5 Simple Tips for Shooting Backlit Portraits Outdoors

TAGS: backlightbacklightingoutdoor portrait photographyphotography tips

A man and a woman laying on the grass

Shooting portraits against the light can make for a terrible photo if done improperly. For those who are inexperienced in dealing with such lighting conditions, it can be tricky to figure out how to light your subject correctly.

Practicing backlit photography can transform the way you view strong natural light. Though you may face some challenges in achieving a good backlit photo, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the breathtaking images you end up with (when done right, of course).

Using natural light as your main light source can effectively bring out your subject’s most vibrant colors. The golden glow outlining your subject adds a dramatic touch while the soft, diffused backlight produces a romantic and dreamy effect that can greatly improve your photos.

What is Backlight Photography?

Photographer capturing a couple’s day at the beach at sunset

Backlight photography literally means any type of photography wherein the primary light source is positioned behind the subject. This photography style is mostly used for portraits during spring or summer, when the sun is at its brightest and warmest. Another plus is that your subject won’t need to squint while shooting, which can ruin your photo as well.

Normally, artificial lighting is used to perfect the backlight effect, but there are ways that it can also be achieved using natural light. The light faces the camera and creates a dramatic outlined glow around the subject, resulting in a dreamlike silhouette or portrait. It also emphasizes the shape or a facial feature of your subject and makes them stand out from the background.

Here are some tips to help you practice backlight photography for outdoor shots:

Tips for Using Backlight in Outdoor Portraits

A woman’s portrait while strolling in the city

1. Filter and reflect light

If you have no choice but to shoot in a location with extremely harsh lighting, you’re likely to end up with hazy sun flares in your photo. Flares are caused by bright and harsh light sources that reach the lens. While the resulting effect is not regarded solely as negative and is often even added onto images later during post-processing, it can be distracting and might even blow out your subject. You can filter the natural light by either using a lens hood, an umbrella, or take advantage of the shade from tall grass or trees to avoid glaring flares and block out unnecessary light that the sensor shouldn’t be receiving.

On the other hand, finding yourself in short supply of light for your subject can also be the worst scenario for a photographer. This typically happens in backlight photography when the background overpowers the face of the subject and the latter ends up with harsh shadows or, worse, becomes a silhouette.

You can brighten areas with deep shadows with the aid of a reflector. Hold it up facing the light source and slowly adjust the angle until the right amount of natural light is reflected towards your desired area and the subject is properly lit.

2. Change positions

Facing the light does not mean you have to shoot from just one shooting position. Understanding how the light can work with and for you gives you the freedom to move around and capture your subject in different perspectives. Go ahead and take photos from different angles the next time you shoot against the light. After all, changing your position can help you figure out the best and most flattering lighting angles for your subject.

3. Use fill flash

Fill flash can serve as your supplementary light source in a backlit outdoor portrait shoot. With the strong lighting coming from the back, the subject’s face may end up looking darker than the rest of the image. To remedy this, you can use fill flash to light the parts where your primary light/natural light cannot get to.

An alternative to using reflectors is to use fill flash, preferably an external flash that is not directly facing your subject to avoid flat and unattractive lighting. It works similarly in supplementing existing natural light to provide better exposure balance between the subject and the background, but the fill flash gives you even more freedom to adjust the angle and power of light on your subject’s face.

woman's portrait with bokeh background

4. Familiarize yourself with the spot meter

Spot metering allows the camera to focus on a specific area of frame and determine the optimal exposure for it, despite how bright the rest of the frame is. It’s often the preferred metering mode over others that provide a general exposure reading of the center area or the entire image and often underexposes a subject during backlight photography.

From the term “spot,” this metering mode is concerned only with the exposure of a very small area, which you can manually select using your camera’s AF points within the scene. It greatly aids photographers in figuring out necessary exposure adjustments they need to make to properly expose a subject and enhance its features, especially when the background is too bright, too dark, or occupies most of the frame.

5. Find the right white balance

White balance is one of the most commonly ignored and sidestepped camera settings. However, taking time to learn how to adjust your camera’s white balance and understand how it affects the color temperature your image can help you capture more vivid and lifelike photos. It helps you get the colors in your image as accurate as possible, which can be difficult when shooting with harsh sunlight or strong backlighting that can wash out the colors in your image.

Color temperatures range from very cool (similar to the color tone of the blue sky) to a very warm tone (identical to the shade of a burning candle). Cameras usually have preset white balance settings such as Auto, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight or Sunny, Cloudy, and Flash, but it also allows you to customize your white balance using a gray card or manually adjust it using numbered Kelvin (K) temperatures.

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A Natural Light and Pro Light Photographer who enjoys Photography and the world around it.

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