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Tips to Master Backlight Photography, and Elevate Your Portraits

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis

Do you find it difficult to shoot beautiful portraits in broad daylight? Do you want to mimic the halo effect across hairlines you see in other photographs? Then backlighting your photos might be what you've been looking for.

Backlight photography presents a unique challenge and offers incredible opportunities to create stunning images that stand out. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the techniques and tips for mastering backlight photography and capturing striking portraits.

What is Backlight Photography?

Backlighting occurs when the primary light source is positioned behind your subject, facing towards your camera. This technique adds depth, drama, and contrast to your photos, making your subject pop against the background. However, it can be challenging to get the exposure just right, especially if you rely on auto-exposure modes.

You may have encountered such a problem. You set your camera to AUTO mode, you try to take a photograph of a subject against the sun, and the subject becomes a pitch-black silhouette.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
You can create striking portraits utilizing backlighting correctly

How to Achieve Perfect Exposure

1. Shoot in RAW Format

Start by capturing your images in RAW format instead of JPEG. RAW files retain more image data, giving you greater flexibility in post-processing, which is crucial for backlight photography where exposure adjustments are often needed.

2. Utilize Manual Mode

Switch to manual mode on your camera to have full control over exposure settings. Monitor the exposure through your camera's live view mode, adjusting settings to achieve the desired look in real time. Make sure you master light metering using the camera's light meter. I suggest you choose your favourite meter setting, such as matrix, centred or point, and stick with it.

3. Spot Metering for Accuracy

Set your camera's metering mode to 'Spot' for precise exposure readings. This mode meters the light based on a specific area of the frame, allowing you to meter off your subject's face for optimal exposure. This will be the easiest method for beginners to work with backlighting. However, more experienced photographers can use any metering method.

4. Experiment with Exposure Compensation

When using automatic or semi-automatic programs, use exposure compensation to fine-tune your exposure settings. Start with slight underexposure to retain details, as it's easier to recover shadows than highlights in post-processing.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Manual mode gives maximum versatility

Techniques for Creative Backlight Photography

1. Use a Dark Background

To me, this is the most useful tip to make beautiful backlit portraits. When photographing a subject using a backlight, try to bring it against a dark background. This could be foliage, a dark wall, and more.

The reason for working in this way is to create what is called a rim light along the outline of the subject. This helps make the subject pop from its background and create more depth in the frame.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Rim lighting is achieved by placeing your main subject against a a dark background

2. The "Angel Effect"

On the other side, you may want to create a high-key result. This technique will make your portraits look very bright and as if they are descending from Heaven. Thus my naming "angel effect". To achieve this, you place your subject against a bright backdrop. Thus the subject poses against your main backlight source, which makes it partially blend. You need to expose for the shadows to have the result we are looking for. Try for example exposing for the face's skin in the case of a human subject.

Because of the details of this kind of exposure, you achieve very smooth shadows on your subject and qualities such as translucent-looking skin.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
The "Angel Effect"

3. Creating Silhouettes

Embrace underexposure to create dramatic silhouettes against a bright background. Spot metering helps in achieving this effect without overexposing the background. You need to meter the highlights of the scene to achieve the silhouette effect.

There are different levels of this effect. I do not utilize completely dark silhouettes in my portrait photography. However, I sometimes use a low-key exposure to come up with darker, more cinematic results.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Low-key with backlight photography

4. Create an Eerie Atmosphere

You can use backlight to add a cinematic, atmospheric and eerie quality to a scene. Try creating a photograph inside a room which is lit from behind. That is, try to have some windows or a door in front of you with the sun against your camera. You then need to expose for the highlights. This way you keep all the information from the highlight part of the image and the shadows become almost black. Make sure you increase the contrast during post-processing for a dramatic end result.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
An eerie, cinematic look using backlight photography

5. Side/Back Lighting

Sometimes you can take advantage of both worlds. In the example below, I have chosen a side light. However, the light still sits behind the plane of my subject, so it is also a backlight. At the same time, I placed the subject against a dark background, as discussed in tip #1. The result is to have a dramatic side light and at the same time a rim light along the subject's outline.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Side/back lighting

6. Utilizing Translucent Subjects

Experiment with translucent elements like leaves or water spray that glow beautifully when backlit, adding a surreal quality to your photos. Fog or smoke is also a great idea, but try to be as creative as possible. Think of glass, crystals, thin membranes, dust particles, feathers, spider webs and so on.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Using translucent subjects with backlighting

6. Harnessing Lens Flare

Position your light source strategically to introduce lens flare, adding artistic flair to your images. Adjust the position and intensity of the light for varying effects.

This effect is created by your camera's lens. Thus, the type and characteristics of your lens will create different effects. With a single lens, you can experiment by changing the aperture. If it is a zoom lens you can try different focal distances (zoom levels). Of course, the angle from which you are taking a photograph plays a crucial role.

Different lenses produce different results. The built quality, the number and type of glass elements, as well as the focal distance and aperture, play a role in the resulting lens flare. Many photographers try even cheap, plastic lenses, for the interesting lens flare effects they produce.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Lens flare with backlight photography

7. Street Photography with Backlight

Street scenes with strong backlight can create compelling images. Use reflectors or existing light sources to balance exposure and highlight your subject's features. A white wall or surface can play the role of the reflector, so you don't have to carry studio equipment with you. Try to take snapshots and interesting scenes introducing other qualities such as motion etc, combined with a rear key light.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Snapshots and scenes illuminated by a backlight

Preparing for Post-Processing

1. Editing RAW Files

RAW files retain maximum detail, which is crucial for adjusting exposure and enhancing contrast in post-processing. RAW is the only format you should be shooting in.

Formats such as jpg and png are presentation formats and retain the least information possible. On the other hand, RAW retains ALL the information captured by your camera. This results in an image with a high dynamic range. Put simply, that means that you have more information about both the highlights and the shadows of the image. This allows you to recover details during post-processing.

Having this information is crucial for backlight photography since your scene consists of high contrast. The difference between the highlights and shadows in such a photograph can be over 15 stops*.

*If you don't know what a stop is, it is a way we count the light's volume in photography. The difference in volume between each stop is twofold. Therefore 2 stops have twice the light volume than 1 stop.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Shooting in RAW is essential for backlight photography

2. Enhancing Contrast

Adjust shadows and blacks to enhance the backlight effect while maintaining clarity in your subject's features.

It is quite common in cases with backlight, you have to increase the values of shadows and at the same time decrease the ones of highlights. When you do that, the contrast of the photograph is naturally reduced.

When using software such as Adobe Lightroom, you can increase the contrast levels to compensate for that. This will result in a photograph with normal contrast. At the same time, you will have achieved lowering your highlights and increasing your shadows.

Backlight Photography: Elevate Your Portraits with Backlighting. Article cover by George Tatakis
Make sure the resulting photograph has enough contrast

Conclusion

Mastering backlight photography takes practice and experimentation. By following these techniques and tips, you'll be equipped to leverage backlighting effectively, adding depth and atmosphere to your portrait photography.

I am passionate about helping photographers elevate their skills. Stay tuned for more creative photography tips and explore the "Art of Photography" section of my blog for further inspiration!

Camera used: Leica Q

Love xx

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