad idea.

Select the Spot Meter

Oftentimes, standard exposure settings won’t do your subjects justice, and they can end up underexposed. Putting your camera’s exposure settings on “spot” will allow you to focus it on one area in the frame and determine the best amount of exposure for that point.

Use Manual Mode

Person Adjusting Camera Settings

Using manual mode on your camera gives you more control of the exposure settings. Make minimal adjustments while watching the LCD screen to see the changes in real-time. Be careful with exposure compensation—it’s easier to edit an underexposed photo than bring back the lost details in an overexposed photo.

Related: A Complete Guide to the Exposure Triangle in Photography

Consider the Background

Shooting your subject against a darker background will emphasize the highlighted outline created by backlighting. This doesn’t mean a brighter background is a bad thing; it will simply result in a subtler contrast. It all depends on the style you’re going for.

Also, be mindful of secondary subjects and how their placements might affect the lighting on your primary subject.

Shoot in RAW Format

A RAW file contains all of the unprocessed data of an image. Performing edits later on will be easier than with other formats that don’t preserve all of the original data. This is helpful for backlit photos that need specified exposure editing.

Related: RAW vs. JPEG: Which Is Best for Your Photographs?

Give Backlighting a Go

Backlighting isn’t an easy technique, and it will take some trial and error before mastering it. But once you do, not only will it make you a more skilled photographer, but you’ll end up with more artistic and interesting photographs to add to your portfolio.

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