As a beginner, one of the first photography rules that you learn is to avoid shooting directly into the sun. Most of the time, either your background will be completely blown out or your subject will appear as a silhouette. However, backlit portraits when properly executed can be captivatingly beautiful in so many ways.
In this article, we will show you how to replicate the signature style of many engagement and wedding photographers today.
Table of Contents
The Position of the Sun
When shooting backlit portraits, one of the main goals is to minimize the contrast ratio between the background and the subject. The best way to achieve this is to shoot during the Golden Hour — the period shortly after sunrise or before sunset. During this time, the sun is lower in the sky, resulting in a much softer light (not to mention the beautiful orange rim light.)
During the Golden “Magic” Hour, you can pretty much shoot in any direction. To get that hazy look, however, you will want to point your camera towards the sun, and have it just barely peeking out of the corner of the frame. It is even better if the sunlight is diffused, and partially covered by buildings or trees.
Note: You may notice that your photos look very flat straight out of camera. Don’t worry, simply use your favorite adjustment tool (s-shape curve) to add some contrast back in.
Frontal Fill Light
They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. I firmly believe this, and I always make sure to create catch lights in my subject’s eyes. During some of my shoots, I have the luxury of using off-camera lighting as a frontal fill, or a silver reflector to bounce some of the light back towards the subject. To achieve a similar effect using just natural light, you will want to be mindful of what’s in front of your subject (and behind you).
Ideally, there would be a bright open sky. If not, try to locate a big (preferably white) wall or a glass building that sunlight is bouncing off of. Sometimes, the concrete pavement gets the job done. Similarly, during a beach shoot, the sand can act as a natural reflector for your backlit portraits.
In this photo, the subject’s hair is being lit by the sun, which is partially covered by a building behind her. In front is an open sky with no obstructions.
Additional Tips for Successful Backlit Portraits
- Wide aperture: The shallow depth of field will aid in creating the dreamy/hazy look that you’re after.
- Proper exposure: The strong backlight will undoubtedly throw your meter off, especially if you’re placing the sun in the corner of the frame. To ensure consistent exposure, switch your camera to manual mode and use spot metering.
- Proper focus: The scene’s ultra low contrast will cause your camera’s auto-focus to “hunt.” One way to combat this is to focus while using your hand to block the sun from hitting your lens, then removing your hand before taking the shot.
- Background selection: While having an open sky behind you is ideal, you definitely don’t want that in front of you. To best avoid a blown out background, position your subject against darker backgrounds; trees, bushes, and buildings work great in this scenario.
Bonus Section: Overpowering the Sun
For this part of this article, I was originally planning to show you my entire process for retouching backlit portraits. However, I think that a video tutorial would be much more effective than a bunch of screen shots for this kind of thing. Stay tuned!
Since this is the “ultimate guide” and all, I don’t want to end the article without showing you a highly unique and creative way to use backlight on a sunny day. To use this technique, you will need a fairly powerful off-camera light source (I use the Alien Bees B1600 from Paul C. Buff). The beauty of it is that you can break most of the rules above, including shooting at noontime.
Here are my steps for achieving dramatic portraits:
1. Subject placement: Similar to normal backlit portraits, face your subject away from the sun. Try to make sure that there is no light spill on any part of the face. This is especially important if you’re shooting close to mid-day. Many backgrounds work well for this type of shot, but I’d have to say that a clear sky looks especially beautiful when underexposed.
2. Expose for the background: When shooting against strong backlight, there can be substantial amounts of contrast between the subject and background. Since you will be using artificial light for the subject, use spot metering in the camera to properly expose for the background.
3. Light the subject: I’m a big fan of cross lighting. Place your light source on the opposite side of the sun, and balance the subject’s exposure with the background. If you’re using some type of ETTL flash, then it will automatically calculate the required amount of power for you. Otherwise, either use a light meter or gradually increase the power until the test shots look right to you.
4. Underexpose the background: While #2 may seem pointless, there are many times where balancing the subject and background looks much better, and if you skip that part, you might just miss out. For this part, either increase your shutter speed or close down your aperture to underexpose the background by one or two stops. If you’re using a manual flash, then you will also have to increase the power by one or two stops to compensate for the light drop.
Note: I highly recommend using some type of diffuser to soften your light source. Softboxes and beauty dishes usually do a great job. While you may lose a bit of power, the resulting photos will be much more pleasing.
The tips may seem simple to read through, but mastering this technique will certainly take some trial-and-error on your part. Since beautiful backlit portraits are best achieved during the Golden Hour, your practicing time for each day can be fairly limited.
Since I didn’t dare practice this on a real shoot at first, I had to use pizza and beer to bribe several friends to be my guinea pigs.
To recap, when shooting backlit portraits, you must pay attention to the sun’s position, mostly shooting when it is low in the sky — the magical Golden Hour. You also want to make sure to create catch lights in your subject’s eyes through some sort of fill light source — an off-camera flash, the open sky, your assistant’s white t-shirt, or a natural reflector such as a white wall.
Additionally, shooting in manual mode and blocking the sun while focusing can highly increase consistency between your shots. To create the dreamy mood while making your subjects pop, use a higher f-stop and place your subject in front of darker backgrounds. If none of this works (or you’re looking to experiment), consider underexposing the background while nuking the subject with a high power strobe.
I hope that this guide has been helpful for you, as I learned a few things while writing it myself. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to share your thoughts and leave a comment below. Happy shooting!