Backlighting Tips

By April 8, 2015Photography Tips

Lens: 35mm, Aperture: f/1.4, ISO: 200, Shutter Speed: 1/2000sec


Our preferred way to shoot portraits when we are out in the open is to use backlighting. In case you are unfamiliar with backlighting, instead of having the model face the sun, they actually put their back to it. This casts a shadow over the model which helps the photographer properly expose the model but the scene behind can often be too blown out.

Setting the angle

If you’ve tried this method before you’ve probably noticed that during different times of the day, you’ll get much different results with backlighting. What we’ve found is that you get your best results during golden hour and when you angle the sun towards your Southeast or Southwest side of your body. See the diagram below. The reason why this works is that you aren’t shooting straight into the sun. If you shoot straight into the sun this can create a rim light all around the model, almost engulfing them in the light. I think these pictures lack depth and I’m not a fan of the super dark shadows that are created from shooting with the sun straight behind the model.

Backlight Diagram

Backlighting Tip: Place the sun behind you and off to the side to get better photos.


When backlighting it’s important to use a lens hood to significantly cut down on your lens flare. While lens flare can add an artistic effect to an image I’m not a fan of having too much. I’ve also found that lens flare can cause a major loss in the sharpness of an image as well as negatively impact the vividness of the colors in the scene.

Getting the exposure right

When backlighting it’s always best to shoot in Manual mode. Backlighting creates high contrast images that cameras can have difficulty exposing with their automatic settings. If you’re not yet comfortable shooting in full manual mode, make sure to utilize exposure compensation. When I use my Leica, manually changing my shutter speed can be a pain in the ass so I will use exposure compensation instead. Once you dial in your exposure compensation you should be good until you significantly change the scene.

Composing the scene

If you find that you are still getting poor results try and find a location that you can backlight but where there is a large object such as a tree or building that’s shaded. See the image in the next section, it has a slightly shaded wall further back in the background that helps the background not be blown out. A good way to help figure out if you need a background is to take a look at your histograms while you’re shooting. You can find the histogram often by hitting the Info button while you are reviewing your image in camera.
How to read a lighting histogram:
If you find that you are still stuck and you have more of a data driven mind, try and take a look at your lighting histogram in your camera or in your photo editing software. The histogram shows the distribution of pixels in the image ranging on the left side from pure black to pure white on the right side. An ideal image according to the histogram would be a nice bell shaped curve that just touches the far left and right. Below is a pretty good example of a curve that resembles a bell curve. In automatic exposure modes I like to think that the camera will try and pick the exposure that gets as close as possible to the bell curve.
When backlighting photos you’ll find a heavier concentration of the pixels on the far right side in the highlights and whites. If you get too much in the whites you get into the territory where you can lose detail in the background of your image. See the two unedited images below for a good example and a not as good example.
Here is what a properly exposed image looks like.
Good backlit example

Lens: 35mm, Aperture: f/1.4, ISO: 200, Shutter Speed: 1/750s, With ND Filter

Histogram Good Backlight
Here is what a less than ideally backlit photo looks like.

Lens: 35mm, Aperture: f/2.0, ISO 100, Shutter Speed: 1/800s



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