Are you looking for a different way of shooting people when the sun may not be in the best position and shade is not available? If so, consider using the sun as a backlight for beautiful images. Why use the sun as a backlight? Here are a few reasons:

1. The problem of harsh shadows on your subject is eliminated.

2. It often creates beautiful hair and rim lighting

3. It provides visual interest and depth to the image

Here are three possible approaches to creating an image with beautiful backlight. The first is to expose for the subject’s face without any light modifiers. The second is to use a reflector. The third is to use flash.

Expose for the face.

If you are shooting in automatic mode, use your camera’s spot meter to expose for your subject’s face. For most cameras this means aiming the center spot of your viewfinder at the subject’s face, pressing the shutter release halfway down to lock the exposure, reframe while still holding the shutter release halfway down, then pressing the shutter release all the way to take the shot. The camera will adjust the aperture, ISO, or shutter speed to properly expose the subject. The background will be overexposed. The only thing you need to be careful of is to ensure the shutter speed does not drop so low that the image ends up blurred.

If you are shooting in manual mode the process is the same but you can choose whether you want to change the shutter speed, ISO or aperture to get to the proper exposure for your subject. This gives you more creative control. So if you want to have more bokeh (blurred background), you may choose to widen your f-stop to let in more light to expose the face properly. But if you want more of the background in focus you may use a higher f-stop and either lower the shutter speed (to let in more light), raise the ISO, or a combination of both.

This approach is fast and requires no other equipment; that is one reason it is used quite a bit. Your subject will not have any harsh shadows on her face. Skies end up white or light gray with no clouds or details. The background will usually be blurred and also overexposed. This kind of shot focuses the viewer’s attention on the subject; as such, this is a good approach for headshots or portraits.

This image was captured using this method. Because a low f-stop was needed to properly expose the subject’s face, the result was the highly blurred background (bokeh). Note how the sky is near-white and has no detail or clouds.

Backlight for beautiful images expose for face

Use a Reflector

The next approach is to use a reflector. There are many kinds on the market and they come in different colors. Gold is used to warm up flesh tones and evoke more of a sunset feel. Silver provides more “pop” and contrast. For most of us, a simple 5-in-1 circular collapsible reflector is an inexpensive and portable solution. Usually, a photographer can also handle the reflector on his or her own without help. It can be held in one hand or propped up as needed.

With a reflector, you are now able to get more light onto your subject. This will allow you to use a higher f-stop that will bring more of the background into focus along with its color and reduce the blown out sky effect. For post-processing in Photoshop, avoiding blown out areas of an image is critical because it allows you to enhance the colors and shapes of the background. A blown out area goes to all white and there is no data there to allow any manipulation.

A reflector does have its limits. The farther behind the subject, lower in the sky, and brighter the sun is, the more light is bounced off the reflector and onto the subject. But as that light weakens, the associated reflected light also decreases. In windy conditions this approach is not practical. Finally, a reflector’s effectiveness is limited by its distance to the subject. So the weaker the sunlight the closer the reflector must be to the subject. This means instead of a full body shot you may have to shoot a headshot.

This image was shot near sunset using a reflector. See how the sunlight provided the beautiful hair and rim light!

Backlight for beautiful images reflector

IMG_5107 Small

Use a flash

The next solution is to introduce flash. In its most basic form this is an on-camera flash. Many camera-flash systems can be synchronized so that just enough light is thrown onto the subject from the flash in order to get to the proper exposure. On certain models, exposure compensation can be set on the flash to increase or decrease its power, and also on the camera to over or underexpose the rest of the shot.

Although this works, it is generally a better idea to get the flash off the camera. This prevents the subject from looking flat with hard shadows under the nose and chin. Simply moving the flash off the camera allows you to control where the shadows fall on the subject. It also enables you to place the flash wherever you need it. This can be accomplished by a simple long flash sync cord or a radio trigger.

The beauty of using a flash is that it provides more flexibility in exposing the background to your liking. Though the process of “dragging the shutter” is explained in other blogs and books, the key is understanding that shutter speed controls how bright your ambient light and background will be. Flash power will control how bright your subject will be. Aperture affects the depth of field and brightness of both the background and subject.

As such, first choose an aperture that will give you the depth of field you desire. Then set the shutter speed to expose the background to your liking. If you want a darker background with more saturated colors, use a faster shutter speed up to the sync speed of your camera/flash combination. If you want a brighter background, use a slower shutter speed.

Once you have that adjusted to your liking, set the flash power to light your subject to the level of exposure you like. If you are approaching sunset, adding an orange gel (CTO) filter on the flash to match the warm sunlight will blend the natural light and flash. But if you like the look of obvious mixed lighting, leave the filter off.

Different light modifiers on the flash will also create different moods. A softbox will generally provide softer light on the subject while a beauty dish will create beautiful highlights with shadows that rapidly fall off.

This image was shot near sunset in Florence, Italy. It was captured using a faster shutter speed to darken the background and ensure the color and details of the sky were preserved. Note how the backlight adds depth and interest to the images. A deep Octa modifier on an Elinchrom Quadra head was used to light the subjects and create the dramatic shadows.

Backlight for beautiful images use flash

Conclusion

When I was learning photography and shooting outdoors, I remember hoping for a cloudy day or some shade. But as I learned how to use the sun as a backlight, I found that I could create some beautiful and dramatic images. I started by simply exposing for the face. Then I learned how to use a reflector. Finally I found how to use flash effectively. Today, whether the sun is low in the sky or above my head in the worst position possible, I know how to get the shot that is needed. You can too!