Backlighting is one of the hardest lighting conditions to photograph. Adjusting the camera settings for backlit scenes is more complicated than most.
This is especially true if your goal is not to create silhouettes but to capture the details of your subjects. Mastering backlighting photography takes time, practice, and experience.
That said, backlighting is a great way to add life and drama to your images. And once you figure out a certain rhythm, the process becomes a lot less frustrating and a lot more fun.
In this guide, we will talk about a few tips to help you get the most out of your backlit photographs. But first, we need to understand what backlighting is.
What is Backlighting?
Backlighting is a term generally used to describe a scene where the source of light is behind the subject. In other words, the source(s) of light for your photo is pointing toward your camera, and you keep your subject between the light source and your camera.
Think of it as a solar eclipse, which occurs when the moon comes between the sun and the earth, i.e., a short astrology lesson for you. If you ever see a solar eclipse, you will notice that the moon looks completely black and has a strange glow on its sides. This is the exact effect that you want to replicate with backlighting.
Photographers use this effect to set the mood or to add a creative touch to their photographs. Backlit subjects are often reduced to a silhouette, which can be visually stunning.
Typically, a rim light will highlight the outlines of the subject leaving it as a dark solid figure with a beautiful glow around it. Rim lighting is a type of backlighting that highlights the outlines of the subject. This creates an effect that is similar to that of a solar eclipse.
Although it’s common for photographers use artificial means of light to create backlight, you can utilize natural sources of light for backlighting. Of course, you have to invest time and practice, but using natural light for backlighting can make your images beautiful.
How to Take Pictures With Backlighting
1. Expose for Highlights
When shooting backlighting, expose for the highlights, even if it leaves the rest of the photo dark. This is fine since cameras today are so powerful, one could almost always recover the rest of the digital information in post-processing.
Exposing for the highlights is a good idea to preserve as much detail as possible. Keep in mind that it’s ok to have your light source slightly overexposed when shooting backlighting. This is especially true if you plan to include the sun in your picture.
2. Take Multiple Exposures
When shooting with backlight, depending on your image, you may be forced to decide between properly exposing your foreground or background. To get around this issue, you can take multiple exposures of a scene and then blend them during post-processing.
One way to do it is to take two different images, exposing for highlights in one and shadows for the other. This can be done using the manual, shutter or aperture priority mode. A tripod plays a vital role in this technique, as it will allow you to blend these images together later seamlessly.
Another way to take multiple exposures is to use the Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) in your camera. Most cameras will allow you to adjust the number of shots you take when using AEB. The number of shots will determine how many underexposed and overexposed images you’ll have.
For example, a five-shot AEB will shoot two underexposed, two overexposed, and one properly exposed image. Similarly, a three-shot AEB will shot one underexposed, one overexposed, and one properly exposed image.
You can also adjust the number of stops you want for exposure. For example, if you set your camera to take three images (three-shot AEB) and you bracket for two stops of exposure, your camera will capture one image that is two stops overexposed, one image that is two stops underexposed, and one properly exposed image.
Whether you are taking multiple images manually or using AEB, you will need to use post-processing software to blend them. There are a couple of ways you can do this in post-processing.
The first one is to use HDR software that will automatically blend images for you. Or you can do it manually by selectively choosing the elements you want from each photo and combining them into one picture. I prefer to do it manually as it allows me to have more control.
Either way, shooting multiple images and then later blending them will enable you to create an image with every element adequately exposed.
3. Use Histogram
A common way photographers figure out proper exposure is by using evaluating metering. However, with backlighting, this may not be the best tool to use. Evaluative metering measures exposure by averaging the exposure of your entire scene.
When calculating average exposure, all the elements in the scene are given equal weight. This works well for evenly lit scenes, but if your photo is high in contrast, such as the case for backlit images, the exposure will be mismeasured.
A more effective way to measure the exposure of your image when using backlighting is by reading your histogram. While reading your histogram takes more time than using evaluative metering, it will give you a more accurate measurement of exposure.
The type of image and mood you are trying to convey will determine how your histogram should look. If you want a picture with silhouette and little detail, your histogram should mainly comprise of shadows. On the other hand, if you want your photo to have more detail, then your histogram should be comprised of mostly mid-tones and highlights.
4. Shoot at the Sunrise or Sunset
The best time to take backlit pictures is during a sunrise or sunset. The light at this time is much softer, making it the perfect setting to take backlit pictures. Also, when the sun is low on the horizon, it creates a warm golden tint in the atmosphere that is ideal for making beautiful pictures.
That said, some backlit photographs can be taken during midday. For example, the colors of autumn leaves can be illuminated if the image is captured when the sun is up high in the sky.
To use backlighting in the middle of the day, it’s best to filter the sun with objects such as leaves or rocks. Backlit in this case will make the leaves glow, highlighting the beauty of their actual colors.
5. Take Photos of Sunbursts (Sunstar)
Including a Sunburst in a composition is one of my favorite ways to photograph. Truth be told, I would plan entire trips based primarily on the possibility of having a sunburst in my composition. My compositions simply come alive and stand out whenever I include a sunburst in the frame.
To add sunburst in your image, set your aperture to a higher f-number such as f/18 or f/22. Choosing a high f-stop will create a narrower aperture opening. As a result, the light will tend to bend around the edges of the aperture blade as it goes through the lens. This is what creates the “star” look.
Something to bear in mind, the nature of your Sunstar is dependent on the quality of your lens. In particular, the number of blades in the aperture of your lens will determine the number of rays produced in your starburst effect.
If the lens has an even number of blades, it will produce the same amount of rays as the blades. However, if the lens has an odd number of blades, it will produce rays that are twice the number of the lens blades.
To enhance the effect of a sunburst, find a way to partially block the light source. You can partially block your light source by photographing it through a tree, a mountain ridge, or the horizon. Doing so will exaggerate the effect of a sunburst by diffracting the sunlight before it goes through your lens.
When looking for a way to block your light source, try to frame your composition from different angles. A subtle change in framing can have a significant impact on the way sunlight is diffracted and the appearance of your Sunstar.
Lastly, when taking sun stars, ensure that your sensor is free of dust. The dust becomes the most apparent with small aperture setting.
6. Using ND Filters for Water
If you’re planning to capture moving water with backlighting use an ND filter. ND filters are designed to filter direct light. They perform similar to sunglasses but for your camera, reducing the exposure from the sun and other bright lights that your camera sensor records.
An ND filter is essential if you want to give flowing water a soft and smooth appearance, especially in a bright environment.
This effect is nearly impossible to create without an ND filter because it requires the use of slow shutter speeds which usually result in overexposed images. Having an ND filter will enable you to use slow shutter speeds without the risk of overexposing the scene.
ND filters are useful because they allow photographers to reduce the exposure of a scene without adjusting their exposure settings. This enables photographers to create specific effects that are otherwise difficult or impossible to make.
ND filters typically come in sets ranging from +2 to +10. The larger the value of the ND filter the lighter it will restrict, and the darker your image will be.
7. Watch Out for Lens Flare
One of the biggest challenges of backlighting is dealing with lens flare. Lens flare occurs when direct light hits the front of a lens; this creates small hexagonal shapes with long strokes of light.
Though some people do create lens flares for artistic flair in their photographs, lens flares are often an undesired effect on the picture. Lens flare can result in images with areas of discoloration and bizarre contrast. These flares can be distracting an unappealing. In the worst case, it can ruin an image entirely and cause it to be unusable.
Using Lens hoods is an effective way to prevent lens flares on your images. A good comparison to a lens hood is like wearing a cap in the sun to shield yourself from the sunlight directly affecting your eyes.
If you don’t have lens hood or prefer not to use them, try to shade your lens with objects such as your hand or a hat.
In order to do this, it’s essential to place your camera on a tripod. Doing so will enable you to utilize one hand for working the shutter and the other for blocking the flare.
Once your camera is on the tripod, look through your viewfinder to locate the sun flare. Then, position your hand in front of your lens until the flare disappears.
Note that sometimes your hand may need to cover parts of your image to block the lens flare properly. In such cases, you can do two things. Either take two pictures–one for the flare and one for the entire scene– and blend them in photoshop, or you can recompose your shot.
8. Filter the Sun
Another good way to avoid lens flares is by filtering direct sunlight. Shading your camera lens from direct sunlight will soften its light intensity that often causes lens flares.
However, you don’t want to obstruct the light completely. Instead, you want some slivers of light to pass onto your subject and their surroundings. This effect adds to the mood of your scene significantly and is one of the best ways to go about taking backlit pictures.
One of my favorite ways to do this is by using trees. Trees are great tools to block light in a manner that it still leaves slivers into your picture. The light that manages to pass through the trees gives you the chance to use backlighting effects effectively.
9. Keep Your Lens Clean
Having a clean lens is essential when taking photos directly into the sun. Any imperfections on your lens can bleed into your pictures.
When using backlight, you will be shooting directly towards the sun. This will amplify the imperfections on your lens. Imperfections can come in the form of dirt, smudges, streaks, and smears. Often these imperfections can cause irreversible lens flares that can’t be fixed in post-processing.
With this in mind, make sure you clean your lens before you take your next shot. You don’t want to lose an otherwise great photo because you didn’t take the time to clean your lens.
10. Shoot in RAW
One of the easiest ways to improve the appearance of your backlight photos is to shoot in RAW. Today’s DSLR camera can produce images with 14 stops of dynamic range which was only a thing of photographers dreams until several years ago. Our technology is so advanced that, sometimes, we can get away with shooting backlit images without having to use bracketing or ND filters.
Dynamic range is the difference between the lightest and darkest tones in an image. This often determines the level of contrast an image can display. The wider the dynamic range, the more contrast an image can have. This is important when shooting backlit photos because they are often high in contrast.
RAW images have a much higher dynamic range than JPEG image. We can think of RAW and JPEG in terms of the number of colors they can express. A standard JPEG is displayed in 8-bits which translates into 16.6 million potential colors that can be shown in an image. On the other hand, RAW files can be up to 16-bits which translates into 281.4 Trillion possible colors that can be displayed.
11. Find the Right White Balance
The temperature of light can affect the appearance of the colors in your image. Warm light will cause colors to have a red-orange tint to them, while cool light will cause colors to have a blue tint to them.
When using backlighting, your subject(s) will be hit by direct light. If you are using the sun as your source of light, its warm colors will likely add a red tint to images.
To correct for this misrepresentation of colors, you can use the white balance setting in your camera. The white balance camera setting enables you to adjust the colors in your image to align with what they look like in person.
For example, if you are shooting in warm light, your white balance setting can adjust the lighting to a cooler color pallet to balance out your colors. Likewise, if you are shooting under cool light, it can change the lighting to a warmer color pallet to balance out your colors.
There are several white balance modes you can use to adjust the white balance in your scene: Automatic, Kelvin, and Custom.
Automatic White Balance (AWB) lets your camera decide what adjustments are needed to be made based on the light in your scene. There are some presets under AWB that you can use to help point your camera in the right direction. These preset include daytime, cloudy, shade, fluorescent, and tungsten.
The Kelvin mode enables you to set the temperature of light you want to use manually. Since light is measured on the Kelvin scale, you will have to enter your light temperature in terms of Kelvin. This can be quite difficult since it’s hard to pinpoint the exact temperature of light. To make this easier, you can either use a table, such as the one above, download a light temperature app to read the temperature of your light for you.
Finally, the Custom mode will allow you to set an object in your background as a reference point to adjust your white balance. In this mode, a grey card is commonly used to achieve proper white balance. To do this, you will need to place the grey card in your scene and set it as your white balance reference point. This will then adjust all your colors to the proper white balance.
You can use white balance as a corrective measure to adjust your colors or to give your photos an artistic touch.
12. Get Creative!
Don’t be afraid of being creative with your pictures. From the composition to the exposure of your shots, be creative, as it always pays off.
In some cases, being creative is only the option you have. As established countless times over, finding the right balance between your subject and the background can be quite tricky. The issue is more complicated if you’re not using any equipment, like lens hoods, and filters during your shoot. So, you are left to improvise in regards to backlit photography.
Are you looking for a moody picture with less color and a lot more atmosphere? You can focus on the highlights of the frame and allow the sun to create a beautiful rim around your subject. On the other hand, if you looking for a more stylish picture with a lot more detail, focus on and better expose the shadows, at the risk of blowing out the highlight.
As a photographer, it’s important that you take the time to understand light. You may not learn it all overnight. But, if you pay attention, you will slowly see yourself get better and improve with every picture you take.
I hope this guide has helped in answering some of your questions about backlit photography. Just remember that learning photography is much like a journey, and you will only improve by taking the first step towards learning.