Backlighting is when the light source is behind the subject you want to photograph. It’s definitely one of the most difficult types of light to work with, because there are strong highlights and shadows all within the same scene. This type of lighting can throw off the camera’s internal light meter, and often leads to detail being lost, due to very overexposed highlights or very underexposed shadows, often with your subject in silhouette (unless they’re also illuminated from the front).
If the light source (usually the sun but it can also be indoor lighting) is so strong that an excessive amount of light reaches the sensor, the camera can also have trouble focusing.
Keeping light outside the frame means the light source needs to be diffused so that it doesn’t hit the lens directly. You can do this by:
Choosing a location where light is contained behind trees or buildings but still shines through gaps, like in the photos below.
Image taken by Alyssa Evenson
Image taken by Daniel Parks
Attaching a lens hood to block out any flare and create some shade on the your lens.
Using your subject to block the light source, which will give the effect of a ‘halo’ (also called rim lighting), like in the photo below.
Image taken by Jo Perkins
Placing semi-transparent objects such as foliage, leaves and flowers in front of the light source, that show interesting detail when illuminated from behind. The photo of the lemons below is a good example of this.
Shooting from above rather than directly into the horizon.
Light inside the frame as flare or haze (either partially or as a full burst)
If you want to include some rays, you’ll need to balance them out so that your subject isn’t completely washed out or blurred. You can do this by:
Composing your shot so that the sun “leaks” into the frame, like in the photo below, but is much less bright.
Putting a shadow over your lens (using your hand) to focus on your subject, pushing the shutter button halfway to lock focus and then removing your hand. This way your subject will be in focus but you will still have the light in the frame. Alternatively you could manually choose your AF points so the camera’s auto-focusing system isn’t in control of which area of the frame to focus on.
Use a lens polarising filter to lessen the impact of the sun, so that it’s still visible but not overpowering, like in the photo below.
Your light meter will always show your photo as being overexposed when you are shooting in backlit situations, so don’t use it as a guide to whether your photo is exposed correctly or not. Instead, check your histogram to see where the highlights are blinking and make sure they are appearing in the areas where you want them to be.
Part of the fun of backlighting is experimenting with the way the light interacts with the lens for different effects, rather than getting a perfectly exposed image every time.