Skip to main content

How to Backlight a Photo

Learn how to backlight a photo from professional photographer Joe Sinnott in this Howcast portrait photography tutorial.


Hi, I'm Joe. I teach photography at the school of visual arts in New York. Today, we're going to talk about how to deal with a back lit subject. The problem with a back lit subject is that all of your light is coming from behind which makes this side of your subject a shadow and what you normally get for that is a silhouette. That's where your camera's going to kind of inclined to give you and the first and easiest way to deal with that is to just take your camera's exposure reading and open up one or two stops from what it says to do, so that the camera's going to indicate that you're over exposed by one or stops, but that over exposure is what's going to open up the shadow and all you to see what's in the shadow.

Your background's going to get a bit bright. Usually you don't care because your subject is the thing that you actually care about. So, I started out at a four in this case and what I've done is open up to F2 which is two stops more light which is exactly what I need to open up that shadow. Another thing that you can do is to just use a reflector to take some of that light that's coming from behind and bounce it back into your subject to open up the shadow.

Usually I'd have a person hold the reflector, but I happen to have a light stand with me today, so that makes it a little easier and I'm not wasting man power. With the reflector in place, the light hits the reflector, bounces back into the shadow. You're still going to wind up opening up a little bit, but it's not going to be as much and your background is not going to be as over exposed as it would be if you just use the opening up method.

This will also gives you a nice sort of soft diffuse light sort of back into your subject's face. It's very attractive. It's easy to do and you don't have to use a store bought reflector. You can use a white sheet or a piece of poster board or something like that. I'm lucky because I have this stuff lying around, but really any white or silver surface will do. Even the reflector that you use to put on the windshield of your car, you know, to keep the car from getting hot. It's a pretty good substitute for something like this. They're almost the same thing.

Lastly, the thing that you could do. Most of your cameras have a little pop up flash like that and one way to deal with a big shadow is to shine some light into it. Oh, look. The camera comes with a light. Me, I find the flash to be a little bit harsh, so I have this inexpensive little diffuser [SP] thing that I hook over it. It's not strictly necessary, but it's a handy thing. If you're going to use the flash that's on your camera like this, at some point or another you're going to have to RTFM to find out exactly how to work the flash.

RTFM meaning, read the freaking manual because somewhere in the directions there's a button or a switch or something that allows you to force the flash under expose. You don't want the flash to put out the same amount of light as your back light or you're going to get a massive over exposure. You want the flash to be putting out one stop less than the back light and the easiest way to do that is to find the button or the switch or the or whatever it is on your camera you got to push, twist, whatever to make the flash, to set the flash to negative one.

If you set the flash to negative one, that should be pretty much all you need to do to have the right amount of light filling in the shadow without causing an over exposure in the entire scene. The only other thing you've got to keep in mind is make sure to give you flash enough time to recycle between frames where it's going to get very frustrating because you're going to push the button and nothing's going to happen on the camera. Those are a few simple tips for dealing with a back lit subject.

Popular Categories