This article about backlighting might be classified as hobby horsing. On the other hand, after reading it and putting it into practice, you might find I have converted you to a full appreciation of backlighting as perhaps the most beautiful lighting possible for many subjects. I personally seek it out, although it does have its limitations.
Remember the old “rule” about always having the sun behind you – in other words, directly shining on your subject? Well, throw it out. It may be true when you are photographing let’s say a building where you want the detail to be clear and well lit. If photograph a subject like that backlit you may well be disappointed. What you see as a bright blue sky ends up completely washed out as you have to expose for the darker building (or whatever it is). But that rule is one of those “safe” rules which almost invariably prevent you from taking advantage of different lighting conditions and which can cause you to miss some extraordinary photos.
Back lighting is where the source of light is further from the camera than the subject. If the light source is the sun, then your subject has his, her or its back to the sun. The sun doesn’t have to be in the picture but you would be facing it. This tends to give a bright rim or border to your subject. It’s great for photos of people, animals, plants, landscapes and many, many other subjects. Back lighting can make a quite ordinary looking scene take on new life and beauty.
In order for back lighting to work, you have to “expose for the highlights” meaning the exposure will be correct for the brighter part of the photos so that they are not washed out. This can result in rather dark shadow areas. Sometimes this doesn’t matter and looks fine. Other times you may want to preserve some detail in the shadows (a face for example where you want the bright light on the hair and edges but still want to see the person’s face). Fill flash or a reflector come in handy here, but you mustn’t overdo it if you want to preserve the magic of backlighting. By the very nature of backlighting, much of the subject is going to be a bit darker than if it were front lit. Nothing looks more artificial than a backlit photo with heavy fill flash. It looks unnatural because the viewer knows the light is coming from behind and it just doesn’t make sense for the area that is in shadow to be brightly lit.
There is a simple solution to this. If I decide that a backlit subject may need fill flash, I usually use flash exposure compensation to reduce the flash exposure by one or two stops (look it up in your camera manual if you’re not sure how to reduce or increase the flash exposure as opposed to the overall exposure). Then I also shoot the subject without the flash just using existing lighting. That allows me choose the best exposure when I am editing the photos. Very often I will choose the photo without the fill flash.
Don’t avoid backlit subjects. Seek them out. Shoot the sun coming through the leaves or flowers, giving the portrait subject’s hair a beautiful halo, lighting up your landscape from the far side. Include the sun in the picture if it looks good. Don’t avoid these lighting situations.
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at dcpcom.com. Photograph(s) in this article are © David C Phillips, All Rights Reserved.