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Taking Photos with Backlighting

“Keep your back to the sun and shoot” was once a rule for photographers, but this was due to the limitations of older cameras, films, and techniques. With better, more modern equipment and advanced methods, you needn’t settle for pictures with deep shadows under the subject’s eyes, nose, and chin. Liberation from this outmoded approach to lighting is the first step toward achieving great results when taking photos with backlighting.

Halo lighting is backlighting that spills over the head and shoulders of the subject. It is often used in portraits of women and children. With floods it is very easy to produce this effect and control it, according to the amount of halo desired. With flash you must be aware of the flash angle so that the light spills enough, but not too much. The astounding image below is a remarkable example of halo lighting. 

Taking photos with backlighting - Rosanne Haaland

Photo credit: Rosanne Haaland

The intensity of backlighting has become relatively unimportant with the advent of high-ISO digital photography and fast lenses. You can work with anything from direct sun to a lone candle and get the same basic backlighting effects, even through you may have to expose longer. Don’t be concerned by how much light there is — only by its direction, quality, and relationship to the subject. Window light can be as effective as electronic flash if the illumination falls the way you want it.

A lens hood should be used for all types of photography but it becomes an absolute must when taking photos with backlighting. The chance of light spilling directly into the lens and causing image-destroying flare is ever present in backlighted scenes. The lens hood, or sometimes called lens shade, should keep out all rays that come from outside the taking angle of the lens. It’s obvious that one shade won’t do for wide-angle, normal and telephoto lenses, so make sure you get the correct one for each lens you use.

Using a D-SLR is a convenience when taking photos with backlighting; you can see the exact rendition of the lighting and possible lens flare caused by stray light. The meter in your D-SLR can be set up to function like a spot-meter and will enable you to determine exposure accurately. But of course any type of camera can be used when taking photos with backlighting, provided the photographer is aware of the problems involved.

Underexposure is the most common error that photographers tend to encounter when taking photos with backlighting. If the exposure isn’t adequate, the result will be a silhouette totally lacking in shadow detail. If in doubt, give a little extra exposure in relation to what your meter tells you.

Meter-reading technique will determine the over-all effect of your picture. You can either: (1) make a close-up reading of the least illuminated shadow and get a fully detailed picture, or (2) read the light source directly if you wish a silhouette with very little or no visible detail. The degrees of recorded detail in between are almost infinite. Take your reading carefully and avoid including stray light. Remember that you are interpreting a creative idea that will become a picture via shutter speed and f-stop.

Taking photos with backlighting - dotpanic

Photo credit: dotpanic

Picture insurance wouldn’t be hard to sell if you could guarantee results on hard-to-get shots. Bracketing your exposures is always a good idea when taking photos with backlighting — even if you take extra care in meter reading and interpretation. The spread of the bracketing will depend on how tough a shot you are attempting and how sure you are of the computed setting. One pair of shots for insurance may be all you need — but it may take a string of six for a scene from which you can’t get a good meter reading.

Bypassing an automatic exposure system is sometimes essential. Automatics usually produce silhouettes when taking photos with backlighting. Some of these systems can be overridden by taking a close-up reading of details you want recorded and half-depressing the release button. Then you merely back up, frame your shot, and press the release button the rest of the way. Automatics without this feature force you to use the manual or flash settings to set your own exposure. Some systems tell you what they would set the shutter at and this can be a point of departure for your exposure calculation. When taking photos with backlighting, a separate incident light meter can be a great and highly valuable convenience — but, they’re not absolutely essential.

Control of contrast is an important element in making successful backlighted studio photos. You can destroy the mood you have worked for with the wrong degree of contrast. Light for the shadow-to-highlight ratio you wish, along with the overall high or low key desired. Don’t think that taking photos with backlighting necessarily means extremely harsh or flat lighting; you can control the contrast.

Taking photos with backlighting - Sergio Moratilla

Photo Credit: Sergio Moratilla

Reflectors can help you control the shadows both indoors and outdoors. You can use a newspaper, homemade reflectors (like cardboard painted white on one side and aluminum foil on the other), a light-colored umbrella, or even a projection screen. Don’t forget that the color of a reflection will record on the photograph.

Fill flash can be useful for opening up shadows when taking photos with backlighting. Your fill-light source must match the main light for color balance. Flash is not as easy to use as reflector fill, since you cannot see the effect and must rely on your own calculations. It is important that the fill doesn’t overpower the main lighting. This is rarely the case when the sun is the main light source. Indoors you must regulate the flash distance to subordinate the intensity of the flash.

A single light can produce a striking backlighted picture and using it is a good beginning for learning the technique. It is comparatively simple to shield the lens from a single light source and accurate meter reading is not difficult. You can gain a lot of experience by experimenting — placing the light high or low, and varying the exposure. A still life subject is preferable since live modeling for experimentation can be a tiresome job for anyone. Record the setups and exposures for future reference.

One light plus one reflector can be the next step in your progress. You can use the same lighting setups that you used with the single light and see what difference is created in shadow detail, contrast, and modeling with the addition of different reflectors. In general the shinnier the reflector, the more light is reflected and the harsher its characteristics. Compare the meter readings you get with the various reflector setups and note the differences in visual results.

The subject can be the shield between the camera and backlighting in the studio, but this need not be the only solution to the problem. You can use a prop in the scene or a strategically placed light baffle outside the picture area to serve as a shield for the lens.

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