Break the rules: become a pro at using backlight to add drama to any photo

Master the backlight effect

Master the backlight effect

All images by Mark Hamblin

Read any guide to successful photography and it will invariably advise you to shoot with the sun behind you to illuminate your subject from the front. This is sound advice, and of course this will often produce very good, evenly lit images. However, rules are sometimes there to be broken – what about shooting directly into the light to create dramatic backlit pictures?

The prospect can be a bit scary and there are certainly a few common pitfalls to watch out for, but once mastered, backlighting – or ‘contre-jour’, as it’s also known – can give your shots a little extra something and make all those front-lit shots look rather ordinary by comparison.

Backlighting doesn’t work in all situations, or with all subjects, so a cautionary approach is required -– as is an element of experimentation. Learning to recognise the kind of lighting situations and subjects that can be backlit effectively is perhaps the initial key to success.

In theory, any form of light can be used to backlight a subject, but the stronger the light source, the greater the backlighting effect will be (check out this cool backlight technique for still life photography).

The angle of the light is also very important. Midday sun, for example, can be used to backlight a subject, but the 
light will be coming from a high angle, creating a great top-lit, as well as slightly backlit, effect (for more on this, see our guide See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about natural light).

When the sun is positioned nearer the horizon, early and late in the day, the subject will be solely backlit, with a much more pronounced and therefore dramatic effect. For the same reason, the winter months are considerably better than the summer ones to take shots like this, because the arc of the sun is lower in the sky, which produces a much more pleasing backlit result.

A host of subjects work well – portraits, birds, animals, plants and flowers, to name just a few. Backlighting is a very effective way to reveal the delicacy and texture of semi-transparent subjects.

Similarly, hairy animals, or those with a distinctive shape, work really well, because the details at the edge of the subject are highlighted. Backlit subjects will also create a shadow that extends towards the camera, which instantly adds essential interest.

But regardless of the subject or the form of backlighting, the picture will triumph or fail on one thing alone – good exposure. Master this and you’re almost guaranteed a successful shot. Importantly, you must expose for the subject and disregard the background.

For most subjects, it’s fine to shoot using a metering mode that takes an average meter reading from all areas of the frame, such as Evaluative or Matrix (check out our free metering mode cheat sheet on how your modes work and when to use them).

But back-lit images shot in this mode will often fail, because the light in the background significantly affects the reading and leads to an under-exposed (or even silhouetted) subject.

To counter this, you need to switch to either Spot or Partial metering, which allows you to take a very specific meter reading directly from the subject.

PAGE 1: What is backlighting?
PAGE 2: 3 ways to achieve backlight effects in-camera
PAGE 3: Backlighting portraits
PAGE 4: Crucial backlighting tips to remember


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