Most photographers spend a good deal of time thinking about the quality, direction and quantity of light that’s falling on the front of their subject. We spend time and effort to carefully balance light striking the subject from the left and right, whether with flash or reflectors, to ensure we avoid creating a flat looking shot. Controlling light levels from either side of the camera usually helps us to demonstrate the three-dimensional qualities of whatever it is that we are shooting.
But we often forget to consider is the impact of light that comes from behind.
Why and what for?
Light that comes from behind can create a bright edge around the subject that helps it to stand out from the background. That edge can be dramatic or subtle, but either way it always delivers a lift against a mid-tone or dark background. Making what we are shooting stand out is important because obviously we want the viewer to see the subject before seeing anything else in the frame, and a glowing outline of light makes most subjects shout for attention.
Our eyes are drawn to bright areas so when we create an outline that’s a couple of stops brighter than the rest of the subject and the area around it that edge draws the eye. That edge also can create a semi cut-out feel – like inking a thick line in pen around a drawing – which will help to make the subject jump off the page – especially if the background is quite dark.
There are a number of ways of creating this effect and it can be used both indoors and out. Outside the easiest way to achieve backlighting is to place your subject between the camera and the sun. Unless you are shooting from a low angle yourself the technique is most effective, and easiest to achieve, when the sun is low in the sky at sunset, sunrise and in the winter months. Obviously you need to be careful to prevent the sun from shining directly into the lens as this can create ugly reflections of the aperture within the lens elements. Flare can be attractive and can add to the atmosphere of the scene, but be careful so it does not distract from the scene.
Indoors a similar backlighting effect can be achieved with domestic table lamps or sunshine coming through a window. Table lamps and windows tend to be quite low anyway and are often easily positioned behind a person standing or sitting. The great thing about table lamps is that they are usually designed to produce warm light which makes for an attractive glow around the subject.
Using off-camera flash allows you to achieve a nice backlit effect all the time whether indoors or out. You don’t necessarily need an expensive unit, or TTL control, but the flash will need to be close enough or powerful enough to appear brighter than the ambient conditions – including the other flashes you might be using in the set-up.
A backlight is often best when it comes from a harsh source so there’s not always a need for diffusers and softboxes. If you are using two identical flash heads, the front one with a softbox and the rear without, you will probably find that the difference in brightness created by the modifiers is enough to give you the illumination contrast that you need without adjusting the power of the heads.