How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

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Incorporating translucent elements into your compositions can add an interesting dynamic of luminosity to your photographs. Especially if you can backlight them.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Water spray, smoke, steam, and things such as flags, flowers, and fabric when backlit can take on an almost surreal quality because of the way the light refracts as it passes through these types of semi-transparent elements. In this article, I want to share with you some ideas and examples of how to make the most of backlighting translucent objects.

Front light versus backlight

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

If you light a translucent element from the front it will look pretty normal as the light will reflect naturally. Lighting translucency from behind means the light is refracted, (bent,) and scattered before your camera’s sensor records it.

As you can see from the two example photos of the mad scientist with the red liquid in the flask. Notice how the color of the liquid appears very different in the two photos. See how dark it is above, compared to the bright red color in the image below where it has backlighting.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Any colored liquid in a glass, or even any colored glass containing no liquid, will take on a dramatically different quality when it’s backlit. The colors will appear lighter than if they are lit from the front.

Position yourself to create backlight

Water spray, steam and smoke all provide you with great opportunities to produce creative photos. Backlighting and photographing any of these elements will return very different results than if you position yourself so the light is behind you and the camera.

As the light passes through these elements, (or anything translucent,) the rays are bent and the light is diffused before your camera records it. Backlit semitransparent things tend to glow because of this.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

In the image above, I found a good location where the sun was in front of me to photograph during the Song Khran festival in Chaing Mai, Thailand, (which is one huge water fight). This lit up the water spray as buckets were thrown and hoses sprayed on revelers.

Seeing the monk sweeping leaves and burning them in the temple grounds (below) I carefully positioned myself to photograph the sun coming through from behind the smoke.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Good subjects for backlighting

Flags and flowers are two of my other favorite translucent things to photograph. If you can find an angle where the sun is coming from behind a flag or row of flags the resulting photos can be far more colorful and interesting than if the flag is front-lit.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Photographing flowers where you have the opportunity to light them from behind, or even part of them from behind, (as in this image of the purple orchids,) can really make them pop. However, if you are wanting to get clear and realistic correct color of flowers you are photographing it is probably better to light them from the front.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Exposure notes

When you are photographing any backlit element take care to expose well. Don’t be too concerned about getting a “correct” exposure as often slightly overexposing will enhance the effect. Expose to create a feeling or mood rather than to achieve a technically precise result.

Your camera’s exposure meters measure reflected light. When you photograph refracted light passing through a translucent element your camera may not give you an acceptable result if you are using any of the automatic modes. Being in control of your exposure manually will allow you to experiment and set it to give you the result that you think looks best.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect - colorful drinks

The background matters

If you are able to include a dark background in this style of photograph this can often enhance your pictures as well. The glow of a backlit semitransparent element can really stand out from a dark background where the light is three or more stops lower.

This photo of a Lahu man smoking against the dark background of my outdoor studio is a good example of this.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Processing

Taking a little more time to post-process photos you have made using this technique is advisable. Because of the unusual nature of the lighting and the subject your camera may not always record the photo exactly how you want it. Manipulating the contrast levels, blacks, highlights and using the dehaze feature will allow you to enhance your photos of translucent backlit subjects.

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Please share your photos in the comments below of smoke, spray, steam or any other translucent elements with backlighting that you’ve enjoyed making.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker with over 30 years experience. Kevin is offering DPS readers his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography. Check out Kevin's Critique videos where he share's his views on what's good and not so good about viewer-submitted photos.

  • Wanderin_Weeta
  • Kevin Lj

    Thanks for sharing. Lovely color and a good example of back lighting.

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  • Von Will
  • KC

    This is more “studio”, but bottom lighting is an excellent technique to explore. You’ll need a sheet of glass, preferably tempered, or a thick sheet of clear acrylic to do it. Frosted, clear, or textured is up to you. I prefer clear. Get it about 18″ or more above your light source. You can have either white or black under the light source. Glass is reflective. The white or black surface adds a tiny bit of control.

    From there, play with a second or third light, the position of the bottom light (directly under, in front or behind the subject).

    Clear glass adds a little extra work. Your background has to extend below the glass. Other options are does the glass touch the background or is it in front of the background? That’s two different effects.

    More tricks? This is a little destructive, so use something disposable: Cover the glass with the preferred background, but cut a hole and position the subject over it. It’s trickier to balance the exposure, sometimes a double exposure or compositing the bottom lit and “traditionally” lit subject works. It’s case by case. HDR can also resolve it.

    For instance, you’re photographing a bottle of perfume. The bottom light will illuminate and perfume, the facets in the bottle will shine, and you’ll have a floating reflection of the perfume bottle. You may also have a subtle vignette effect as the lighting falls off towards the top of the frame. It works.

  • Kevin Lj

    Stunning color. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kevin Lj

    Sounds an interesting method. Do you have any example photos you can share?

  • KC

    The is a quick catalog shot for a client. The vase is on clear glass. Below the glass is a white board tilted 45% back. A flash is about 3″ in front of the board, tilted about 30% back, with a wide angle diffuser. The concept is to catch the edge of light going up, through the vase and illuminating the cuts. The rest of the light comes up behind and illuminates the background. The on-camera flash triggers the bottom light but is weak enough to not be an issue, but strong enough to light the label.

    It’s more of a technical shot than an aesthetic one. If I wanted/needed to make it a bit more “art” I could add a few silver reflectors to create speculator highlights. I have a “rule” – don’t see the lighting or cameras (or the photographer) in reflections.

    It’s not a new technique, but pretty obscure. I photographed a ridiculous amount of glassware, bottled items, and reflective items (even mirrors) for catalogs when I started out in film days. I was “that guy”, the “new kid”. They liked to throw the problem and tedious work my way.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/30464620cbed13d7646b67625dee4110e4887a06447870e897c28abc147adb40.jpg

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  • Kevin Lj

    Very nice! Certainly a solid technical set up. I have never photographed much glassware and am happy that way, but it is fun to experiment with!

  • KC

    Reflective, transparent and translucent objects are challenging, but worth the effort to learn. I also used a fiber optic light “pipe” now and then. If you can hide the fiber optic, it can really make edges glow.

    Here’s another “trick” or two. A white grease pencil on a problematic clear edge gives it just enough density so that it doesn’t disappear. Aerosol powder deodorant is good for a light “frosting”, or reducing a reflection. It dusts off easy enough.

    I sometimes miss the craziness of working in a studio and deadlines. “You want what when? OK.” You get very inventive. Today, people just toss it all into Photoshop. Before Photoshop we had to get it in the camera, maybe the darkroom.

  • Paul B

    Here’s one I made earlier! A teasel in the field opposite my house. I’d appreciate feedback.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/62d3e22323ef492e2c47acb51b9b20bd87023acbea84f40f07493daf1ac36f60.jpg

  • Kevin Lj

    Thanks for sharing your photo Paul. Well exposed. I would crop the right hand side as it’s distracting from your main subject.

  • Paul B

    Thanks Kevin. As soon as I’d sent it I thought s***t, I should have cropped that bit out.

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