Backlit Portrait Photography Tips

Use the “halo light” pattern in your photo lighting.

Here is a photo tip I’ve recently read that I disagree with:

“When photographing people, always make sure to avoid direct sunlight in the background of the photo. This will make odd shadows and add an undesirable element to the picture.

Position the people so the sun is to the side, but not shining directly in their face either. This will cause the subjects of your photograph to be squinting uncontrollably.”

photo tips and tricks

Photo by Xiu Xiu.

I’m not against shooting with the sun to the side or even straight into the face, but some of the best and most dramatic portraits I’ve ever done (both humans and animals) were done with the sun at the subject’s back.

Backlighting can be very dramatic and will set you apart from all the “snapshooters” out there! If you do it right.

This does put the face in shadow, which is no problem if you expose for the shadow. Expose for the light on the shadowed face, and you will have a properly exposed shot. Just like you would have had if you exposed for the value of the light if the sun’s light was shining directly into the face.

Here’s a quick flash from the past. In ancient times (with film), we learned to expose for the shadows on film (negative) shots and to expose for the highlights in slide (positive) shots. This had more to do with the limitations of the film than an aesthetic factor, but it still works.

lighting tutorial

Photo by Arif Akhtar.

If you want to get rid of the shadows, you can put a flash on your camera and set it to the same strength as the background light from the sun and eliminate the facial shadows that way and end up with an evenly lit photo.

Or use a reflector to bounce light back into the face; this will be almost identical in strength as the sun.

Or, set your flash unit to a strength that is less than the strength of the light from the sun (or don’t use a flash at all) and expose for the lesser light on the face. This will give you a nicely exposed face, and a rim of brighter light from the sun that surrounds the body.

This is called “rim light” or the “halo light” effect. And believe me, it’s gorgeous!

Be careful not to get any light shining into the lens. That will blow out the image. Either position yourself in some shade or have someone shadowing the lens with a piece of paper or something.

Either shoot early or late in the day for the best results. If the sun is directly overhead it won’t work too well.

photography lighting guide

Photo by Chris Ford; ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/1600 exposure.

That’s your project for the next couple days. Shoot a ton of back-lit (halo light) images. Try it a few times and you will be hooked and always looking for opportunities to shoot this highly dramatic photo lighting pattern.

About the Author:
Dan Eitreim writes for ontargetphototraining.com. He has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years. His philosophy is that learning photography is easy if you know a few tried and true strategies.

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7 responses to “Backlit Portrait Photography Tips”

  1. Riaan Roux says:

    I totally agree! The best photos I have taken on location are those with the sun behind or to the side and behind the subject. Balancing the light and exposure can be tricky to learn when using off-camera flash, but the results are truly rewarding. One you get to the point where you understand the light from you strobes and how is affects scenes when shooting full manual (including strobe light power) you can get away with more than TTL will ever give you.

  2. Ryan says:

    I agree as well. Location work would be dull without the sun to intervene. Try using a touch of warmth reflector and dragging the shutter just a bit. Those rays will pop even more.

  3. Jodie says:

    Thanks! But am still a little confused, So do you exposed for the area of the face that has the least amount of light (the most shadow)? and what actually is “dragging the shutter”? slow shutter speed? and what does TTL mean?
    Thanks for your help and articles!

  4. Brian in Whitby says:

    Back lighting is also called Contre-jour, (Fr for: ‘Against the light.’ )
    It is an excellent way an excellent way to bring out the texture in an object.
    Try it with sand or snow to really make the texture show up.
    Silhouettes are another application of this technique
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contre-jour

  5. silva says:

    All this must be the basics for some but for me It’s valuable info. Understanding the light is something I’m yet to learn… tyvm

  6. Irene says:

    I’m with Jodie – this is something I really want to start practicing “expose for the shadow – expose for the light on the shadowed face” confuses me a little. Do you expose for the lightest part of the shadowed face or the darkest part of the shadowed face? Also which metering mode would you use for this? I use Spot metering.

  7. Debbie says:

    Hi, I love backlit photos. My question is…..when doing backlit photos, the eyes arent as sharp. Is that part of backlighting? If so, I’m going to quit stop trying to sharpen the eyes and save my sanity.

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