How to Use Backlighting for Portraits

Most photographers start shooting with the sun behind them. After all, it’s what many beginning photography books suggest. But, that’s really missing out on a great part of portraiture—backlight. In this video, Mike Browne offers pointers for getting beautiful backlit portraits:

When the sun is behind your subject it casts a rim light over them, which makes everything more dynamic.

Isolate Your Subject

Place your subject against a dark background to accentuate the rim lighting caused by the sun. If you shoot against the sky or another bright background, the backlight effect won’t be as obvious.

Minimize Lens Flare

Use a lens hood. Direct sunlight tends to create lens flare when it hits the lens directly. Some photographers like a little flare in their images, but too much of it can lead to washed out photos. Lens hoods are made to counter lens flare and therefor increase image quality.

Expose for Your Subject

When your camera takes a light reading it will often underexpose the subject since it will be confused by the background.

underexposure in backlit portrait

Underexposed Subject

You can get your subject correctly exposed by using exposure compensation or manual exposure. Something around one to one-and-a-half stop overexposed should do. Take a reading of your subject’s skin to figure out what works best.

backlighting tips

Expose for the Subject

Your background will get brighter, but your subject will be properly exposed.

If the contrast between the subject and the background is too great, you can use a reflector to bounce back some light to fill the shadows on your subject.

Ready to practice the new knowledge? This technique is quite simple, and it can be used in a variety of ways. You can replicate this in the studio by replacing the sun with a strobe.

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