Backlight your subject: the craft

This week we will dig into one of the lighting technique we use extensively in our imagery: Backlight. For this of you who are new to the terms, backlight is when you place the source of light behind your subject. And if you come from the “old school” as we did, you must have heard many times someone saying “never put the sun behind your subject”, but what are rules for if not to be broken?
Backlight is, overall, a simple enough technique, but there are small details that may transform your backlit image in a great photo. Some of these are craft, some others are more related to the art of photography.
Backlight is not everyone’s cup of tea. As a photographer, you need to ask yourself if you like backlight your subject. Give this article an in-depth read before jumping to a conclusion, as few simple stratagems may change a dull and underexposed photo to a lovely image making us of the backlight technique.

The Craft: Metering while backlight your subject

The first issue while backlight is your camera. Those insufferable know-it-all think that just because they have a light meter built inside, they know how to expose properly. If this can be correct in most of the cases, when you backlight your subject, you need to take over your camera built-in metering system.
First of all, you need to understand how your camera measure the light. The most common settings try to evaluate the light around the focus point, or just evaluate the medium exposure of the image. Both these system are not what you are looking for. Tell your camera to expose only your focus point and nothing else -often called spot metering– and then (drum roll) don’t listen to it, at least not completely. Because of the high contrast between your subject and the background, which is extremely bright, seen that it is… well light, your camera is generally conservative about the amount of light on your subject. So, when backlight, overexpose your image. We generally overexpose of around 2 stops (!), and we evaluate the result on the back of the camera.

The Craft: Bouncing the light

Even overexposing the spot metering suggestion of your camera, you will notice that elements like human skin will not look at their best. In order to make the most out of the backlight technique, you need to bounce some of the light back in front of your subject. This is generally not very difficult to do, and you can do it by using my most loved light-modifier: a reflector. Use the one you have, or the one that produces the best colour results for your taste. We use the California Sunbounce Zebra (a mix of gold and silver). It is quite powerful as a normal silver reflector, without its dull cold colour, but without the yellow tone a gold reflector. Weapons of choices aside, everything that is able to reflect the light is fine, even a white wall or a white sheet.
Because the reflected light is so important, so it is the colour of the garments you are wearing. When using the backlight technique, avoid flashy colour, reds, greens and give preference to natural, light colours.

The Craft: Catchlight in the eye

When you backlight your subject, you lower the amount of contrast of the overall image. You cannot create three dimensions thanks to lights and shadows in your subject’s face. Backlight means that the light comes from directly behind your subject; therefore, you lose the capability of creating depth in your images. To gain some of strength in the backlight images, you can make sure that there is a good catchlight in your subject’s eyes. The catchlight in the eyes is the reflection of a light in the eyes. Because of the backlight, you need to use some stratagems to create the catchlight. The easiest is to use the same light you bounce on your subject’s face we discussed previously. The key is to make sure that the reflection is visible in the eyes as this will create some visual impact.

Now that you have information on how to master the craft for creating strong backlight photos, it is time to focus on the Artistic side of a backlight image. The craft alone will not make of your backlight photos a masterpiece. Next week we will dig deeper in all those details that will help you make the most out of your backlight photos. You are an artist, and you should understand that the technical side of a photo is the simplest to learn. Before next week’s article on the art of backlight, you should grab your camera and put to practice this article’s tips. Make sure that you know how to walk before you start running and as always, capture a lot of images…

…and Enjoy!

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