How to Create Backlight or Hairlight outdoors with Natural Light - Digital Photography School
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How to Create Backlight or Hairlight outdoors with Natural Light

A Guest Post by Marc from Crooze Photography

A good portrait is all about contrast. Contrast is the difference between lights and darks or sharps and blurry’s in a single photo. Contrast makes a subject stand out. And isn’t that what we want in a beautiful portrait?

backlight01.jpg

Backlight or Hairlight is a great way to make your portrait subject (a human model) stand out. The light comes from the back (hence the name Backlight) and creates a rim of light around the edges of the subjects hair (hence the name Hairlight). This rim of light creates a perfect border of contrast between the model’s head and the background. So what ingredients do we need to create backlight in a natural outdoor environment?

  1. A source of light, mostly the Sun.
  2. A darkish background.
  3. A good placement of the subject.
  4. backlight02.jpg

    Light Source

    When using the sun as a light source, the light must be coming in from a low angle. This means that we are either in the early or mid morning or in the mid or late afternoon. Because long loose hair will be subject to movement by the wind, it’s best to have the wind going into the direction of the Sun. This means that if the wind is coming from the East, it’s better to shoot in the afternoon, when the Sun is in the West. If the wind is coming from the West, it’s better to shoot in the morning.

    Background

    So we need a darkish background for the rim of light to stand out. It’s not necessary for the background to be very dark, just a little darker than the subject or the surroundings is enough to create the necessary contrast. A dark background could be formed by some trees with dark leaves and shadows, a dark wall or the shadow side of a building, etc. The key is to take some time and look around. If you just give yourself a minute, you will find the best spot.

    backlight03.jpg

    Placement of the Subject

    Now onto the last part of the job: placing your model in the right place. It’s important to get an even distribution of light around the hair. This means that the Sun must be right behind your subject, or just a little off-center. So now we know that the Sun must be in the same direction as your dark background.

    That is the direction that you should be looking at to find your best spot. Now that you found your spot, be sure not to shoot directly into the Sun in order to avoid lens flare (the light that hits your lens directly and causes a blurry haze in your image). A lens hood comes in very handy when trying to avoid lens flare. You may also choose to purposely get lens flare it you want to have that effect in your photo.

    Remember that when shooting a portrait, the most important thing is make your subject look good. So whatever you do to get a nice backlight, don’t forget to pay attention to the other details that you normally take care of. Good luck!

    Check out more from Marc at his website – A Guest Post by Marc from Crooze Photography

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  • http://midnightrook.blogspot.com Jean-Pierre

    My example of using the hair backlight for a candid portrait.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/45517597@N07/7508530254/

  • http://dewandemmer.com Dewan Demmer

    I really enjoy finding the rim light, and its usually early morning or late afternoon.
    I do however use a flash to create rim lighting when light is not available.

    My main picture for this post has a nice rim light, and its the rim light that creates the focus:
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/eloise-and-hein-holtons-wedding-at-makiti-muldersdrift/

  • Mei Teng

    Beautiful portraits. I like the use of hairlights in portraits.

  • raghavendra

    I have taken a portrait with black and white
    but not much back lights
    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/03/kids-feeding-goat.html

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Never ever tired this, will wait for the next opportunity.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/07/antarctica-ahoy.html

  • Crystal

    There is a park in my area that this works well with – here is an image I got when I took my friends daughters to the park. Going to try and experiment some more!

  • http://www.karenskellyphoto.com Photographer Durango CO

    I love using back lighting, even with my speedlight. That last image looks more like a speedlight than sun.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/iamted7/ Ted

    I think I used this thing once at a concert. But too much light was coming from above…
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/iamted7/5057531521/lightbox/

  • Gerry

    As I’m new to photography, wont the backlight make the subject under exposed? And what would be the best lens to shoot the subjects you have shown?

  • David

    All very nice but since we are shooting into the sun shouldn’t we add some fill light?
    Either flash or at least a reflector? Otherwise we will just be looking at a backlit silhouette.

  • http://stanrud.tumblr.com/ Stan Rudnick

    The fourth critical ingredient in the recipe is fill flash or a reflector to keep detail in the subject which is in shadow!

  • http://likechristmaseveryday.com Mrs. Claus
  • http://www.facebook.com/jloutphotography James Lout

    I used the sun as a hair light in this photo, but had it a bit more off centered.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=307269522687940&set=a.307267479354811.71502.181506115264282&type=3&theater

  • S RoyC

    Sadly I find this tutorial incomplete. I sincerely hope that there will be a second part. What about the frontal light? Should a fill-in flash be used? And above all, I would like to know about the exposure setting that should be followed, that is how exactly can I get the perfect exposure as in the examples provided.

  • Gerry

    I would have to agree with s royc’s comment. We see some awesome photos but don’t know what settings they’ve been taken at. I know that conditions can vary, but we have to at least have some idea where to start.

    This comment is coming from a newbie

  • http://www.muungano.net Robin Öberg

    If using your popup flash for fill, cover it with translucent tape or a white piece of paper. For portraits, use a minimum of 4 as f-stop value, and a maximum of 7. ISO should always be at 100. Aperture depends on the scene.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jloutphotography James Lout

    Not sure if this helps, but the setting for the photo I previously posted are:
    f/3.2
    1/1000
    off camera flash (580ex ii) with reflective white umbrella behind camera top left set on ETTL (connected with long ETTL cord)
    ISO 500
    Taken about 45 minutes before sunset.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/iban_g_g Iban Gonzalez

    Nice post but I miss some comment about light metering and so.
    Best regards!
    i.

  • Erin

    If you expose for the face, with the darker background the pic will be fine. It’s when you start trying to backlight with the bright sky behind that creates a blown out sky behind. You need to be spot metering and like the article said – sun low in the sky, on an angle so you can get that dark background to create the contrast. If you want to add fill flash thats up to you, but I think the lighting introduction is the next step before getting it right without. You really need to be shooting manual to get this right also :)

  • http://www.croozephotography.com Marc Crooze

    This is from the author. In the first two shots, no flash was used. In the last shot, a fill flash with umbrella was used. And it is sunlight, coming in through a hole in the ceiling of the cave. I always shoot manual and make sure I get the front lighting right. But however you are shooting, just make sure you get the exposure on the faces right and follow the steps mentioned in the article. It will come together. I personally don’t shoot based on camera and flash settings. I learn through practice and in my opinion it’s the best way to be and stay creative. So don’t wait for me to tell you about settings. Just go out there and experiment! Good luck!

Some older comments

  • Marc Crooze

    July 23, 2012 11:47 am

    This is from the author. In the first two shots, no flash was used. In the last shot, a fill flash with umbrella was used. And it is sunlight, coming in through a hole in the ceiling of the cave. I always shoot manual and make sure I get the front lighting right. But however you are shooting, just make sure you get the exposure on the faces right and follow the steps mentioned in the article. It will come together. I personally don't shoot based on camera and flash settings. I learn through practice and in my opinion it's the best way to be and stay creative. So don't wait for me to tell you about settings. Just go out there and experiment! Good luck!

  • Erin

    July 17, 2012 07:35 pm

    If you expose for the face, with the darker background the pic will be fine. It's when you start trying to backlight with the bright sky behind that creates a blown out sky behind. You need to be spot metering and like the article said - sun low in the sky, on an angle so you can get that dark background to create the contrast. If you want to add fill flash thats up to you, but I think the lighting introduction is the next step before getting it right without. You really need to be shooting manual to get this right also :)

  • Iban Gonzalez

    July 17, 2012 06:54 pm

    Nice post but I miss some comment about light metering and so.
    Best regards!
    i.

  • James Lout

    July 15, 2012 09:34 am

    Not sure if this helps, but the setting for the photo I previously posted are:
    f/3.2
    1/1000
    off camera flash (580ex ii) with reflective white umbrella behind camera top left set on ETTL (connected with long ETTL cord)
    ISO 500
    Taken about 45 minutes before sunset.

  • Robin Öberg

    July 14, 2012 04:40 pm

    If using your popup flash for fill, cover it with translucent tape or a white piece of paper. For portraits, use a minimum of 4 as f-stop value, and a maximum of 7. ISO should always be at 100. Aperture depends on the scene.

  • Gerry

    July 14, 2012 01:55 pm

    I would have to agree with s royc's comment. We see some awesome photos but don't know what settings they've been taken at. I know that conditions can vary, but we have to at least have some idea where to start.

    This comment is coming from a newbie

  • S RoyC

    July 14, 2012 01:31 pm

    Sadly I find this tutorial incomplete. I sincerely hope that there will be a second part. What about the frontal light? Should a fill-in flash be used? And above all, I would like to know about the exposure setting that should be followed, that is how exactly can I get the perfect exposure as in the examples provided.

  • James Lout

    July 14, 2012 12:38 am

    I used the sun as a hair light in this photo, but had it a bit more off centered.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=307269522687940&set=a.307267479354811.71502.181506115264282&type=3&theater

  • Mrs. Claus

    July 14, 2012 12:20 am

    http://likechristmaseveryday.com/2012/07/black-and-white-wednesdays-country-girl.html

    This is my example of black light.

  • Stan Rudnick

    July 13, 2012 06:07 pm

    The fourth critical ingredient in the recipe is fill flash or a reflector to keep detail in the subject which is in shadow!

  • David

    July 13, 2012 04:36 pm

    All very nice but since we are shooting into the sun shouldn't we add some fill light?
    Either flash or at least a reflector? Otherwise we will just be looking at a backlit silhouette.

  • Gerry

    July 13, 2012 12:18 pm

    As I'm new to photography, wont the backlight make the subject under exposed? And what would be the best lens to shoot the subjects you have shown?

  • Ted

    July 13, 2012 11:58 am

    I think I used this thing once at a concert. But too much light was coming from above...
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/iamted7/5057531521/lightbox/

  • Photographer Durango CO

    July 13, 2012 11:40 am

    I love using back lighting, even with my speedlight. That last image looks more like a speedlight than sun.

  • Crystal

    July 13, 2012 05:23 am

    There is a park in my area that this works well with - here is an image I got when I took my friends daughters to the park. Going to try and experiment some more!

  • Mridula

    July 12, 2012 02:51 pm

    Never ever tired this, will wait for the next opportunity.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/07/antarctica-ahoy.html

  • raghavendra

    July 12, 2012 01:28 pm

    I have taken a portrait with black and white
    but not much back lights
    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/03/kids-feeding-goat.html

  • Mei Teng

    July 12, 2012 10:37 am

    Beautiful portraits. I like the use of hairlights in portraits.

  • Dewan Demmer

    July 12, 2012 07:08 am

    I really enjoy finding the rim light, and its usually early morning or late afternoon.
    I do however use a flash to create rim lighting when light is not available.

    My main picture for this post has a nice rim light, and its the rim light that creates the focus:
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/eloise-and-hein-holtons-wedding-at-makiti-muldersdrift/

  • Jean-Pierre

    July 12, 2012 06:35 am

    My example of using the hair backlight for a candid portrait.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/45517597@N07/7508530254/

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