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Photography Lighting Quick Tip #4 – Backlighting Without Flash

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Backlit Portrait

Some photographers consider backlighting a problem. I say bring it on. It can be tricky to get right. But when you do, the results are wonderful. Backlighting can be dramatic and moody or revealing and wondrous. If used well, an ordinary snapshot becomes a memorable photograph.

Backlighting occurs when your light source – the sun, a lamp, a doorway, etc – is behind your subject. It lights up the back, but not the front. If your subject is solid, you see the background and the shape of your subject, but no details on the front because it is in shadow. It is a very dramatic effect. If the subject is translucent, an interesting luminescent texture appears that you do not get when the light comes from the front.

The portrait above was shot with one light placed up high and behind the model. The result is an slice of light that reveals his profile, hair, and guitar. The majority of his face is in shadow. It works because it unveils just enough to be recognizable, but is still quite mysterious.

Backlit flower

The flower above was photographed under intense backlighting conditions. The normally deep red petals appear pink due to the wash of bright light from behind. Notice the pronounced veins in the petals, and shadows where they overlap each other. See how dark the stem is? There is no light hitting it because it is behind the petals and hidden from the light.

Spider webs and water are other subjects that look great with backlighting. You need the light coming from behind to make them sparkle. See the close up of a raindrop on a torn spider web below.

Raindrop on a torn spider web with backlighting

Backlighting utilizing lens flare to an advantage

One thing you must be careful of is lens flare. When you are shooting into the light, as you do with backlighting, you may get flare. This occurs when strong light rays go directly into your lens, hit the front element, scatter inside it and cause excessive lens refraction. Quality of glass and lens width contribute to the degree of flare. You can use your lens hood to help prevent flare. Sometimes flare can be a great advantage. It can dress up a photo, like the one above. A bench overlooking the ocean is not very exciting when the ocean, sky, and clouds are washed out. Add a little flare, minding the composition, and you have a better image. I strategically placed the flare in a leading line towards the bench. It almost begs you to sit down.

Below is an example of a photo with flare that does not work. Look at the large orange circle of flare in the bottom left. A blob of uninteresting color that has no relationship to the leaves ruins the shot. Fortunately, it is easy to fix. All I have to do is change my angle of view a bit, and the flare goes away. Compare the two leaf photos and see the difference.

Backlit vine with sun flare that does not work

Backlit vine without lens flare - much better result

Now get your camera out of the bag and go experiment with backlighting.


About Gina Genis

Hi Friends, I'm a photographer and artist who lives in Washington DC. I have two blogs. The Gina Genis Blog is about art and photography. My new blog, DC Discoveries is dedicated to showing you everything from fashion to art, food to entertainment in all sections of the District. I hope you will take the journey with me. I exhibit my work in museums and galleries across the U.S. I'm included in the permanent collections of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, the Otto G. Richter Library Special Collections Division of the University of Miami, Hard Rock Casino, Orange County Transit District, IBM, and the Sarah and Adam Markman Collection among others. My series "Window Peeping" was included in OsCene 2010 at the Laguna Art Museum, Truman State University, Fellows of Contemporary Art, Biola University, and solo shows at Gallery 825 and Cypress College. The "June Gloom" series was exhibited in a solo show at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The "Kala" series has been exhibited at MPLS Photo Center, Cypress College, and Gallery 825. "Economy Portraits" was created as an Artist In Residence project at the Huntington Beach Art Center, and was awarded "Best Art Show of 2011" by the OC Weekly. I curated Wide Angle View, an exhibit of 16 international, award-winning photo and multi-media journalists at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art to much critical acclaim. Recent reviews of my work have appeared in the Huffington Post, Art Scene, OC Weekly, Orange County Register, New University, Riviera Magazine, Coast Magazine, Huntington Beach Independent, and appeared on CNN, NBC, ABC, and more. I lead the Gina Genis Photo Workshops where I show beginning and intermediate photographers how to jump to the next level with their work. I also teach online photography courses through The Compelling Image.

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