Outdoor Portrait Photography: Backlighting

Since getting my DSLR camera I’ve been a keen photographer. I spent most of my twenties planning my next trip in between studying and working, and most of my early “work” was focused on street photography. I loved my tripod, night scenes, long shutter speeds and the movement it created. I also loved editing my photos and playing with tilt shift.

I was never really interested in portrait photography. And then I had my son. And I suddenly became obsessed. I received a portrait lens for my birthday (50mm 1.4) and the pictures were suddenly amazing. The subject was so clear and crisp, and I loved the blurred background (or bokeh) that I was able to create.

The photos I was taking were suddenly so close to the image that I imagined in my head. With a lot of reading, watching YouTube videos and practising, I was finally starting to create images how I had imagined.

Possibly the most important thing that I learnt is that it’s so important to get the shot right in the camera. You can spend a lot of time editing later, but if you haven’t considered light or composition when taking the shot, then no amount of time in Lightroom (or Photoshop) is going to make the photo great. As they say, you can’t polish a turd (but you can roll it in glitter).

Therefore, having good quality images to input into your editing process is vital. One of the most important things to consider, and most fundamental, is light. Do the simple things well and you’re able to produce amazing images.

One of my favourite things to play with is backlight. Backlight is created when the sun is low in the sky (either after sunrise or before sunset). It also coincides with the golden hour (which is aptly named as it creates the golden glow in photos).

Like many portrait photographers before me, I am obsessed with backlight for a number of reasons:

  • It creates a warm, golden glow in the photo, and;
  • It highlights flickers of hair golden

Depending where you position yourself to take the photo, you can either catch backlight with an artistic hazy effect, or you can choose to keep your subject in clean focus.

Note: I generally shoot portraits in A priority mode. I like being able to control the aperture (for the background blur, or bokeh), but don’t care too much about setting the shutter speed as I find the camera generally does a good job. It’s still possible to influence exposure in this mode too.

Backlight without the hazy effect

The key to getting the golden backlight without the washed out look is to stand in the shade. Or, in other words, place the sun behind a tree (which still allows streams of backlight through).

I took the first photo and realised that it was severely underexposed. Considering I was shooting into the sun, this wasn’t too surprising. The background is so bright, so it makes sense that the subject was left dark and underexposed.

However, this is so easy to correct in the camera using spot metering. Spot metering is fantastic for photos which have high contrasting light in the frame. By using the spot meter, you are able to pick a focus point and the exposure will be determined based on the point that you have selected.

If you forget to use the spot meter, you can always adjust the exposure using Lightroom (or any other post processing software). However, it’s better if you get it right in the camera.

The subsequent photos I took using the spot meter. As you can tell, the subject is nicely exposed and the camera isn’t overcompensating for the direct sunlight.




Backlight with the hazy effect

The hazy look with backlight can be achieved by stepping from the shade into the direct sun. By standing in the direct sun, you can see the streams of light across the photo and the subject is worn away by the light.

The first two photos were taken within minutes of the one below. The only difference was stepping out from the shade. As you can see, the results are dramatically different depending how you wish to utilise the backlight.

Again, I took this photo using spot metering to ensure the subject was properly exposed.


  • Which effect do you prefer?
  • Do you have a favourite subject to photograph?

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