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Horses gallop at sunrise

When I first started in photography, I fell in love the the beautiful warm tones found in backlit photos but struggled to replicate the same warmth in my own photo sessions.  With a lot of practice and studying I learned some great tips and tools to achieve beautiful backlit photos and would like to share them with you.

I think every photographer that does backlight photography has their own way of doing things but here is my way of creating those beautiful backlight images.

Since backlight photography requires that the sun and the light is on the back of your subject, you will have to shoot very early in the morning, right after the sun rises or late in the evening, right before the sun sets.  The evening is the most common time to shoot and photographers call this time the golden hour.  Typically the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are the best times to achieve the most beautiful backlighting possible.

Icelandic lamb

It is important to set your camera on spot metering which is perfect for backlighting.  That way the camera will read the light from your subject's face to get the right exposure rather the the overall light in the background.


A big misconception about backlit photography is that you only have to pay attention to the light in back of your subject.  Even though that is very, very important, you also have to be aware of the light in front of your subject in order to get lovely skin tones and catchlights.  If you are in an area that has a lot of trees behind you, you will find it very disappointing that even though the background looks beautiful your subjects face can be very dark.

To avoid this you will need to look for open shade areas.  By that I mean an area behind your subject with some trees in the back to block some of the sun but let the sun peek through the leaves, and an area behind you where there are no trees just a wide open field so the beautiful light from the sky can reflect on your subjects face.

If you can't find these open shade areas, you will have to start using a reflector and you will also need an extra pair of hands for that, so bring an assistant.  If I am photographing children, they are typically moving around so fast, that I will usually choose not to use a reflector but rather go hunting to find just the right spot for my photo session.


Open shade that is!  Don't be afraid to place your subject in the shade.  Look for the spot where the shade just meets the bright light from the sun and position your subject in the shade and watch for their hair getting just that soft kiss from the sun.  Perfect!

You don't have to worry when you look at your in camera pictures and they seem like they don't have enough sun as that's where a good Lightroom preset or Photoshop action will come the rescue.  If you were able to get just the softest touch of sun kiss on your subjects hair, run some of the magical actions or presets that I have linked and you will be amazed how the sun will intensify in post production. 

A landscape picture of a sunrise at the lake

Like I mentioned before you want to make sure you have your camera set on Spot Metering and you will have to set your exposure based on the light on your subject's face.  Yes, the background may be blown out a bit, but we don't have to worry about that.  Our focus should be on the subject and that's all we have to worry about.

A landscape photo of a sunrise in the church

What camera setting should you use for backlight photos?  Like anything in photography the answer is - it depends.  It really depends on what type of feeling are you trying to achieve in your photo. 

Do you want your pictures to tell a story? 

Then you will have to have your aperture set to the highest value number f/22, f/16, f/11 (very small aperture opening) so that the whole scene will be in focus.

Do you want to isolate the subject from your background?  Then you will need to set your aperture to a very low value number f/1.4, f/1.6, f/1.8, f/2.0, f/2.8 (very wide aperture opening). 

A picture of a sunrise at the beach

Unless you want to be very creative and love flare in your pictures you will have to make sure that when you take the picture there is no flare that will fall on your subjects face or skin.  Again you can take a few creative shots but most people love to see crisp clear eyes and don't like the very faded images when the sun comes full force into your lens.

To eliminate this, you need to position your subject right in front of a tree, or any other object that breaks the sun flare from the sun.  Backlit photography doesn't mean that the sun has to be right behind the subject so don't be afraid to move to the right or left until the sun is just to the side and does not come full force into your lens.  If you are just starting out, I suggest to practice this with a doll and a chair.

lens hood or even your hand is also a great way to eliminate or reduce sun flare in backlit situations.

A picture of a flying bird

Last but not least - PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

Backlit photography is not something you can just learn by reading.  Practice makes perfect.  Each season - Spring, Summer, Fall, & Winter you will see that even if you use the same field for your photo sessions, you will have to be creative and watch how the sun is moving on the sky and make the necessary changes where you position your subject according to the sun for good backlighting

I hope you enjoyed my tutorial.

Do you have any questions or comments about Backlighting?  Leave me a comment below - I would LOVE to hear from you!  And PLEASE SHARE my tutorial using the social sharing buttons (I really appreciate it)!

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