Braving the Backlight: How to Take Amazing Photos with Backlighting

Golden hour backlight, my lighting soul mate. It’s warm, rich & soft. Dimensional, glowing… downright dreamy. It can be a tricky technique, and it certainly hasn’t always been my favorite. When I first started, the photos came out blurry, hazy, and overexposed. This may be what you are experiencing when you try it too. Hang in there, just like anything else photography related, it takes practice. So today, I’m going to give some tips that work for me when I’m shooting photos with backlighting. I’ll start with 2 very basic pointers. 

Shoot in manual.

This is the best way to control your exposure, to avoid overexposing. As well, the f-stop you choose dictates what your backlight will look like. With a wide aperture, your light will be dreamy and soft. Alternatively, with a narrow aperture, you can achieve a starburst flare.

The glass (AKA your lens) does affect how the photo turns out, no two lenses will look the same. And here is some good news! Achieving beautiful backlight doesn’t mean you have to break the bank!  I have taken some great backlit photos with my cheapest glass. My Canon 50mm 1.8 was $99, and the flare I get from that little guy is the coolest!

Gentle sunlight.

We want it gentle and soft. Golden hour light. The softer the better, if you ask me.

(For those who don’t already know, “golden hour” is the hour after sunrise, or an hour before sunset, on SUNNY days. If it is soaked in cloud, has been raining all day, just “fuhgeddaboudit”). I have been on many shoots where the sun is just too bright, even 20 minutes before sunset. It really depends on the day, sometimes you have to wait it out.

Now I’ll share some examples!

Here’s the easiest way – step 1 on your way to full backlight!

Place your subject in the shade, just outside of the sun. Here, you can still easily expose for your subject, as well as early pop your subject off the background. It will also help out with some nice dimensional lighting, and bokeh too.

Next, we have some obscured backlight.

For this photo, I knew I wanted to see the subject, I wasn’t going for a silhouette. So I spot metered off the subject’s face, to get adequate exposure for her. Then, with the sun still pretty strong, I chose to obscure the backlight. In this case, through the trees. Adding the trees helps to cut the full force of the sun shining in, instead just letting in peek in, more gently.

With regards to backlighting, I like to meter off the subject, and then drop to down 1 or two stops. I like to underexpose a little, mostly to avoid too much haze, and to not blow out any highlights. That way the subject is still well lit, but the background is rich. 

If you need help properly exposing your subject, you can always incorporate a reflector. They can really help to get that subject to pop, without overexposing your backlight, I highly recommend trying it.

Getting braver, we put that sun right smack in the middle of that lens:

Here I didn’t need my subject exposed, as the story was more about the moment, and the dreamy light.

As the sun was almost set, the light was bright, but not harsh. It was that rich, orangey red sun.

Here I underexposed purposely, 3-4 stops past what her correct exposure would have been. I did this for two reasons: 1.)  It showcases the richness of the light 2.) It cuts the haze.

Sticking with that backlight, lets add some movement:

Here our subject is mid back handspring. I’m talking super-fast. I need the shutter speed fast enough to get her sharp. But I also needed the exposure to not be blown. So the plan is to shoot wide open (f 1.2) and change my shooting angle slightly, to obscure the sun from shining directly into my lens. That way I could still have my exposure low enough to get the silhouette, rich light, but still get her in focus. Shooting a narrower f-stop, would result in bumping your ISO. I prefer to shoot wide open, so I can avoid ISOs, when possible.

And lastly, just for fun, an indoor backlit photo. Because lighting doesn’t always come from the sun!

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Shooting photos with backlighting is one of my favorite ways to photograph. Give it a try, put some of these tips to use, and let us know how you do!

Want to learn more about backlighting and shooting in all kinds of other lighting conditions? Check out our Finding the Light Series!