Shooting in backlight
Updated: Jun 5, 2019
Light is everything in photography, and backlight is by far my favorite. Something about it just makes pictures look luminous and magical and I know I'm not alone in my opinion-- people ALWAYS ask me how I get my light to look the way I do. But the thing is, backlight is incredibly tricky. It can go from beautiful rim light to a hazy washed out mess just by moving your camera a few inches. So I'm sharing all my secrets here!
1. Timing and position
Backlight is when your light source is behind your subject and you are shooting into the light. To get the best backlight, I only shoot professionally during golden hour (the hour before sunset or after sunrise) when the sun is low, shadows are long, and the color of the light grows rich and beautiful. It filters through grass and trees, highlights the outlines of everything it touches, and enhances textures. There's really no substitute for shooting at the right time of day (although you can totally shoot backlight during other times!)
The problem with backlight, though, is that you're shooting straight into the sun. Cue lots of haze and sloppy, overexposed photos. So the most important thing to do when shooting backlight is to FIND A FILTER. For me, it's normally trees, but it can be anything that blocks the sun. I love putting my subject in a pocket of light and positioning myself where something juuuust barely blocks the sun. If you experiment with moving ever so slightly you can find a "happy medium" where the sun is just peeking through on the shot but not totally glaring into your frame. Here are some examples of this:
2. Mind your subjects
Okay. Obviously I love placing my subjects in pockets of light. But it turns out it's not always that simple. How do you make sure they're lit well enough from the front? What about harsh light on their faces?
Check out these two pictures for a minute:
Same subject, same location, same time of day, yet they are totally different. The first one is directly backlit. I had Mia deep in the forest with the light peeking through and lighting her silhouette. It is one of my favorite pictures ever, but there wasn't enough light in front of her to light her face since she was in the forest. For the second shot I pulled her out to a clearing. The same light is behind her (although not hitting her directly) but there is enough light in front of her that you can see her face. This is something you have to be aware of and experiment with when shooting in backlight-- silhouette shots are awesome, but if you want to see your subject well, you need to make sure there's light in front of them, too.
Another thing to look for is harsh light on your subject's face. When I position myself, like I said, I try not to have the sun directly in my line of sight. But that means it sometimes comes across the subject's face, like this:
See the harsh light on the left side of his face? It's not the worst thing that could happen in a picture, but I prefer faces to be evenly lit, and there's a pretty easy fix for it. Turn them! They don't have to face you. Let that harsh light hit the back of their head (or hair, which looks ahh-mazing all lit up) like in the next picture!
3. Make the most of the light you have
Okay, Lindsey. WHAT IF THERE IS NO FILTER? What if I'm shooting in bright sun in the middle of a giant open field??? This is the hardest kind of backlight and to be honest, you'll have to practice with it. But it can be done!
In this scenario, think of the sun as that weird acquaintance who is super nice but always wants to tell you about how her rash is doing. Are you gonna run into her a lot? Yes. Can you do your darndest to avoid her? You betcha. If it's possible, make sure the sun isn't in your frame. You'll have to get creative with the positioning of your subjects (shooting down on them works well) but you can do it. If you have to have the sun in your frame, make sure it's in the corner and not the center where it will glare straight into your lens.
Even better? Use your subjects to block the sun. This means shooting pretty close, but I love the light when I do this.
And sometimes you'll just have pure, bright, blinding sun. It's okay. Own it.
Sunlight is magical, isn't it? Now GO CHASE SOME SUN AND MAKE BEAUTIFUL PICTURES!