Mastering Backlight Photography

When I started photography the one thing I always and still want to master is backlight. I personally love shots where the subject is either a silhouette in front of the light. I feel like back lit shots add a story and depth to an image which draws the viewer in and grasps their attention.

If you want something to look interesting, don’t light all of it”

John Leongard

The above mentioned quote is exactly what back lighting is about. Creating magic with the illusion of light so let’s jump into it and start with the basics;


Back – Light = Background Light

So ‘technically’ any light in the background from any direction should be considered as a backlit image. Although this is something I still need to further research but I think I’m heading to the right path.

The Challenge:

The trickiest bit with back lighting is your exposure, this is where you switch your camera to MANUAL. In auto mode the camera will consistently under expose your subject. This is not an issue if that’s the end goal, however you can definitely get some amazing results by controlling the light in manual mode. Below are a few ways you can play with back light and see what you can come up with.

The Mysterious Silhouette:

My personal favorite so I’m going to start with this. I love a good mystery in my work – shots lit from the background and the subject being just a silhouette adds so much more depth and story to a shot. So how do we go about executing this ;

First up place your subject in front of your light source – my example below is placing my subject in front of the light source (open door) and even though it was not extremely bright I love seeing how the light seeps in through the door.

The two things I did here was use a large aperture to add some light for my shot, (especially because the sun was not directly hitting the door) my shutter is usually between 1/160 to 1/250 when photographing kids because they move too much. My ISO here was set to 64 to underexpose my foreground and aperture at 3.2 although I think f/6.0 might have been even better. For silhouette shots I personally prefer my subjects profile or an action pose with props because it adds some details and not look like a blob of ink, not that theres anything wrong with blobs of ink I love blobs of ink but for the sake of photography and not abstraction we’ll use a profile for reference.

The Full Story:

This is another way to add some drama and depth to your shots using light in the background. In order to explore this technique I would recommend you bumping your ISO up to a point where you’re actually getting a good amount of light in your shot.

However, you can’t always get it right in the camera – if the subject is not as well lit as you wish for it to be you can always fix in post process and lift your shadows and blacks. High ISO = Grain and no one , almost no one loves a grainy image so the best way to conquer this would be to keep your ISO under a 1000 and shoot. The rest you can edit out and still retain the depth in your image. I call this the FULL STORY because you see both your background and your subject in the image clearly.

Another way to grab a shot while indoors is to slightly over expose your image to grab the details of your subject along with the light source. Again, I urge you not to bump your ISO 1000 and up because you will get grain.

You can always use a faster shutter and shoot wide open to balance the light out. Above is an example where I slightly overexposed keeping the rest of the setting in sync with my ISO to avoid grain. I also lifted my shadows and blacks in post processing to a) get that dream like effect and b) show my subject as best as I could.


Another popular way to pull of backlighting is by using just enough light to highlight bits of your subject. This method adds so much magic to your shot and it’s so simple to create.

This is also known as RIM light where the edges of you subject are brightly light while the rest is a silhouette. I find this technique so magical because it just adds so much drama and story to an image. To pull this off you always have to underexpose your shot and have that hint of light seep in by closing the aperture to f/4.0 and above.

The raw materials of photography are light and time and memory”

Keith Carter

Spark of Life:

This is one of the most typical ways to imagine a backlight image – where the subject is exactly in front of the light source and the light seeps in to the foreground from around the subject.

I do not have the BEST example this is one of my earlier shots but I do love how the spark of light adds a bit of magic to the image. This is also barely edited and my shutter speed being at 1/125 and aperture at f/5.0 lets just enough light in then I had initially planned. Whenever I shoot outdoors my ISO is usually between 100 to 250.

Photography is just light remembering itself”

Jeryy Uelsmann

Also posting a very old image I shot because I don’t have as many examples as I would like to have to highlight this kind of shot but I hope it gets the point across

Photo Credits Romessa

Because pictures speak a thousand words!


Looking at all the above images and settings I think our best bet to get the perfect exposure with backlight is to under expose. We under expose on purpose for this because it not only adds high shadows and contrast but captures the light in a more magical way. With this techniques other than focusing on where the light is coming from we should remember how to compose in a way that it adds more depth and story to a shot. You can learn more about creative ways of composing by following the link below.

Introduction to Composition By Abi Coop

Until later, have fun and keep creating.


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