Backlit photos can be absolutely stunning no matter what you are photographing. But learning how to take a backlit photo and getting comfortable with those skills can be challenging for some.
Depending on what you are trying to do, though, a backlit photo can be very simple to pull off. The primary thing you need to worry about is balancing the exposure. When your image is backlit, you run the risk of having the background too bright and the foreground (or subject) too dark.
Here are 5 easy techniques to help you balance the exposure when you are shooting backlit photos.
1. Keep The Sun (or other light source) Out Of Frame
Having a bright light source in the frame of a photo can cause all kinds of problems if you’re not taking other precautions.
It’s a good idea to get at least some “safe” shots without the light source directly in the frame of the shot.
Also keep in mind that even when the light is out of the visible part of the frame, some direct light may still be hitting the outer glass element of the lens. This can cause light flares.
When used artistically, a light flare can be a great effect.
2. Use Something To Block The Sun
What if you can’t or don’t want to put the light source completely out of frame?
You can still minimize the negative effects by partially or completely blocking it from directly hitting the lens. Things like trees, buildings, mountains, or even the subject of the photo.
By placing something between you and the light source, you significantly cut down on the amount of light reaching the camera which makes it easier to create a balanced exposure.
But you also create something called rim light. The object between you and the light will take on an almost glowing appearance. This works exceptionally well when shooting people. It will create a glowing atmosphere around the subject.
I use this technique often when I want that briht and airy soft glow look (particularly with women).
3. Find The Good Angles
When you are using backlight in a photo, simply moving a few feet to the left or right can make a massive difference in the image.
It can help to hide the light behind your subject or some other object. It can create ot eliminate lens flare in the image.
The most important thing to keep in mind when positioning yourself when shooting a backlit image is to pay attention to the subject and how the light is affecting them. If you move too far, you’ll change the light from a backlight to a side light. That can introduce all kinds of shadows and creates an entirely differnent feel for the image.
You also can’t forget the basics like paying attention to your background (other than the light source). By repositioning yourself, you may be changing the background as well.
4. Make Sure Your Subject Has Enough Light
You might be focused on the backlight, but don’t forget about your subject. The goal is still to get a good exposure on your subject.
When you first attempt to shoot backlit images, you may find yourself so focused on the background that you end up with a sillouette of your subject. There’s nothing wrong with a silouette shot, but if you are reading this far, then you probably want to know how to create a more balanced exposure for a backlit shot.
Your approach may be different whether you are shooting a person or a landscape.
The easiest approach is to simply expose correctly for the subject and let the background be overexposed. This is where you should start. Get comfortable dealing with light behind your subject.
You can also use a reflector to bounce some of the light behind your subject back into their face.
The last and most effective way to get light on your subject in a backlit shot is to use off camera flash. The advantages to using flash are that you can control the power, you can use gels to get the right color, and you can make the light as hard or soft as you want. If you have a flash powerful enough, you can crank it up and underexpose the background a little for a really cool look.
Landscapes require a different approach. Chances are you can’t get a reflector or flash large enough to balance the light on an entire landscape.
You can let the background (typically the sky) be overexposed and concentrate on exposing the ground, but that’s generally not desireable for a landscape image. Occasionally, you can find spots where there is light being reflected onto the foreground. One example would be perhaps shooting a cityscape with a large building at your back. That would reflect some light onto the foreground. But that is rarely enough and you kind of have to be luck to find it.
The best way to balance the exposure for a backlit landscape is to either (1) use a graduated ND filter or (2) bracket your shots.
A graduated ND filter will darken a portion of the image while leaving another portion alone. This is how we did it before digital photography and Photoshop and it still works today. However, it really works best when the horizon between the land and sky is a straight line (such as when you’re shooting out towards a large body of water. Otherwise, it’s not very accurate.
A better approach is to bracket your shots and blend them later in Lightroom or Photoshop. That’s a whole other tutorial that we’ll eventually cover on here, but it’s too much to get into now. I will say that the “Photomerge” to “HDR” function in Lightroom is a great place to start. It’s not perfect, but it does as good a job as any automated process.
A more advanced technique requires a more manual approach called luminosity masking in Photoshop. That let’s you control every aspect of the blending and often creates much more natural looking and higher quality results.
You can click on the images above to zoom in.
5. Lens Quality Matters
Shooting into a light source can create a flare in your image and/or cause you to lose contrast in the image making it appear soft. Those are not always bad things and can be used creatively, but you need to be aware that it can happen and make sure to either avoid it or use it effectively.
The methods above can cut down on these effects.
Another expensive, but effective, way to avoid excessive lens flare and contrast loss is to simply use a better quality lens. This is especially true when it comes to retaining contrast in the image when shooting towards a light source.
Better made (which usually means more expensive) lenses tend to do a much better job of controlling these effects.
That being said, I never advocate for a photogrpaher to simply go out and buy a new lens just to solve a problem like this.
For one, no lens will eliminate these effects altogether. Plus there are four other excellent techniques that work significantly better than simply switching lenses. So try these techniques with whatever lens you have and make the best image possible.
If you still find yourself unable to create the images you want, then consider upgradings.