How To Master Backlighting Photography

One of the first things we need to master when starting out as photographers is to gauge where our light source is in relation to the subject. This is the starting point for backlighting photography success.  However the most organic light source available to us, the sun, can sometimes prove to be difficult to master.

As a rule we are often told to position the sun over our shoulder to light our subject. This, we are told, will ensure the subject is well lit and will avoid the often dreaded lens flare.

But, as with all rules in photography, breaking this one and photographing into the light can often lead to more creatively enhanced and dramatic images.

 Backlighting Photography - sunrise
Sunrise Sunburst, Twizel, New Zealand Canon 7D, 24 – 70mm 2.8 L series lens at 28mm, ISO 100, f/11 1/160 sec. Tripod and shutter release

The technical term for photographing into the light is called backlighting, where the main light source is positioned behind the subject. This kind of directional lighting works well for a host of subjects, including people, animals, flowers, sunsets, and waterfalls, just to name a few.

Here are some of my favorite instances when photographing into the light can create a photograph with impact. Let’s explore them further.

Black and White Backlighting Photography

Black and White Contrast, Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia Canon 7D, 24 – 70mm 2.8 L series lens at 24mm, ISO 100, f/16 1/3 sec. Tripod and shutter release

Using backlighting for black and white photographs creates images with strong shadows and highlights, which in turn will provide excellent contrast between those shadows and highlights. It often delivers very powerful and dramatic effects.

Creating a Silhouette

Inukshuk Silhouette, Vancouver, Canada
Inukshuk Silhouette, Vancouver, Canada Canon 5D Mark II, 24-70mm 2.8 L series lens at 24mm, ISO 200, f/4, 1/1600 sec. Tripod and shutter release

Using backlighting during a sunrise or sunset to create a silhouette of your subject can deliver a lot of impact to an image. You can often make a seemingly boring subject, for example a statue or city skyline, more interesting.

A silhouette works best when your subject has well defined lines or shapes that will stand out against the background. When photographing a silhouette you will need to expose for the sky instead of the subject itself. This will leave the darker portion of the frame, your foreground, black and the sky exposed properly.

Exposing correctly for the sky in this instance will also allow for the rich colors of the sunrise or sunset to glow.


Cherry Blossom Sunburst, Twizel, New Zealand Canon 7D, 24 – 70mm 2.8 L series lens at 24mm, ISO 100, f/8 1/250 sec.

Creating a sunburst along with backlighting photography is often one of the prettiest points of interest you can add to a photograph, particularly a sunrise or sunset. Also known as a starburst, a sunburst is simply the sun captured in a way that creates a star-like shape.

Sunbursts can be the main star of a photograph for simplicity, as seen in this the lead photo, or they can be included as a point of interest to lead the viewer around the photograph. Positioning the sunburst around the edge of your subject or on the horizon line can create a very dramatic effect.

They can also assist in providing a photograph with a sense of mood to which your viewer can relate or assist in telling a story about the scene.

When creating a sunburst, just as you would for a silhouette, you will need to expose for the sky. Setting your f-stop to a small aperture such as f/16 or f/22 will also help the sunburst to become more defined.

To Enhance A Subject

Fog Sunrise Enhance, Yellowstone NP, USA Canon 7D, 24 – 70mm 2.8 L series lens at 42mm, ISO 100, f/8 1/800 sec. Tripod and shutter release
Fog Sunrise Enhance, Yellowstone NP, USA Canon 7D, 24 – 70mm 2.8 L series lens at 42mm, ISO 100, f/8 1/800 sec. Tripod and shutter release

Using backlight to enhance a subject is a fantastic way to utilise light to tell the story in your photograph. It works really well to enhance certain subjects such as water, fog, or rays from the sun. Additionally, using backlight for an otherwise ordinary subject can provide more interest to a photograph.

One of the most popular subjects to enhance is water. When the sun shines through water from behind, the water is shown in its truest form, illuminating it and emphasising its transparency.

When the sun is low in the sky, roughly at a 45 degree angle, the rays highlight the particles in the air making them visible. This technique works really well when applied to a simple scene such as a tree line with light shining through or a flower-filled meadow.

Obstacles when Photographing INTO the Light

As with most creative ventures in photography, photographing into the light comes with its own obstacles that we, as photographers, must learn how to overcome. Two of the most common obstacles you will encounter are metering and lens flare. The good news is both of these obstacles can easily be overcome when you know how to deal with them.


Sunset Silhouette, Kilcoy, Australia Canon 7D, 24 – 70mm 2.8 L series lens at 32mm, ISO 200, f/11 1/100 sec. Tripod and shutter release

Remember to use an alternative metering mode when applicable and choose your metering mode well. Evaluative metering is often the go-to metering mode for most subjects, however when using backlight, especially for silhouettes or sunbursts, Evaluative metering is not suitable.

Evaluative metering reads a large portion at the centre of the frame, but when photographing into the light you will need a more precise portion of the frame to be metered for correct exposure.

Partial or Spot metering (for Canon cameras) will often provide the best results. Partial metering reads a small portion at the center of the frame while Spot metering reads a tiny pin point at the very center and requires more precision.

Spot metering can often be tricky to use due to the small portion of the frame that is read, while at the same time it can often prove to be more beneficial when photographing a starburst for example. Utilising the exposure lock setting on your camera once you have taken a light reading can also be helpful.

Lens Flare

Lens flare is often thought of as a nuisance and it quite often is, though sometimes it can add substance to a photograph and can look quite pretty provided it is not too over-the-top. Some photographers like to deliberately include lens flare as a point of interest or to add atmosphere.

The line between good and bad lens flare is fine and can come down to personal preference; but aren’t all things in photography?

To avoid lens flare when photographing into the light there are a few things you can do. Controlling how and where the light is in relation to your camera is the most obvious solution to lens flare. Often a centimetre can make a difference.

Placing a hood on your lens will not only assist in limiting lens flare, it will also help to protect your lens from damage. If none of these options eliminate flare and you are set up on a tripod simply using your hand or another object to help shade your lens will do the trick. Filters are available to help reduce flare, such as UV or polarising filters.

Just be sure you are using high quality glass or the quality of your photograph may be compromised.

Dog Surfer Silhouette, Noosa, Australia
Dog Surfer Silhouette, Noosa, Australia Canon 7D, 24 – 70mm 2.8 L series lens at 70mm, ISO 100, f/4 1/8000 sec.

Increase Image Quality 

There are a few other ways you can maximise image quality when photographing into the light. Photographing in RAW format over JPG will always be of benefit. A RAW image provides a lot more information – 255 values of each color in JPG vs. 65,000+ values of each color in RAW. The more information you capture in-camera, the better the quality of the image made.

Using the ‘Manual’ setting on your camera will give you more creative control when creating your images.

The time of day you choose to photograph a scene will also make a big difference to the final product. Choosing to photograph in low light – the ‘golden hours’ – works best when photographing with backlight. This is because the sun is low in the sky, less harsh, and will provide a lovely warm light and more dramatic photos.

Now it’s your turn to try some backlighting photography. Grab your camera and get creative with photographing into the light.

by Sarah Vercoe
Article: ©  Sarah Vercoe. All right reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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