Backlight has always been one of my favourite types of light to shoot in. There’s something magical about it. I love the challenge of shooting into the light because even the smallest change of position can make a huge impact on an image. The challenge of it means that it takes a lot of practice to understand this type of light and how you can create the images you have in your head. Shooting at different times of day and indoors or outdoors can make backlight look totally different as well.
What is backlight? It’s when you position your subject in front of the light source, shooting towards the light.
One of the best times of day to use backlight is golden hour. When the sun is low in the sky, you can get that beautiful glow, lens flare and rim light around your subject. But it also means that you have to be careful about how much of that bright golden sun you let into your lens.
If you’re shooting directly into the sun, you risk getting a very washed out image, and you may also have trouble focusing. To avoid that, I make sure that the sun is not directly in front of the camera, but instead just outside my frame. Or, I partially block the sun using objects like trees, buildings or my subject. Often, if I do want a light-filled image with lots of flare, I’ll grab focus on my subject and then recompose to let the light in.
If you’re shooting earlier in the day with full sun you won’t be able to get a beautiful golden backlit image. You can position yourself with the sun overhead but in front of you so that the shadows fall in front of your subjects. By doing this they won’t be squinting at the sun, or have harsh shadows on their faces. I try to underexpose slightly so that the sky/background isn’t blown out too much, and then I brighten the shadows in post-processing.
I really love using backlight indoors too. I’m mainly a documentary photographer, so learning how to use light indoors in creative ways has always been a fun challenge for me. I watch the light throughout the day to see how it enters my home. Our dining room and kitchen get the most beautiful light at the end of the day, so I often position my girls in front of the patio doors or sink. I’ll shut the blinds to create shadows, or create a silhouette effect by shooting directly at a window and underexposing.
If the sun isn’t shining directly into the room or it’s an overcast day, you can get a bright, dreamy look by backlighting your subjects and overexposing the windows.
You can backlight with any light source – it doesn’t have to be the sun. It can be a lamp, a television, or a flash. I don’t shoot weddings often, but when I do I like to experiment with off camera flash, especially if I’m in a dark location or if it’s nighttime. It’s fun to play around and see the beautiful effects you can get. Someday I want to try it out with other clients or my own kids too.
I learned how to use backlight by practicing. I tried different positions, different sources, different locations. Sometimes it didn’t work out like I hoped it would, but whenever I get a backlit shot that matches or exceeds the vision in my head I get super excited. Don’t be afraid to shoot into the light, the results can be dramatic and beautiful!
Jennifer Blake is a lifestyle and documentary family photographer in New Brunswick, Canada. She has two energetic girls and loves to photograph their everyday life. She is a storyteller, adventurer, and over-thinker, and she loves quilts, llamas, coffee, hugs, puddle jumping and rainbows.