Backlighting Portrait Tips from Erica May

This week, please welcome guest blogger Erica May who shares her insight on backlighting.

Rock The Backlight

Backlighting makes a portrait come alive and creates so much emotion. Anyone who follows my work will know that I am a total backlighting junkie.  It can add a little romance, create a soft haze, make images sharp as a tack, or deliver a powerful statement, all depending on how you use it. I think the hardest thing about backlighting is that no amount of instruction will make you “get it.” Like so many photography skills, you have to just get out there and practice to really nail it. That said, some helpful tips can go a long way.

Let’s go over a few things that will help you rock those backlighting shots. Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be a backlighting expert. These are just the tricks that work for me =P. I have included the technical settings with each photograph as a starting point when you are out there shooting. I use a Nikon d700 and I usually have either my 85mm or 50mm on my camera.

1. Ease into it
If you are new to backlighting, don’t set yourself up for failure by starting in an open field with nothing to diffuse the light. Even experienced backlighters are challenged in these conditions. The best way to start is to have the sun peeking through some trees or around buildings. Move around and experiment with the level of sunlight coming through.

Image Notes: Notice in this image the sun is being diffused by the trees behind my subject. I tried to find a nice little pocket of light (or a spotlight) for her to stand in.
Settings: f/2.5, 1/800s, ISO 200, 50mm

2. Haze or No Haze
You can set the mood by the amount of haze you allow in your pictures. I always like to create a variety of haze and no haze shots in case a client doesn’t like the “hazy” look. By allowing the sun’s rays to hit your sensor you will add haze to your images. If you block the sun with a lens hood or your hand (my personal choice), you will reduce the amount of sun hitting your sensor. You can eliminate the haze completely by shooting down on your subject. Having them sit on the ground and shooting from above prevents the sun from hitting your sensor and creates a super sharp backlit image. Some haze can be reduced in post-processing by increasing your blacks and your contrast; but getting it right in the camera is even better! Backlit with haze

Image Notes: In this image the sun was setting and directly behind my subjects. I had to change my position several times to get just the right amount flare at the right place. If I would have been standing lower than my subjects the flare would most likely be under their chins and over their faces which would be distracting.
Settings: f/2.8, 1/800, ISO 200, 50mm

3.Watch your “blinkies”
You may be thinking, “What are blinkies?”  This tip refers to paying attention to your highlights to make sure you don’t blow out your image too much. The “blink” method is just a quick way to make sure you haven’t over-exposed too much. In my camera, highlights are set to blink in the areas I have overexposed (meaning they won’t print). That way, I can make sure I haven’t blown any highlights on the face or skin. If you shoot RAW you can recover some of your blown highlights in post-processing; however, only so much can be recovered and these severely overexposed areas usually have a funky tone to them. Your camera meter is not a good gauge when shooting directly into the sun, so you should take a few test shots and review to see where your settings should be.

4. Use a reflector
I know reflectors can be cumbersome, (I’ve had a few reflectors fly away in high winds!) but if you practice with one you will notice a huge difference in your backlit images. For close-ups I always use a reflector to add fill light on my subject’s face, even out the exposures, and create those beautiful catch-lights in their eyes. The more you use a reflector, the more you will get used to it. You can use one by yourself, I promise. I never have an assistant with me on shoots. I usually just tuck the reflector under my arms and hold it against my body. It takes a little practice and I may look like a huge dork, but it works! I use a 5-in-1 reflector and almost always have the white side reflecting on to my subject.

The top image is straight out of the camera with no reflector. It is flat and she has no catchlights in her eyes. In the lower image the subject’s skin is brighter and has a better tone. She also has beautiful catchlights in her eyes.

reflector with glasses In this image you can see my reflector in her sunglasses. This was at the end of the shoot and the sun was pretty harsh (morning session) so I was standing above my client to minimize haze and using a reflector to fill from the front.
Settings: f2.8, 1/1600, ISO 250, 50mm

5. Wear White
You can become a walking reflector if you wear a white shirt during your shoots. Often, the catch-lights you see in my subject’s eyes are actually me =). Wearing white also prevents you from casting any weird color casts on your subject’s face as the sun bounces off you and back onto them.


backlit senior

Unfortunately, there  is no magic advice I can give you to master backlighting; but hopefully between using these tips and lots of practice you can achieve that yummy glow we all love! So get out there and shoot into the sun and don’t give up. Practice makes perfect!

Erica May is a portrait photographer based out of Dallas, TX specializing in seniors and newborns.  For more examples of her work, check out her website and become a fan on Facebook.

// Erica May Photography // Follow Erica on Facebook //



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