Your Guide to Harnessing Backlight

Your picture’s lighting is what takes it from a decent shot to a great shot. Bad lighting can leave your subject in shadow, wash them out, or destroy a great background. By adding plenty of lighting tricks to your arsenal, however, you can capture your subjects in perfect lighting every time. One of the most important tricks you need to learn to do well is harnessing backlight.

Step One in Harnessing Backlight: Position the Sun

If you’re going to harness backlight in your picture, you’ll have to position your subject around the sun. In order to capture the perfect backlight, you have three options. The sun can be partially behind the subject, just out of the frame, or inside the frame. Each of these options has its own benefits depending on the type of shot you’re trying to capture.

Keep in mind, however, that you must frame the shot to include that perfect moment when the sun is in your ideal position. You don’t necessarily have to wait for the “golden hour” when the sun is at the perfect point in the sky, but keep in mind that time isn’t limitless: you’ll have to get your shot before the sun changes position.

Step Two in Harnessing Backlight: Choose Your Light Effect

In most cases, you’ll get the best backlight effect when you block out the majority of the sun. You’ll want to either position your subject directly in front of it, blocking out as much of the light as possible, or shift your position so that the sun isn’t completely inside the frame. Shading your lens can also be helpful in diminishing the amount of light that shows in your final picture. A lens shade is the best way to accomplish this, but if you’re desperate, you may be able to use your left hand to shade the lens.

Step Three in Harnessing Backlight: Choose Your Camera’s Settings

You may have to experiment a few times before you find the perfect setting for harnessing backlight with your camera. In general, you’ll want to shoot with a wide aperture to get that great lens flare effect. You’ll also want to use your manual settings to control your shutter speed, slowing it down so that the subject is fully exposed. Shooting with automatic settings using backlight will cause your subject to be dark while the bright background is properly exposed, while increasing your exposure will light up the subject the way you intended.

Step Four in Harnessing Backlight: Control the Camera’s Focus

Chances are, your camera’s autofocus won’t work well while shooting with strong backlight. In fact, most autofocus features won’t work with backlight at all. If you can’t manually focus your camera because of the blinding effect of the backlight, try shifting your model to block more of the sun.

Bonus Step: Creating Your Own Backlight

Harnessing backlight can be a challenge on a dimly lit day or when the sun has already set. Thankfully, you aren’t limited to what you can capture with the light that’s on hand. An external flash can help create the backlight you need to frame that ideal shot. This is especially useful when shooting weddings or other romantic shots, when you really want that beautiful halo of light around the couple. Use your external flash just off-camera or block it with your subject to create a stunning backlight effect no matter what the weather looks like during your photo session.

Harnessing backlight is a great way to make the most of that golden hour at sunrise or sunset when the lighting is ideal and there’s something magical in the air, but that’s not the only time it’s useful! There are plenty of great pictures that can be captured through the simple magic of making the most of your existing lighting. Learning to harness backlight is a great way to frame amazing photographs that will have prime places on the wall.