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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?


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.


    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.


    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!

    Update from the Author on settings used after some questions from readers

    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.

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

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