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How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images - dandelion bright

With hundreds of thousands of photographers out shooting, how do you distinguish yourself from the pack? How do you repeatedly come home with images that make audiences everywhere gasp? One way is to use a more unique, dramatic style – backlight.

But how do you do this? In fact, it’s rather simple.

In this tutorial, you’ll find a sequence of steps for working with backlight. When you’re finished reading, you’ll have the know-how necessary to take incredible backlit photographs that everyone will love.

backlit flower - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

Step 1: Shoot early or late in the day

Backlight refers to a lighting situation when the light comes from directly behind the subject.

How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images - yellow flower and bokeh

A backlit Black-Eyed Susan.

Because backlit photography requires such a specific lighting angle, it can only be done when the sun is low in the sky. This means photographing early or late in the day.

Too early in the afternoon and the sun won’t offer much directional light. For dramatic backlighting, the sun needs to point across (and into the eyes of the photographer). But during midday, the sun points down.

Also, the golden quality of the light during morning and evening makes for a much more pleasing backlit images.

snow close up - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

I photographed this backlit snow late in the evening.

Step 2: Find a distinct subject

The subject is the focal point of your image. It is what you want to stand out, what you want to emphasize in your photograph.

interesting flower shape - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

The best subjects have distinct outlines. That is, they don’t overlap with other elements in the photograph.

A mishmash of trees? Not the greatest subject for a backlight photograph. The trees will all blend together, creating a load of messy shadows.

A single tree against the sky? Now you’re off to a great start.

Step 3: Get low

Once you’ve found your subject, it’s time to begin actually composing your image.

As mentioned above, the best backlight compositions have a distinct subject. But even if you have a relatively distinct subject, it’s important to work to further isolate your subject so that you get the strongest backlit photograph possible.

One way to isolate your subject is by getting down low.

dandelion seedhead - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

I took this photograph of a dandelion seedhead while lying on the ground. Getting down so low allowed me to isolate the individual seeds.

When you crouch, kneel or even lie on the ground, you change your perspective. Your subject seems to rise into the sky, framed against the bright sky.

This is exactly what you want. A darker subject against a brighter sky is a perfect start to a stunning backlight photograph that you can be proud of.

Step 4: Choose where to put the sun

I have a straightforward recommendation when it comes to backlit photography. That is not to include the sun in the frame.

If you do include the sun, nine times out of ten you’ll find yourself with a bright white blob in your image. That is not very photogenic at all.

Instead, try to place the sun just outside the frame. This way, you’ll still have a brilliant brightness in the sky—which I love to have in my backlight photography—without it being overpowering.

close up of tree bark - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

The sun is just outside the frame of this tree photograph.

You can also place the sun behind your main subject. This is another effective technique for hiding the sun while getting the full force of a brilliant sky.

Step 5: Expose with the main subject in mind

Exposure refers to the level of brightness in the image. In backlight photography, I recommend exposing the image in one of two ways.

First, you can create a silhouette.

flower silhouette - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

I captured this near silhouette in the late evening.

In order to do this, start by exposing for the bright sky. That is, dial back the brightness of the image so that the sky itself has some nice detail in it. If there are clouds in the sky, you should be able to see them in your image.

silhouette and bokeh of a flower - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

Because the sky is naturally so bright, dialing back the exposure will make your main subject dark, which is exactly what you want. After this, it’s a matter of tweaking the exposure to get the exact effect you’re looking for.

Second, you can expose for the main subject.

Personally, I prefer this form of backlight photography. I like to keep some detail in the main subject, while also getting that beautiful backlit glow.

white flower - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

Here, I was careful to make sure this flower photograph was light enough.

For this type of photography, I start by making sure the exposure is light enough that I can see the main subject. I don’t let it get too bright, because then the sky becomes overpowering.

Of course, feel free to take a few images and experiment with the exposure. Slightly different levels of brightness will give your photographs subtly different moods, so make sure to shoot the scene in several different ways!

In Conclusion

Creating unique images can be difficult. But by using backlight in your photographs, you’ll be able to take incredible images that will impress even the best photographers. Just be sure to shoot when the sun is low in the sky. Make sure you find a distinct subject. Place the sun out of the frame. Finally, be sure to carefully choose the brightness of your image.

Have any other tips for shooting in backlight? Let me know in the comments below.

purple flower close up - How to Use Backlight to Create Incredible Images

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Jaymes Dempsey
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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