Special subjects

Photographing backlit subjects

Written by Digicamhelp Editor

When looking for picture possibilities, don’t overlook light that may be coming from behind your subject.

When looking for picture possibilities, don’t overlook the light that may be coming from behind your subject.

Backlit subjects can catch a viewer by surprise. Depending on the subject and how the photographer handles getting some, if any, light to strike the front side of the subject, effects can range from pleasantly surprising to downright dramatic.

The above photograph of cows in a chilly spring pasture at sunrise illustrates some of the benefits of backlighting.

Subjects that would come off as docile in any other lighting scenario become imposing with backlight. Subtle details, like the fog created by the animals’ breathing and the texture of the grass, become easily visible. Shadows cast by backlit subjects create leading lines, a composition technique, that draw the viewer into the photograph. The image exhibits an air of mystery.

If by now you are sold on backlighting as a viable photographic technique, what do you need to do ensure properly exposed backlit photographs?

Adjusting settings for a backlit subject

 One adjustment may already be within your grasp. A number of digital cameras have backlight settings, which automatically sets the exposure to compensate for the amount of light coming at the camera. Check your camera’s manual to see if yours has this feature.

If your camera does not have a backlight adjustment, set the exposure value (EV) to +1 to +2 to keep the camera from underexposing your image due to the amount of light coming at it from behind the subject.


A reflector panel placed near your subject can bounce some light into the shadow areas to brighten things up.

Your reflector could be one of a number of those available for purchase in camera stores or online and come in a variety of sizes and surfaces, from white to silver to gold, depending on the intensity and warmth of the light you wish to use to fill in those dark areas.

Your reflector may also be as simple as a sheet of white poster board or foam board that is available at most office supply and craft stores. A reflector could even be something that already exists in the subject’s environment – sidewalks, sand or nearby walls and windows can effectively bounce light into the shadows of your subject.

A reflector – in this case, the sidewalk – fills in the shadows of this backlit portrait.


For even more control, consider using flash to fill the shadows with light. If you have the ability to control your camera’s flash output, dial it down a stop or two to reduce its intensity. Too much flash on a backlit subject makes the artificial light glaringly obvious.

If you can’t control your flash’s output, a few layers of parchment paper (available in your grocer’s baking aisle) placed over the flash can cut down the amount of light.

In this photograph, a flash dialed down to half power, was used to fill the shadows.

Silhouettes, the ultimate backlit subjects

Having said all that about reflecting light into the shadow side of your subject, there will be times when no shadow detail is necessary to get across what’s happening in a photograph. In cases like these, simply expose for the highlight areas and fire away.

As I came upon a popular sunset watching spot in Door County, Wisconsin, a couple on a park bench caught my eye. I simply stood behind them, metered on the sky above the sun, composed the photo and fired several frames.

Photos with a flare

Any time you are taking pictures looking into your light source, you run the risk of lens flare, which occurs when light enters directly into the lens and reflects off the various layers of glass inside. Some lenses handle incoming light better than others.

Sometimes lens flare can become an integral part of your photograph; other times, you’d just as soon not have it appear.

To reduce lens flare, you can use a lens hood or your hand to shield the lens opening from direct light. You can also change camera position. Moving to a higher location and shooting more downward at the couple on the park bench would have reduced the amount of flare had I chosen to do so.

Shoot into the light

Photographing backlit subjects can be very rewarding. Armed with a few basics, it’s time to get out there and play around with incoming light and discover the various effects it can create.

Have fun!