Digital Photography Quick Tips

How to photograph backlit subjects

Written by Gail Bjork

Backlighting creates a pleasing rim of light around subjects, separating them from the background. Follow these tips to make photos your glow when light comes from behind a subject.

viridian by jenny downing

Backlighting creates a pleasing rim of light around subjects, separating them from the background. Here are some tips to make photos glow when light comes from behind the subject.

When the subject is backlit

♦ Metering

When photographing a backlit subject, make sure that your camera’s light meter doesn’t interpret all the light hitting it as needing to be stopped down (smaller sized aperture/larger F-number) – unless your desired outcome is a silhouette.

♦ Exposure Compensation

Set your camera’s Exposure Compensation to somewhere between -1 and -2, depending on the intensity of the backlight. This retains detail in the shadow areas of the subject.

♦ Use a reflector

When subjects are close, use a reflector to bounce some light onto the front of your subject. The reflector adds “fill” light without using a flash. Position the reflector so the light “fills” the darker side of the subject or a face.

You can purchase reflectors specially made for photography, or get creative and  make one yourself. Some photographers use poster or foam core board.

Tips for photographing backlit landscapes

Stone bridge by Sergio Tudela Romero

Shooting backlit landscapes can be tricky. The goal is to retain detail in objects on the ground without washing out the sky. There are several ways to accomplish this.

♦ Metering – With sunrises and sunsets, one rule of thumb is to meter on the sky with the sun just out of the bottom of the camera frame. Use this as your starting exposure.

♦ Filter – You can also help balance the tones of the ground and sky by using a graduated neutral density (GND) filter, which are dark at the top and gradually fade to clear. A two-stop GND filter (dark area is two f-stops darker than the clear area) is suggested for sunrises and sunsets.

♦ Bracket – Shoot multiple exposures, known as bracketing, of a backlit scene with different settings; expose one shot for for the sky and and one for the ground. You’ll need to merge the individual photos when post processing images using an editing program that supports layers.

Some digital cameras have a High Dynamic Range shooting mode than allows for smoother transitions between darker and lighter colors. Three shots are taken at different exposures then combined together in-camera.

For best results, use a tripod when bracketing.

As with any photographic technique, practice makes picture perfect.

These quick tips were taken from a more comprehensive article Photography & the direction of light by James Jordan.

Photos:  Stone Bridge and viridian used under the Creative Commons license.

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.

1 Comment

  • There are so many photographic technique.  But it’s a pity that I never dare to use backlighting in my photos. Thank s for your detailed tips. I want to have a try.
    PS: I love the two pictures above. So beautiful!!