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Rediscovering Backlit Subjects

Back-Lighting

“Look where the sun is coming from – then position yourself with your back towards it so that it light up your subject’s face.”

This was the very first piece of photographic advice that I was ever given as a child entrusted with the family’s camera for a school excursion.

The intention behind it was good and in many photographic situations over the years it has actually served me well.

However…. sometimes in photography it can be easy to get trapped in a mindset that actually limits the potential of your shots.

My suspicion is that many people are being limited by the above piece of advice – lighting your subject from the front and avoiding back lighting at all costs.

The problem with ignoring back lighting images is that:

  • backlight can add drama to an image
  • backlit images can show the delicacy of a subject (think transparent or translucent things like flowers or insects)
  • backlight can help create real mood in a shot
  • backlit images can highlight details on the edges of subjects
  • backlight can reveal textures that might previously have been hidden
  • backlit images can show off the shape and form of a subject
  • backlight can create shadows that add points of interest to an image

I’m not arguing that backlit subjects are the way you should approach every shot – but ignoring it as an option ca leave you potentially missing out on a very powerful technique.

Check out some of the following images that show the beauty of power of ignoring the age old advice of always lighting a subject from the front.

PS: just because your subject is backlit doesn’t mean you need to forget about how they are lit from the front. Using a Fill Flash and/or some sort of reflector is often a great way to get the balance right for a well exposed shot.

Backlight

Backlit

Back-Light

Back-Lit

Backlighting

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com marius2die4

    Great advice and beautiful. Using this kind of light you’ll get unique photos!

    Some of my pics:
    https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Jane

    Thank you for the information, beautiful examples and invitation to share in the fun. Inspired to experiment and explore more.
    My example is a wheat field:
    flickr.com/photos/artpraxis/9990135915

  • Owen

    A timely reminder (with all this Autumn light coming through leaves etc.) that one way of looking at photography is that it’s painting with light. Some nice images here Darren and thanks for the inspiration to try this technique out. (Nice new layout btw).

  • http://www.peggycollinsgallery.com/ Peggy Collins

    I particularly love the Chinese Lanterns and the beach image.

Some older comments

  • Jane

    September 29, 2013 11:41 am

    Thank you for the information, beautiful examples and invitation to share in the fun. Inspired to experiment and explore more.
    My example is a wheat field:
    flickr.com/photos/artpraxis/9990135915

  • marius2die4

    September 29, 2013 12:23 am

    Great advice and beautiful. Using this kind of light you'll get unique photos!

    Some of my pics:
    https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Achyut Hatimuria

    September 27, 2013 11:27 pm

    Nice different perspectives!

  • Colin Burt

    September 27, 2013 01:31 pm

    Have always liked back lighting for leaves and transparent things. Like these.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67900028@N08/9781789813/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67900028@N08/9781721306/

    and for silhouettes like this one

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67900028@N08/6962913923/

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    September 26, 2013 04:47 am

    Good reminder to look for creative backlit shots. I like the horse photo in the post. If the sun has already gone done and you want to practice backlighting, I show an example of photographing a baby ear shell with a speedlight taped to a wire:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2012/4/19/babys-ear-shell-macro-strobist-photographs.html

    The shell is soft enough for the light to pass through it making it look translucent.

  • Jafar Rehman

    September 25, 2013 10:54 pm

    I used artificial light to have this effect.Is it any good ?

    http://500px.com/photo/41667226

  • Alexander

    September 25, 2013 12:33 pm

    Sometimes shooting against the sun will give you delightfully surprising results. Especially on portraits. http://www.flickr.com/photos/endiwirawan/8665877859/

  • Chris

    September 25, 2013 07:03 am

    Great article! There's another typo, though.

    "...ignoring it as an option ca leave you potentially missing out on a very powerful technique."
    Just wanted to let you know! :)

  • jk

    October 15, 2011 05:52 pm

    Some lovely skies in the posters shots. I think it brings a dramatic edge to portrait shots, especially lighting up the hair. I dragged both a garden bench and my two daughters out in to some low sunlight for this shot trying to get a boho look.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jk3941/6199265856/

  • Kevin bucchio

    October 15, 2011 02:08 pm

    Awesome examples and well stated. Now I know what to do to mix things up again back to basics

  • PhoenixGB

    October 15, 2011 01:19 am

    I have only really started playing with my DLSR in the last few months, but heres my effort at backlit, i love the way the highlights are on the monkeys arms and faces.

    http://www.joomlaholics.com/fotos/DSC_0269.JPG

  • Fuzzypiggy

    October 14, 2011 06:56 pm

    I used to follow that advice from my Dad when I was younger and shooting film!

    Since coming and picking up a DSLR a couple years ago, I tend to take the attitude that anything goes as it doesn't cost a penny if you mess up a bit, delete and have another go. Yes, you need to think about things like flare and wider dynamic ranges than the camera will cover, but at the end of the day you may miss something a little different because you were too busy sticking to rules as though they were laws. Just try something daft and see what happens, you'll learn if it works or fails and know for next time!

    To paraphrase, "Better to have shoot and failed, than to have never attempted the shot at all!", LOL!

  • Linda

    October 14, 2011 06:50 am

    I really enjoy all the articles and tutorials on your site. Every days a school day and every day Im learning.
    One of my back lit photographs.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lindamolloy/4934466985/

  • Ed Letts

    October 13, 2011 03:11 am

    Thanks for the great article. Here is one of my favorite back-lit photos.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/edletts/5986808258/in/photostream/lightbox/

  • Mei Teng

    October 12, 2011 04:42 pm

    I like back-lit images esp portraits that I see alot in wedding photography.

    There's no rule to say one can't over-expose background while keeping your portraits of people well exposed isn't?

  • Raghav

    October 12, 2011 03:44 pm

    Interesting read!!! A brief mention of using metering modes to effect would have been apt.

  • ccting

    October 12, 2011 10:57 am

    Wow,, As a noob, i wish to get diagrams on how to shoot backlit object. (the sample diagram could be found in the article in my signature). Then it will make things easier ..

  • Augustine

    October 12, 2011 09:48 am

    Another cracking post. Must admit that in the last few weeks I to have rediscovered backlighting. Loving the results.

  • Mark Finley

    October 12, 2011 09:31 am

    This is something I've been practicing a little lately, with mixed results, as a flickr friend said to me "flowers and the sun go together like coffee and cream". Heres one of the best I've done.
    http://m.flickr.com/#/photos/markfinley36/6135089174/

  • Craig A. Mullenbach

    October 12, 2011 07:55 am

    Thanks for the interesting post. I like back-lit subjects and often use fill-flash when I want some light on the subject. Didn't really have a big enough flash to fill these cranes though... ;-)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mully410/6232736839/in/photostream/lightbox/

    Straight out of camera...no post processing other than converting the original NEF file to JPG.

  • Tekrux

    February 6, 2010 06:55 pm

    I think the last picture by serni is amazing!
    I was actually looking for a tutorial on white backdrops but I am glad I came across this post.

  • Wayne

    August 27, 2009 10:35 pm

    Hey Darren, I really enjoyed this topic. My brother whom also is a photographer uses this technique a lot. He is as they say, that dude when it comes to lighting. He just has an eye for lighting. Being new to digital photography, I am learning to control light through my digital camera (Nikon D-80). I enjoy most of your topics and pray for your continued success.

  • bogart

    November 12, 2008 05:03 pm

    Backlit adds drama and expression to the photograph. However, it is prone to overexposure.

  • Patrick mcHugh

    November 7, 2008 02:23 am

    I shoot much of my work backlit, it adds another dimension to the shot, many people don't realize that portraiture and fashion in the studio is quite often only lit from behind.

  • daniel

    November 6, 2008 09:01 am

    The whole "Positions yourself with the back towards the sun" thing comes from film photography days which was great advice for amateur photographers. With Digital you can keep playing around until you get the shot or effect your after so this rule doesn't really apply.

    Backlighting with the sun can certainly create some nice shots but unless your after silouhettes it can be very hard to get right with such a powerful light source.

    Depending on the shot your after you need to have a flash powerful enough to counteract the sunlight and effectively light up the front of your subject and in most cases an oncamera flash just won't do the trick.

    Backlighting can be more effective indoors with controlled light sources such as large or small lamps and is quite often used when photogrpahing people.

    If you have a dark background and your photographing a person with dark hair, you can use a backlight to light up their hair which will seperate their dark hair from the background and make them stand out better.

  • rick

    November 5, 2008 01:27 am

    Love the photos. I need to try more of these and get out of the studio more.

  • Big bang

    November 4, 2008 07:45 am

    Bravo

  • Big bang

    November 4, 2008 06:39 am

    Seraphimc made excellent photo. Bravo.

  • Jack

    November 4, 2008 04:14 am

    Super post. One of my favorites.

  • Emil Av

    November 3, 2008 09:28 pm

    Nice !

    PS: I also started with a camera in a school excursion. This was also my first tip!
    The only difference is that the Olympus camera was mine. Given as a gift at that exact time.

  • The Floating frog

    November 3, 2008 07:17 pm

    This is great, lovely advice for an amateur, thanks

  • PhotoKaki

    November 3, 2008 06:05 pm

    Great advice. I actually used this technique in my first few shots using my first DSLR. Quite fun to play around with.

  • Jesse W.

    November 3, 2008 12:47 pm

    GREAT post! Photography is something I always wanted to get into, but I am more in to using photos already taken and making them look better with photoshop!

    Jesse W.
    http://www.subprimeblogger.com

  • Sunnyman

    November 3, 2008 07:27 am

    Good post! And I like those examples, they really show the enormous possibilities of backlightning.

    I like especially the horse picture, since the light is like a halo around the horse's head... plus the way it is turning its head... and wagging its tail.

    Really, I should write about this subject (backlit horses?) on my blog...

  • Brett Dickson

    November 3, 2008 06:15 am

    Here is the link that should have been included in the previous comment:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/brettdickson/2261939451/

  • Brett Dickson

    November 3, 2008 06:14 am

    The backlit effect works really well with flowers. And for extra effect you can gel the fill light to a different colour.

    See this for example:

  • Alex

    November 3, 2008 01:55 am

    We can make beautifull pictures againt the sun. Here is a simple statue:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/colliculus/2593052421/

  • Rosh

    November 3, 2008 01:52 am

    When shooting food I usually start with a backlight. Either sun, light box or umbrella on location.

    Rosh
    http://www.newmediaphotographer.com
    http://food.roshsillars.com

  • Rob

    May 22, 2007 05:08 am

    Good advice and great shots. When i look at a possible subject, the first thing i ask myself is, "where do i want the light" and imagining what the image could look like and back lighting is certainly thought of where possible.
    cheers..R

  • Jorge P. Taguinod

    May 17, 2007 11:17 am

    Isn't this dangerous? Won't this burn the camera sensor? (I just bought my first digital camera, a Canon 400D.)

    Thanks.

  • Kel

    May 16, 2007 06:43 pm

    these are brilliantly backlit
    it's a technique I'd like to do more of
    thanx for the inspiration

  • Casey Lewiston

    May 16, 2007 02:33 am

    SeraphimC's shot is great! Next time I'm working with a human I'll have to see if I can do something like that. Silhouettes aren't unheard of, but the hair and positioning in that I really like.

  • Reggie

    May 15, 2007 09:25 pm

    Some more useful tips:

    1. Put the sun (or light source) behind an object (as in all examples above).

    2. If the sun (or light source) is just out of the frame, beware of lens flare - use a lens hood.

    3. Experiment with exposure (bracket judiciously).

    4. If using film, note that the sun can burn a hole in the film - stop down to compose and do so quickly.

    5. Looking at the sun, even through a viewfinder, can damage your eyesight - proceed with caution.

    Here are some of my own favourites:
    Mt. Fuji sunset with rainbow effect
    Torii at Miyajima

  • PurplePixie

    May 15, 2007 07:01 pm

    Beautiful images :-) tx for the inspiration

  • Sime

    May 15, 2007 11:53 am

    Always nice to recieve a little push in the direction of something I don't try all that often. Will go out tomorrow and see what I can find to practice this tip on. (if there is any sun / light in England!)

    Lovely set of pics above... thanks

  • Chris Osborne

    May 15, 2007 09:34 am

    I really love the way those shots came out.

    My favorite is the one of the girl. Enough light on her to tell which direction she's looking, but not enough for any detail. And the glow around her is really cool.

  • Dash

    May 15, 2007 06:48 am

    I have always liked silhouette photos that can be made with the back light. There is something mystical in it. You try to see details in a shadow and your mind plays tricks with you. It can add some abstract figures and straighten the mood. Wonderful shots.

  • mike

    May 15, 2007 05:59 am

    great examples and great tips, back lighting is something amateurs are very afraid of, and thus never really try to master it

  • AC

    May 15, 2007 05:07 am

    These are pretty hard snaps to get absolutely right. Some great example images.

  • Shikhar

    May 15, 2007 04:41 am

    Nice piece of advise...

    Need to get it in practice .

    Very nice images above.

  • Yurik

    May 15, 2007 03:29 am

    great advice and beautiful shots. One of my favorite pics I've ever done was created through a strong backlight.

    I think though, that there's a typo. If I'm not mistaken (and if I am, just call me crazy and ignore me), you meant to say "mood" instead of "mode"

  • Sven

    May 15, 2007 01:40 am

    Nice!

    I love taking pictures agianst the sun...like this one:
    http://flickr.com/photos/svenmoniek/475672489/in/set-72157600193741348/

    Sven

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