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