Backlighting: When It Makes Sense and How to Do It Well

Backlighting can add drama, depth, and interest to your photos. But, as with most things, there are times when it makes sense and times when you should avoid it. It all depends on your image and what you're trying to achieve with it.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article titled: The Perfect Holiday Gift, Part 1: How to Shoot the Best Photo Gift.  You'll find that article here.

In it, I said that when you're shooting portraits, you should avoid backlighting (that is, positioning your light source -- the sun, a lamp, etc -- behind your subject). And the reason I said that is the same reason why I like the effects of backlighting in this picture…

When you place the light source behind your subject (a person's face when you're taking portraits or the horses in this picture), your camera exposes for the light and, in turn, throws your subject into silhouette.

So while backlighting isn't usually something you want to consider for portraits (at this early stage of the game anyway), it certainly has its uses in other types of photography.

Like in the picture above.  This photo (Christmas Family Camp) was one submitted for this month's photo contest theme: The True Meaning of the Season.

It grabbed my attention with its sense of time, place, and story -- I can almost feel the chill of that morning and the sound of the snow crunching under foot.

And it's a perfect example of effective back lighting. You see how the sun is low in the sky and shining from the other side of the horses? I like the way it makes the snow look under and beyond the animals -- the lighting helps give the footprints depth.

I also really like seeing the steam from the horses' breath. And notice the slight glow around them. These are two more very nice elements that you might not see if the horses were lit by light from any other direction.

Backlighting, when done well, adds a touch of mystique to your photos.

But getting it right can be tricky. In this photo, for example, with the dark color of the horses and the sun directly behind them, not a lot of detail on the horses shows through.

Why is that? Well part of the problem is that the camera looks around the whole scene and sees all that snow and all that light and thinks it has plenty of light. (If, in fact, we were exposing for the sky, the exposure would be right.) But the true subject of this photo is the horses (and the bit of sleigh we see).

So what could be done in this situation to improve the definition of the animals?

** 1) The absolute easiest solution would be to shoot from the other side of the horses, with the sun to your back. That low-in-the-sky sun would give a nice, even light. However, while this would be a better exposure on the horses, you would sacrifice that wonderful "backlight" on the snow and likely loose the steam from the horses' breath as well, both wonderful aspects of this shot.

** 2) To keep it as a back-lit shot, you might try a different angle, getting down a bit lower so as much of the bright light as possible is obstructed by the horses, and perhaps pointing the camera at more of an angle so you're looking down the horses toward the sleigh (including a bit more of the sleigh if possible). That way, instead of looking directly toward that bright sun spot, it would be more to your left, giving the shot more perspective and leading lines, as well as a more dynamic composition.

** 3) Another good way to work with backlighting is to use what's called "fill flash." With "fill flash" you use your camera's flash (or an external flash) to illuminate the subject a bit. Now, this works best when handled with a light touch. What I mean is: If you just pop up your flash, you're likely to end up with harsh lighting. But you can get around this in various ways, including:

* a) Dialing down the flash -- Check your camera's manual to find out how you set it to reduce the flash by one or two stops.

* b) Diffusing the light -- You can buy, for just $10-$15, a diffuser made specifically to fit on the flash of your camera.

* c) Bouncing the light at a 45-degree angle -- This requires an extra, exterior light. If you're inside, you can bounce it off the ceiling. If you're outside, you can hold it up at a 45-degree angle, just so it's not pointed directly at the subject of your photo.

One last thing: Lots of tools and tricks exist in photography, but there are really very few hard-and-fast RULES.

The key to improving your photos lies in understanding how your camera works, so you can begin to anticipate how it will record a shot. Knowing that -- and armed with the kinds of tips and tricks we aim to provide in these weekly dispatches -- you'll begin to compensate for this effect or that… and your photos will improve dramatically.

Wishing you safe and happy holidays (and great pictures, too)!


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