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 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 five very basic pointers. 

Mind Your Position

Backlight photography involves positioning yourself and the subject against the main light source. This means you are facing the sun in that position, while the subject is in front of the light source. 

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 a 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!

Use the Right Camera Settings

Capturing a backlit image may sometimes require you to slightly overexpose the photo because the subject’s front side will appear darker than its surrounding area.

One way to solve this problem is by using a wide aperture ranging from f/2.8 to f/5.6. Then, use a shutter speed between 1/100 and 1/640. Reinforce that with an ISO of around 100. 

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.

Understand Spot Metering

Spot metering helps the camera focus on a small part of your frame, allowing you to determine the best exposure for that area. Since your subject’s back is facing the light source, the front side will be darker. In effect, you need to add more light to the scene. 

When you use spot metering, you can avoid underexposure while focusing on your subject. Try placing the focusing point over the subject’s eyes, wait for the exposure to apply, and then click the shutter button. 

Use a Reflector to Soften the Contrast 

Each time you encounter problems with exposure, a reflector helps bounce light back into your subject’s face. Hence, reflectors make sure the contrast in a picture is not too high.

If there’s a natural light source behind the subject, a reflector can produce a rim light outlining the subject, or a soft haze in the background.

Backlight Photography Techniques and Tricks

Make sure you 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.

Obscured Backlighting

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 make sure I got 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 make sure 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.

Putting the Sun in the Center

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, let’s 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 make sure I 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 shooting wide open, so I can avoid ISOs, when possible.

Another approach to backlighting is playing with sun flares. To pull this off, you need to move yourself and the camera until you get the right amount of sun you want to peek from behind. 

At times when the light source is too bright, use a lens hood or an umbrella kit to counter the overpowering lens fare.  

Bonus Trick: Artificial Backlight

And lastly, just for fun, an indoor backlit photo. Because lighting doesn’t always come from the sun! There are times when you’ll need to use studio lights to achieve a rim light for an indoor shoot. Positioning a strobe at 45 degrees behind the subject’s back can create a halo-like effect on the backdrop.  

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Shooting photos with backlighting is one of my favorite ways to photograph. Give it a try, put some of these photography 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!