There’s nothing like backlighting to get your creative photography juices flowing. Ever since I first picked up my camera, the magical look of backlighting has drawn me in over and over again. And, while I love a great golden-hour sunset, there are so many more opportunities for creative backlighting beyond just golden hour.
Over the past two years, I’ve experimented a lot and learned some fun techniques for backlit pictures. From fog machines to bubbles to funky shadows, here are 12 ways you can use backlighting to add a punch of creativity to your photos.
With every season change, I decorate my windows with fun things that represent a season (fall leaves for fall, hearts for Valentine’s Day, snowflakes for winter). I make it a fun activity for the kids to come up with creative window decorations, which double as photo props for me. I love how the beauty of the light coming into the windows is enhanced by the fun shadows.
This particular window is west facing and gets an hour of sunlight in the evenings. The window decorations catch the light and create dramatic shadows that I use to create visually interesting and creative images.
2. Copper pipe
Using a copper pipe for photography might sound really odd, but you can get some super fun results. I use a 1-inch copper pipe that I bought from a hardware store. The pipe reflects light very well since it is made of metal, and that reflected light forms the shape of a ring. To frame my subject with this circular “ring of fire,” I place the pipe in front of the lens while my subject is backlit and move it around, keeping my subject in focus within the ring.
While using a copper pipe with direct sun gives a beautiful burst of colors and flares, using it against a smaller light source (like a lamp or sunlight reflected on an object) gives a more controlled ring of fire.
I love shooting silhouettes when I have a gorgeous background I want to highlight. In this case, I want the subject to appear completely in shadow, so I expose for the background in such a way that the highlights are not blown out. Blue hour makes for especially beautiful silhouettes with the sky having beautiful purple and pink hues.
When editing silhouettes, I use radial filters in Adobe Lightroom to recover the colors in the sky and darken the shadows and blacks on the subject.
4. Cloudy golden hour
Sometimes the sun is covered with clouds when it’s near the horizon. In this scenario, there is a softness to the light that will let you balance the exposure between the subject and the sun. I like to shoot in such a way that the subject is properly exposed with the golden light covering him or her. My exposure is just enough to not blow out the highlights in the clouds while keeping the shadows and details in the subject intact.
I edit to bring back the details in the background and on the subject. I use radial filters for both the subject and background. On the subject, I bring up the exposure, brighten the shadows and increase sharpening. On the background I decrease the highlights and exposure and bring out the clarity and contrast.
Starbursts can create visual interest in a picture, but they can also take away from the subject if you’re not careful. It’s important to use starbursts in a way that adds to the story you want to tell. Closing down your lens aperture will give you a good starburst: Any aperture from f/11 to f/22 should work, depending on how powerful you want the starburst to be.
To get a good starburst, you need a clear sky with direct sunlight. A cloud-covered sun will not give you a well defined starburst.
6. Lens flare
When you shoot against the sun, you usually get some kind of lens flare. The size, shape and color of the flare depends on the kind of lens you have and the settings you use. I move the camera around while keeping the subject in focus to make sure the flare falls where I want it to be. I usually try to keep the flare around my subject’s face while still keeping the face clear of any distractions (unless I intentionally want to use the flare artistically). Remember, the brighter the sun, stronger the lens flare!
I increase contrast and clarity to help give more definition to the lens flare. Using the brush tool, I bring out the colors in the flare.
7. Rim light
Another way to play with backlight is to shoot subjects with rim light. In this case it is good to have the subject positioned in such a way that they cover the source of light; that way you can only see light around the edges of the subject. Like with most backlit pictures, you should expose for the highlights.
Smaller light sources, like a lamp, are good to use for rim lighting because there is less light leak around the subject. You can also try rim lighting outdoors when the sun is really low in the horizon, creating a soft and diffused light.
In post processing, I make sure to remove any unwanted light leaks using the brush tool. I also increase the shadows on the subject and brighten the rim light around the subject.
8. Dew drops
Dew drops on early fall and winter mornings make for amazing backlit pictures. They glitter and create a wonderful bokeh which can be used to frame a subject, create depth, and make a magical feeling out of something that is very mundane.
When glitter is backlight it shines like gold dust and makes for magical images. Shooting wide open (an aperture f/0.95 to f/5.6) in this scenario can also help in getting beautiful bokeh. To capture well-lit glitter I try to place my light source (most often sunlight) out of the frame so that the glitter effect isn’t overwhelming.
Bubbles that are backlit catch stunning colors that can make pictures look almost otherworldly. I like to use a bubble machine to get consistent flow of bubbles. I let the kids play near the machine and use a wide aperture to keep some bubbles in focus while others create bokeh around the subject.
On foggy days, early morning golden light gets diffused and creates beautiful light rays. You’ll see this more often on fall and winter mornings. Choosing a place that has some trees will help in capturing these rays in a more effective way, as the trees block and let in sunlight in patches throughout the frame, making it visually very interesting. I try to keep a narrow aperture (f/8 to f/22) to capture well-defined rays of sunlight in these scenarios.
If you live in a place that hardly gets any fog, buy a fog machine! I bought this fog machine recently and it has helped a lot with getting my creative juices flowing while being stuck indoors because of cold temperatures. I place the machine close to the window while sunlight is streaming in and capture the rays of light visible in the fog. It’s fun to open the shutters wide and capture a theatrical look, or close the shutters halfway to capture small rays of light.
If you don’t want to buy a fog machine, burnt food helps too. The smoke created by burnt food acts like fog and helps capture sun rays.
Water droplets act like glitter when backlit; they reflect light and look like diamonds and also create beautiful bokeh. I use a spray bottle filled with water and place my subject in front of the sun and let them play while I click.
Plan the technical aspects and keep an open mind.
The most important thing about trying new creative techniques is to keep an open mind. That said, when using natural light, it helps to plan out the technical aspects of your photos in advance so that you can harness all the moments of fleeting sunlight. Keep in mind the camera settings you’ll need as lighting conditions change. Some of my favorite pictures are ones where I planned the technical aspects in advance and then let the kids play, have fun and be themselves while I clicked the shutter. Once I begin snapping away, I set aside the technical considerations and shoot with my heart.
I hope you have fun trying out these creative backlighting techniques!
Photos by Saranya Padmanaban