Backlight your subject: the art

 In For Photographers

Last week we wrote about the craft of backlight your subject. This week we will talk about what really make a great backlight photo: the art behind your photos. Backlight comes with pro and con, and the most important one is that the image will not have the same contrast a sidelight image can have. When you backlight you subject, you should keep this into consideration as you need to give your images a different advantage point.
Removing the strong contrast from your photos, the best advantage in shooting backlight photos is the amount of light you can fill your frame with. Because the background is flooded with light, backlight images can give an airy, sunny feel.
I guess that, at this point, you need to ask yourself if, as an artist you like the idea of photos with lots of light. Backlight photos don’t bring the deep blacks other light setups do, but if you like bright images, backlight can be a technique for you!

The Art: lights and shadows

The amount of light in backlight images is huge. This comes to the expense of shadows in your frame. Darkness and high contrast are washed out and the deep blacks can be achieved only through post production. Whenever you are looking to your setup, keeping this into consideration is very important. We like to look at a possible photo before taking it, so we always like to take into consideration how in a backlight environment, the contrast will be washed out. The light coming from behind your subject will cover any shadow, especially because to have a good exposure on the subject we overexpose the image. Bright backgrounds are, therefore, easier to work with, as they maintain their brightness.
The key is to practice as much as possible. Knowing how an image will look before pressing the shutter is a key element in using the backlight well.

The Art: Diffused backlight or direct backlight?

The same rules of light apply to a backlight situation. Direct sunlight will result in harsh shadows while diffused light will produce more gentle ones. The difference, of course, is that the shadows in a backlight images are washed out; therefore, they impact less the overall outcome of the photo. The subject’s face will not have shadows, therefore, the most important decision point for direct or diffused light is not available.
What should drive your decision should be more about the apparent size of your light; in this case the light source is visible; therefore, it impacts the look of the light source more than the shadows it creates. A big window behind the subject will remain a big window while a net curtain in front of it will make the same window become a nice, soft, non descriptive light source.
Remember that we are talking about art, so there is no right or wrong, there are only different tastes. While shooting Boudoir using the backlighting technique, we like to diffuse the light, as it gives a gentle look to the background. Shooting direct backlight results in stronger images, so use it to define your style.

The Art: The best way of keeping the sun in the frame in a backlight photo

If the source of light, as the sun in our example, is directly visible in your frame, you need to decide how to work your image. There are four things you can do: show the sun, re-compose your frame so to remove the sun from the frame, hide the sun behind your subject or make the sun come our from your subject. All these four options have pro and con, and the solution you will choose is mainly a matter of artistic taste.
Having the backlight visible in the frame is challenging, as it may be too strong, washing out many details and it may generate lens flares. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it may soften the image. Re-composing the frame to cut out the source of backlight is a safe choice, you still have a backlight, but you do not have to deal with the side effects of having a light shining in your lens. Placing the backlight just behind your subject will create a very delicate halo effect on your subject. This will make your subject’s form less defined, flattering the body, while maintaining a balance in the shadows. Last, but not least, placing your backlight just where your subject’s form ends, making the light half-hidden and half visible, will create a very interesting effect, highlighting part of your subject and leaving more shadows on the other side. One of the things I particularly like is to make the backlight shine through my subject’s hair!

The art of backlight is about you as an artist!

In the end, there is no right or wrong, there is personal taste. As a photographer, you need to realise you are an artist and you should thrive to produce images you love. If you like striking, strong photos, using the backlight directly visible in your frame can be an option. We cannot tell you what is the best way to achieve your desired look. You have to practice and be honest with yourself! In the end, the art of backlight is about… art.

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