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How to Make Dramatic Photos with Backlight

Most people don’t notice light. But visual artists do. Light is one of the essential ingredients in your photographs.

Light can be tricky to deal with until you understand camera settings. But once you’re familiar with your camera, light is wonderful to play with in your photos.

Personally, I love backlight. It adds a sense of drama and beauty to your photography.

I’ll show you examples of backlight with food, landscape, and portrait photography (studio and outdoors).

Image: In order to achieve backlight in your photo, have the main light source behind your subject c...

In order to achieve backlight in your photo, have the main light source behind your subject coming toward your camera. In this photo, you can actually see the warm setting sun as the source of backlight.

What is backlight good for?

I love backlight because it adds depth and drama to an otherwise flat, two-dimensional photo.

Backlight helps to bring out the texture of objects that you photograph (sidelight is good for this as well). Texture is created through a combination of highlights and shadows. Since photographs are two dimensional, texture adds depth to your photo.

A strong burst of backlight adds drama to your photo. Think about the bursts of light at a rock concert or other performances. The temperature of the backlight (warm or cool) adds to the drama of the photo.

The backlight source might be in your photo along with your subject (as with the sunset photo above). Or the light source can be outside of the frame (as long as it illuminates your subject).

Any source of backlight can be used creatively, but sunlight, windows, and strobes are among the most popular.

The principals of backlight are the same no matter what camera you’re using, even your phone.

Image: This ice-covered tree is backlit by the sun. Without backlight shining through the branches,...

This ice-covered tree is backlit by the sun. Without backlight shining through the branches, this tree would not have stood out so much.

Food

It’s great to begin practicing backlight with food. Backlight can be used to illuminate steam and bring out the texture of the food.

While any light source will work, many photographers love using window light to illuminate food.

Image: The light source is not visible in this photo, but there is a window backlighting the food an...

The light source is not visible in this photo, but there is a window backlighting the food and making the steam visible.

 

Image: This food was photographed while still in the oven. The warm backlight is coming from the ove...

This food was photographed while still in the oven. The warm backlight is coming from the oven light.

 

Image: This is an example of soft backlight produced by a large window. I wanted to bring out the te...

This is an example of soft backlight produced by a large window. I wanted to bring out the texture in the cookies. An iPhone 4s was used to capture the image and Lightroom was used to process it.

Your food photos will be less flat and have more pop to them when you use back (or side) light. Just look for a window or any other light source. Get creative and use the light from fridges, stoves, and lamps.

The great thing about practicing backlight with food is that if you can’t reposition the light source, you can easily reposition yourself and the food.

Landscape and Nature

Once you get the hang of backlight with food, use it to add drama to your landscape photos. In most cases, you won’t be able to reposition your backlight source since it will likely be the sun. However, you can always reposition yourself in relation to the sun and your subject.

Image: I saw this scene as I looked in the rearview mirror. I couldn’t resist pulling over to...

I saw this scene as I looked in the rearview mirror. I couldn’t resist pulling over to take a photo. The setting sun is the light source for this scene. You can’t see it in the frame but it’s behind the trees to the left. Notice how the electricity wires are shining and standing out from the dark trees in the background.

 

Image: The setting sun behind this crab apple tree caught my eye during a walk. I came back with my...

The setting sun behind this crab apple tree caught my eye during a walk. I came back with my camera and found a perspective where the sun was visible filtering through the tree. An aperture of f/11 was used to create the starburst effect.

 

Image: A combination of backlight and water droplets on the lens created this special effect. I don...

A combination of backlight and water droplets on the lens created this special effect. I don’t recommend letting your lens get wet, I was using a waterproof case. The case was still wet from using my camera underwater.

Portraits

I love to incorporate backlight into portraits to accent the emotion. Beautiful or intense moments are brought out even more with the use of backlight.

Studio

The best part about backlight in a studio is that you can position your light source any way you like.

Image: Two off camera flashes were used to produce this dramatic backlight.

Two off camera flashes were used to produce this dramatic backlight.

 

Image: Superheros are dramatic characters by nature. Using harsh backlight instead of soft front lig...

Superheros are dramatic characters by nature. Using harsh backlight instead of soft front light is better for bringing out the nature of the subject.

 

Natural light

When using natural light, you’ll have to position yourself and your subject according to the light source.

Image: This little guy is backlit by the setting sun, while the big open sky in front of him illumin...

This little guy is backlit by the setting sun, while the big open sky in front of him illuminates his face.

Troubleshooting

One of the biggest problems about backlight is that your photo may turn out as a silhouette when you don’t want it to.

You’re likely using a semi-automatic setting such as aperture or shutter priority. Your camera sees the bright backlight and meters itself accordingly. You can use exposure compensation to help you avoid unwanted silhouettes. Try setting your exposure compensation to +1 or +2. You’ll need to experiment according to the light conditions.

If you’re experienced then manual mode might be the best option for you.

Image: The main light source is the sky in the background. The sun has not risen over the horizon ye...

The main light source is the sky in the background. The sun has not risen over the horizon yet.

Practice backlight with everything

Once you get the hang of it, you can introduce backlight into all sorts of situations. Use it to bring out texture and to heighten dramatic moments.

Image: Concerts are a wonderful place to have fun with backlight. The rapidly changing lights will c...

Concerts are a wonderful place to have fun with backlight. The rapidly changing lights will create a challenge for you. Take lots of photos and be happy with the few that work out.

Image: I love how golden hour can add a nostalgic feel to photos.

I love how golden hour can add a nostalgic feel to photos.

Image: Use a combination of low angles and backlight to make your photo more exciting.

Use a combination of low angles and backlight to make your photo more exciting.

Image: I always wait until evening to visit the beach. That way the sun isn’t shining straight...

I always wait until evening to visit the beach. That way the sun isn’t shining straight down onto the sand. Instead it shines down at a lower angle, creating texture through shadow and highlight.

How to Make Dramatic Photos with Backlight

 

Image: I love my little guy’s hair. There is a window just above him as the source of backligh...

I love my little guy’s hair. There is a window just above him as the source of backlight.

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Mat Coker

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.