Backlighting in Photography: The Ultimate Guide

Backlighting in Photography: The Ultimate Guide

the ultimate guide to backlighting

What is backlighting in photography? And how can you catch beautiful backlit photos?

That’s what this informative article is all about. I’m going to describe everything you need to know about backlighting, so that by the time you finish reading, you’ll understand:

Sound good? Let’s dive correct in!

What exactly is backlighting in photography?

Backlighting refers to gentle that comes from behind the subject. Put simply, backlighting hits the back of the subject and lights directly into the camera lens.

Backlighting diagram backlight

This really is in contrast to frontlighting , which comes on the photographer’s shoulder and strikes the subject from the front :

frontlighting diagram

Because backlight comes from behind the subject, you’ll generally get photos with a shiny background and a dark issue. You might even get a silhouette effect, where the subject transforms a detailless black, such as the case of these windmills:

Remember that backlighting can be created with artificial lighting simply by placing your own light source behind the subject.

Backlighting can also be created in character, but only when the sun is at an angle to your issue, which is why most photographers use backlight late in the day, during the golden hours . They placement the subject so that the light strikes it from behind, they shoot into the sun!

Now, backlighting is a highly artistic form of lights. It won’t always offer you a silhouette, but it will make lots of subject-background contrast, therefore you should only use it when you’re after a dramatic appear. In the next section, I describe when to use backlighting – and when to avoid it – in greater detail:

When should you use backlighting?

As I emphasized in the previous section, backlights is dramatic. It often generates silhouettes, yellow halos around the subject, and/or a brilliantly bright background.

Therefore , backlighting is great if you want to create stunning, eye-catching effects. Here are a handful of specific images you can take with backlighting:

  • Street silhouettes
  • Portrait silhouettes
  • Bird (and bird-in-flight silhouettes)
  • Pictures with attractive background bokeh
  • Macro scenes along with beautiful background bokeh
  • Sunset and dawn landscapes
  • Surroundings silhouettes

But while backlighting is wonderfully artistic, it’s not ideal if you want to create documentary-style pictures of architecture, products, animals, and so on. In such situations, frontlighting or sidelighting is generally the greater decision, as it’ll produce plenty of detail on the subject. Consequently , most photographers use backlighting sparingly (as a special effect).

Backlighting also comes with another problem:

It’s difficult to control. Exposing for both the subject and the background is hard – actually impossible. In order to handle backlit subjects, you need to have a strong knowledge of your camera’s exposure settings; otherwise, you’ll come aside frustrated.

How to create beautiful backlit images

In this section, I explain how you can generate amazing backlit portraits, scenery, and more:

Backlights in portraits

Backlighting is a tried-and-true family portrait photography technique – one which can get you some stunning photos.

How does this work?

It helps to see some actual family portrait photos that illustrate the idea of backlighting versus frontlighting. This particular first image is a fairly standard portrait shot:

maternity frontlit
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2. 8G ED VR II | 122mm | 1/350s | f/4 | ISO 800

The subjects are lit from your front, and the image can be evenly exposed without any severe shadows. It’s a great photograph, and it meets all the regular criteria for a maternity photo. But let’s look at another photo of this couple, this using backlighting:

Backlighting maternity couple
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2. 8G ED VR II | 180mm | 1/3000s | f/2. almost eight | ISO 400

The parents-to-be are shrouded in shadow (which I was able to boost in Lightroom, due to RAW file format ), and the woman’s hair is glowing using a brilliant golden halo. The person has a glowing outline around his head, and the whole scene has a slightly magical quality to it.

Here’s a head and shoulders portrait of a young man:

Backlighting senior portrait frontlit
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2. 8G ED VR II | 200mm | 1/250s | f/2. 8 | ISO 100

The sunlight can be coming from the front, his face is evenly lit, as well as the background is colorful and straightforward to see.

Today compare that image to its backlit counterpart:

Backlighting senior portrait
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2. 8G ED VR II | 200mm | 1/180s | f/2. 8 | ISO 320

His hair suddenly appears like it’s on fire, and his ears have a bit of a glow. The best side of the background will be lush and green, whereas the left side, in which the sun is positioned, is almost entirely blown out. Even the man’s shoulders are outlined in gold, and the photo comes with an energy to it that the frontlit photo just can’t complement.

When you light your subjects from behind, you can get images like these, which usually combine glowing hair, amazing outlines, and a beautiful history. This type of photo does consider practice, but with a little trial and error, you can use backlighting to get corresponding effects.

The main element here is to shoot late in the day, when the sunlight is at its weakest. And specifically expose with the background in mind, even if it means the subject will be overexposed. (You may brighten the subject in post-processing. )

Backlighting isn’t just for portraits, even though! It can be used in a variety of situations with regard to creative, inspiring images, which includes nature photography:

Backlighting in nature picture taking

Backlit nature photos can look amazing :

And when you start looking for the light, you’ll notice shots like this just about everywhere. In fact , one of the best ways to learn backlighting is to go out in nature and simply experiment simply by putting your subjects involving the camera and the sun.

Sunrise and sunset are great times to try out backlighting. Look for situations where your subjects are at a bit of a range; it also helps to have a common idea of where the sun will be at dawn and sunset. Metering with backlight is usually tricky, so I like to use Aperture Concern to control the depth associated with field after which dial in exposure compensation to get my shots since light or as darkish as I want.

A rule of thumb I like to use in these situations:

Expose for the highlights, after that bring up the shadows within Lightroom. Basically, try not to create your photo too bright because you may end up with clipped highlights (i. e., whitened, informationless areas that cannot be darkened).

Backlighting sunset wind turbines
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2. 8G ED VR II | 200mm | 1/4000s | f/22 | ISO 100

You can also look for more mundane subjects, like fascinating leaves:


When shooting in nature, the main source of light will be the sun, but you don’t have to make use of direct sunlight. In the image above, the mid-afternoon sun made these leaves shine. The sun isn’t in the body, but it still lit the particular leaves from the back and offered me a fun photo opportunity.

Backlighting spider
Nikon D750 | Nikon 50mm f/1. 8G | 50mm | 1/250s | f/4 | ISO 1100

I used a similar way of the image below. You can see just how my use of backlighting made this large blade associated with grass appear almost translucent. The shot was not any sort of accident, and I was only capable to capture it by looking for new ways to shoot familiar subjects. In this case, I was only taking photos of a simple piece of grass!

Backlit grass
Nikon D7100 | Nikon 50mm f/1. 8G | 50mm | 1/500s | f/4. 8 | ISO 100

Most people might pass by this scene with no second thought, but it simply goes to show how backlighting can provide new life to even mundane subjects.

Silhouette backlighting

One interesting way to make use of backlighting is to obscure your subject altogether. This technique is known as silhouette backlighting, and it could be a fun and creative way to showcase people, animals, and other objects.

Now, a person create silhouette images simply by shooting directly into the light source – which completely darkens your subject. To get the image below, I pointed the camera at my main way to obtain light, then waited meant for someone to walk by. The fountain itself doesn’t emit light, but instead reflects exactly what comes from the sun – plus it was so bright that it completely darkened my subject. The image tells a story, also without showing any subject details.

I used a similar backlighting technique to get this photo of a young woman within the early morning:

silhouette person sunrise
Nikon D200 | Nikon 50mm f/1. 8G | 50mm | 1/6000s | f/4 | ISO 200

I knew where the sun was placed, so I waited patiently till a person walked into the frame. By putting my subject matter directly between the camera and the main source of light, I used to be able to capture a figure. The end result is much more interesting than the usual normal, properly-exposed image consumed in broad daylight.

Silhouettes aren’t just for people. You can use silhouette backlighting for the variety of subjects; all it requires is a little creativity and a willingness to try something different.

Here, you’ll want to use some type of Manual mode (either full Manual or Aperture Priority with direct exposure compensation). It’ll give you much better control over the final image, and you won’t need your digital camera to make exposure decisions in tricky lighting conditions. Merely expose for the background plus let your subject convert dark:

goose fountain
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2. 8G ED VR II | 200mm | 1/4000s| f/2. 8 | INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG 100

Pro tip: If you want especially artistic images, after that try creating a sun star effect:

Backlighting sun flare
Nikon D200 | Nikon 50mm f/1. 8G | 50mm | 1/400s | f/16 | ISO 200

Start by putting a subject between your camera and the sun.

Then move around until the sun is poking out from at the rear of the subject’s edge. Take with a small aperture , usually f/8 to f/11, and shift the camera position before you get the shot just right.

This technique takes practice, but you can easily obtain the hang of it in under a quarter-hour!

Backlighting within photography: final words

If you’ve never experimented with backlighting, then I encourage you to give it a try and see what happens.

All it requires is a bit of practice, a dash of patience, along with a willingness to try something different!

Backlighting is an enjoyable, creative technique, and you might just find yourself using it far more than you expected.

Now over to you:

Have you ever attempted backlighting? What did you think of it? Share your thoughts within the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth

Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys posting his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcasting at Every week Fifty. He and his brother host the monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they talk about photography and fatherhood, plus Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can stick to him as @sringsmuth.

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