Backlighting can be one of the most beautiful forms of lighting for any scene.
It's especially eye-catching for portraits.
And while natural light for backlighting purposes is especially nice, you might not always get the look that you want.
Like so many other things in photography, mastering backlighting takes time and practice.
It also requires an understanding of a few technical and compositional tips to maximize your success.
With that in mind, let's explore a few things you need to know to put natural backlighting to work for you. Then we'll look into how to boost the interest of backlighting in Photoshop.
Backlighting: The Pros and Cons
Just as a refresher, backlighting occurs when the light source emanates from behind the subject, as seen in the image above.
There are a few pros and cons to using this type of lighting:
- Backlighting can create highly dramatic scenes.
- Backlighting increases contrast between the background and the subject because the background is full of warm light and the subject is often darker (i.e. silhouetted).
- Backlighting is conducive to telling interesting stories about the subject and their relationship to their surroundings.
- Backlit scenes are notoriously difficult to master because of the wide dynamic range that results from a bright background and a dark foreground, as seen in the silhouetted image above.
- Lens flare can be an issue.
- The "right" amount of backlighting is a hard balance to achieve.
Nevertheless, the benefits of using backlighting often outweigh the challenges that come with it. It's just a matter of taking a measured approach that will give you the best opportunity to take advantage of such beautiful lighting.
The Camera Settings
If you want to make the most of natural backlighting, I suggest you work with the following settings:
- Shoot in manual mode, so that you have complete control over your exposure settings.
- Use a large aperture to minimize depth of field. Anything under f/5.6 should do the trick.
- Use spot metering to take a meter reading off of your subject's face. To get a more accurate reading, shield your lens from the sun with your hand.
- Focus on your model's eyes, again, shielding your lens from the sun with your hand to help your camera get an accurate focus point. Your camera's autofocus will likely not work very well (or at all) in this situation, so manual focus is the way to go.
- Shoot in RAW, that way you have maximum ability to work on the image's features (i.e. exposure, white balance, highlights) in post-processing.
With these basic camera settings, you'll be in a better position to capture the beauty of both your model and the light that's illuminating the scene from behind. Naturally, the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings will depend on the intensity of the light of your specific shooting situation, so to nail those down, simply take a few practice shots.
Take Advantage of Golden Hour
I know this is probably a real "duh" moment, but Golden Hour is the best time to make use of backlighting, simply because it's warm tones are so soft and inviting.
What's more, since the light during Golden Hour is filtered through more of the atmosphere, it's rays are less intense, meaning you have a better chance of balancing the bright background with your subject's face, which will be in shadow. Put simply, the dynamic range at Golden Hour is much more easily tamed than if you were to shoot, say, one or two hours earlier in the evening.
Having said that, each instance of Golden Hour is a little different. Some evenings, the sun's rays might be diminished even further due to cloud cover. On other evenings, the sun's rays might be more intense without the benefit of clouds to lessen their impact.
When this occurs, it's a good idea to filter the sun through something like the canopy of a tree or simply frame the sun out of the image. Again, that helps reduce the dynamic range such that you avoid blown out highlights from the backlighting and underexposed facial features of your subject.
Another option is to place the sun directly behind the subject. This gives the shot a bit of a different vibe because it will create almost a glow around the subject and it will require that you frame a closer view of the subject's face as well.
Shield Your Lens
Obviously, a major concern when shooting a backlit image is the abundance of direct light coming right down the barrel of the lens.
Some of the tricks mentioned in the previous section about filtering out some of that light will help avoid damaging your lens.
However, it's advisable to take further measures just to be on the safe side.
Typically, shooting with a lens hood will help eliminate much of that direct light, such the sun doesn't damage your gear. A lens hood is also helpful for reducing lens flare if that's not a creative element you want to include in the shot.
Another trick is to simply block the sun's direct rays with your non-shooting hand.
This takes a lot of practice and finesse from a couple of different standpoints. First, you have to master the art of holding your camera steady with one hand (unless you're shooting with a tripod, of course). Second, you have to become adept at blocking the light without your hand finding its way into the frame.
This might sound like an easy process, but in practice, it's not. Trust me - I have a pretty big collection of backlit photos with my hand making an appearance in the corner of the shot.
Don't Be Afraid of Fill Lighting
Despite your best efforts, you might still find that your subject's face is still a bit too dark to get the look you want.
In that scenario, don't be afraid to fill the scene with light either with some artificial lighting or by using a reflector.
Reflectors are inexpensive and highly effective for bringing a little more illumination to a backlit subject's face, as seen in the image above.
The difficulty with reflectors is that they require a helper to hold them (because you can't very well hold your camera and a reflector at the same time.
If you're in a pinch and don't have someone that can assist you, just bring along a white sheet and spread it out on the ground in front of your subject.
Generally speaking, the sheet will bounce enough light back onto your subject to get the fill effect you need, or at the very least will fill in the shadows so that you can more easily edit the photo in post-processing.
Enhancing Backlighting in Photoshop
Despite all your best efforts, using the tips and tricks above still might not be enough to get the results you want for your backlit photos.
However, they will help you get closer to that ideal shot.
Even if they aren't perfect, taking recourse to improve the results you get in the field means you'll have more to work with once you get home to process the photos.
In the video above, Irene Rudnyk walks us through the process of editing a backlit photo, beginning with the RAW file and making the necessary adjustments such that the final result is a breathtaking backlit portrait.
Follow along as she shares her workflow step-by-step. It's an easy process to follow and replicate, with gorgeous photos as a result!