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Backlit Photography Tips

Updated on February 7, 2017
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years.

Sand Dollar

CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

"Backlighting refers to the process of illuminating the subject from the back. In other words, the lighting instrument and the viewer are facing towards each other, with the subject in between. This causes the edges of the subject to glow, while the other areas remain darker. The backlight can be a natural or artificial source of light. When artificial, the back light is usually placed directly behind the subject in a 4-point lighting setup.

A back light, which lights foreground elements from the rear, is not to be confused with a background light, which lights background elements (such as scenery).

In the context of lighting design, The back light is sometimes called hair or shoulder light, because when lighting an actor or anactress, backlighting will cause the edges of his or her hair to glow if he or she has fuzzy hair. This gives an angelic halo type effect around the head. This is often used in order to show that the actor or actress so lit is "good" or "pure". In television this effect is often used in soap operas and has become something of a cliché of the genre. It is also sometimes called the kicker or rim light." Wikipedia

Back-light Adds Interest

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

How to use a backlight

Most people when they first start into photography learn or are told that they should find the light source, position themselves with their backs against it so that the light falls on your subjects and snap the shutter.

This holds true for the majority of photography. But every once in a while we yearn to try something else " break the rules" as it were and this can result in some very amazing pictures.

Why photograph back-lit subjects?

  • back-light can add drama to an image
  • back-lit images can show the delicacy of a subject in its transparency.
  • back-light can help create "mood" in the scene
  • back-lit images can highlight details on the edges of subjects
  • back-light can reveal texture
  • back-lit images can show off the shape of your subject better than in a front lit scenario
  • And don't forget that using back light is the only way of creating amazing silhouettes with the Sun being the most predominant of light sources, especially the setting sun.

In this case the back-lit subjects the light is behind the subjects with the photographer in front of the subject.

Pay attention to how much light is available; too much and you may end up with a silhouette.

So the best method for smaller subjects when your intention is to capture and show their transparency/translucency is to use a small light source that is placed very close to the subject.

A photographic snoot works very well for this purpose but many lights will work if placed close enough to the back of the subject. Just do not use a very strong one.

Backlit Marble

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

Best back-light subjects

By far the best subjects for this technique are flowers and their petals, anything made of glass or plastic, insect wings, papers, cloth, feathers and even some materials like thin layers of marble.

You can even create your own subjects and applications by painting, designing or even placing cut out shapes on top of a clear glass pane or Plexiglas. For more of an effect, you can paint the panel.

For the majority of shots using the back light method you will probably need the aid of a sturdy tripod since your shutter times may be longer than it is advisable to use with a hand held shot. A mechanical shutter release is also a good idea.

Amber samples

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

Other uses for backlitghts

This technique is not new as it was the principle method used by scientists when looking at samples on a microscope which also opens the possibility for you to give "micro photography" (micrograph) a shot.

It is great for school projects and for general abstract photography purposes as well and your little ones will love it!

If you are willing to invest some money in the attempt to do some micrographs then get a microscope for college students.

The ones sold for kids at places like Toys R Us are too flimsy and mostly made of plastics, including the lenses.

You need real glass lenses and sturdy bases plus a light source that will not "cook" you specimens.

Lemon Slice

CC-BY-2.0 | Source

Back-light tips


CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

Ever tried this technique on purpose?

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Other subjects for back-light use

Besides the usual subjects there are many other things that lend themselves well like the shells of almost any crustacean as in crab shells, sand dollars, eggs, fruit slices and many vegetables as well as some toys.

In the studio make sure to assemble your subjects against a totally dark backdrop.

This helps eliminate distractions and gives a sharper focusing point for the viewer to focus on.

The technique is the same if doing full subject pictures or even abstracts and as well as when practicing macro photography.

Many of the resulting images may seem as abstracts but all pictures are suitable for use by most photography related publications, some specialized publications and for fine art galleries.

Do not overlook using your images for a self published eBook or regular hard cover one but if going this route, don't forget that the writing is as important as the pictures. You may consider using a ghostwriter to do the writing for you if you feel that you are more of a photographer than a writer.

© 2014 Luis E Gonzalez


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