I don’t know how we’ve managed to make it 18 months without using backlight as a theme, but here we are, and now it’s time.
To start, let’s just get it out of the way and state the obvious: backlighting is when the light is in front of you, the photographer, and illuminating your subject from behind. Backlight is wonderful for creating depth, mood, and magic in your images. You’ll find this kind of light in the morning and evening hours for quite a long stretch of time. The earlier in the morning and the later in the evening, though, the better and more magical it is.
What is the best way to meter and expose in this type of light? As always, that really depends on the look you’re after. Backlighting can create a wide variety of results, depending on how you choose to expose. You can expose for a silhouette, or you can expose for a bright and airy image where the subject is very well lit and the sky is blown, or you can go somewhere in the middle with the light outlining your subject and just bright enough to show us a few details in their faces. Speaking of that blown sky – don’t be afraid to let this happen. There’s nothing wrong with letting that sky go. A great way to still get backlight, but avoid the harshness it can sometimes present, is to get something in between your subject and the light – something like trees, so the light can still filter through them, but it won’t be as harsh.
Shooting in backlight, is a great opportunity to capture those jaw-dropping rays of light. When something like fog, dust, or smoke fills the air, we are able to see that light coming through clouds, the trees, between buildings, whatever the case may be – because the light is at the right angle. And it’s simply awe-inspiring. Certain times of the year, depending on where you live, will often produce fog-filled mornings, with the sun coming out just in time to bring that fog to life. Summer time, when the air is often filled with dust from dirt roads and smoke from campfires, is a perfect time to add this element to your backlit photos. Also look for rain or snow – it’s definitely not unheard of to have sun and precipitation of some sort at the same time, and it is quite possibly my favorite thing to see. I like to call it “rainshine”, and one of my most favorite set of photos to date was taken in this beautiful combination.
Backlighting, while favored and beautiful, can be a little tricky. Particularly so, if you’re including the light source (the sun, usually) within your frame. You’ll find that you have a harder time focusing with that bright light shining into your lens. If you can find a nice, contrasty spot to place your focal point, that will help in grabbing focus quickly, before the moment slips away.
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“Rainshine” Spring time is known for its sudden changes in weather, often producing beautiful moments such as this. So, not only do we need to know what time of day to shoot to get a particular result, but we need to know what time of year, too. Light changes throughout the year, and the elements in our environment change too, further changing what we can use in our images for that “wow” factor.
Film handles backlighting quite a bit different than digital does, but I do love it. Finding something to partially block the light source is even more important, otherwise the haze produced can very easily take over the image. In this image, the sun was partially behind the mountain and trees and my subject. I opted for a lower exposure to really highlight the water coming off her fingers, the textures, the waves crashing, and the natural contrast that was happening before me.
The trees created a nice filter here – I still have a nice outline around my subject, but the light isn’t as harsh. The concrete also provides a nice reflector, helping to illuminate the front of my subject.
Even earlier in the afternoon, you can get beautiful backlight. Stop down if you need to, and aim for a lower exposure than you might normally go for. The colors will be rich and the light will be delicious.
I love getting the light right on the edge of my subject, and letting it flood over them a bit. Not ideal in every scenario, but in the right circumstances, it can work so well.
Backlight can most certainly be found indoors too, even through the smallest of windows.