In my last blog post, I spoke to you about the basics of front lighting, which is when your light source is behind you and lighting your subject from the front. I shared with you some of the benefits of front lighting (safe exposures, overall even light, etc) and some of its drawbacks (boring, boring boring).
Today I want to share with you my love for backlighting. Oh dreamy backlighting, how I love you so. Oh, sorry. Lost my train of thought there.
So backlighting is simply when your subject is lit from the back, which means that your light source is in front of you, perhaps blinding you. Yes, I still say backlighting is amazing, even though my eyes hurt for a good while after shooting this way, because for its few drawbacks, the results can be absolutely gorgeous.
So what drawbacks? Well, first there’s that small factor of looking into the direction of the sun for awhile, which is really not all that fun. As well, moving your camera just a smidge to the right or the left can completely change your image, so you have to be careful, be still, and be aware of what you want and how to get it. It’s not easy.
But the benefits could far outweigh the drawbacks if you shoot correctly. For starters, your subjects are not looking into harsh light, so there’s no worry about squinty eyes or less than beautiful expressions. And while frontlighting is safe, and so it can be boring. Backlighting is a bit riskier, but the results are anything but safe and boring. You can shoot silhouettes, sun flare, and warm, creamy pics all in one take. Your snapshots become portraits, your pictures become stories, your subjects the most stunning characters, with rimlit hair and golden tones.
But you can’t just go outside at sunset, turn toward the sun, and start shooting. Well, you can, but chances are you’ll be disappointed with the outcome, unless you take these few tips into account.
The trick with shooting backlit is that your camera’s meter will want to set the exposure for that giant ball of light staring back at it. This will render your subject faceless and create a silhouette portrait. That’s fine, but maybe not what you wanted. So “meter” your camera for your subject’s face. That means that if you’re using your phone, you put that little “focus square” on her face. Or if you have your DSLR, you put that little square (which is the camera meter) on her face. Your camera might scream at you (figuratively speaking), but ignore it. You might overexpose the background, but your faces will be nicely exposed.
A simple tip to make shooting backlit a little easier is to let the sun drop a bit lower. Wait until it’s just setting below the treetops, or the mountain’s peaks, and then get to shooting. Your time will be more limited this way, and your location could get dark pretty fast, but the light will be softer and easier to work with this way.
If the sun is still visible, try to keep it out of the frame of your shot. Having the sun in the shot will wreak havoc on your camera’s meter, risking haze, sun glare, and unwanted silhouettes. So try to keep the sun just out of the frame. You’ll still get all of the beautiful light pouring into the shot, but without the harsh effects.
If you want to keep some of that background light and color without rendering an unexposed face, then try using a reflector between your body and your subject’s face. A reflector can be anything that simply reflects the light from behind her off itself and onto her face. You can use an actual photographer’s reflector, or simply a large sheet of white posterboard, or even a white sheet. I have found that wearing a white shirt can help reflect some of that backlit light if I’m standing close enough. Just try and have something reflective if you’re going to shoot with backlight.
I have found that when it comes to backlighting, the more I experiment, the more I discover new styles of portraiture that I love. So while you’re out there, try new things. I know I said to try and keep the sun out of your frame, but see what happens if you include it. Expose for the sky and see what happens to your subject’s face. Do you prefer the look of soft silhouettes or clear faces and overexposed skies? You won’t really know until you try them all out yourself. Leave yourself an extra five minutes at the end of your photo time to play a little.
So there you have it. Front Lighting and Back Lighting. So which do you prefer? The safe, even tones of lighting your subject from the front, or the risky, dramatic stories that come from backlit images? I love them both, and so I prefer to try and incorporate a little of both into every session. I’d suggest you try the same. And next time you’re out, take note of the way the light falls all around you. But be careful. “Once you begin to see light as a photographer, you will never see it the same way again.”