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09.14.2011

In this portrait/fashion image, the subject is lit from behind and her face is illuminated by a 32in silver/gold reflector on her face. The 1.4 aperture gives a beautiful bokeh (lens blur) in the background. © 2011 Lindsday Adler

If you want to create more dramatic location portraiture, you may consider taking a technique from the movies. In television and cinema a very common lighting technique is a backlit subject will fill light in the foreground.

Backlighting a subject:

  1. Helps to create drama.
  2. Separates the subject from the background.
  3. Gives a surreal mood (lens flare, interesting highlights).

In this bridal image the subject is backlit but placed against a dark background. Because of the rim light on her hair and body there is a distinct separation between the subject and the dark background. The subject really pops from the photo and creates a very dramatic image. Sigma 70-200mm at 137mm. ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/500 sec. © 2011 Lindsday Adler

One way to make the subject pop from the background is to have them backlit, but standing against a dark colored background. This will help achieve more drama. The contrast between highlight and shadow really makes the subject jump from the photo.

In this fashion portrait, the backlight behind the subject creates beautiful light on her hair and separation from the background. A large silver reflection fills in the light on her face and creates flattering, even light. Sigma 85mm 1.4. ISO 500, f/1.8, 1/5000 sec. © 2011 Lindsday Adler

When you backlight your subject, you will often want some fill light on the subjects face to give some direction and contrast to the light. In general I recommend that you use a silver reflector or a reflector with a silver-gold mix. I often use the California Sunbounce zebra mini reflector (silver-gold mix) or a 32 inch circular silver reflector.

Exposure with backlit images can be challenging. If the sun is in the frame or any bright highlights, this often leads to your subject being underexposed. For this reason I recommend shooting on manual OR shoot on aperture priority with exposure compensation. Often because your image will appear underexposed, you’ll have to open up your exposure to +2/3 or +1 stop to correctly illuminate your subject. Other times, the image may end up a bit overexposed because of so much light flooding the sensor. Feel free to test the shot, and adjust your exposure as necessary.

If you backlight an image and don’t want lens flare, be sure that the sun is not visible in the frame. I often try to block out the sun with the subject’s head, trees in the background, or some other sort of background element. The subject will still be backlit, but I don’t have to worry about the sun causing too much flare.

Also, if you are trying to avoid lens flare, be sure to use a lens hood that comes with your lens. It will help block out extra sunlight that may decrease the contrast of the image.

Lens flare can be a great creative tool. Here I placed the sun just to the side of the subject. When I focused I put it behind her head, and then would slightly move the camera to allow the flare to wrap around the face. Sigma 85mm 1.4. ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/1600sec. © 2011 Lindsday Adler

On the other hand, flare can be a beautiful creative element. Although in traditional schools of thought in photography lens flare is ‘undesirable’, lens flare is frequently utilized as a tool to create dreamy and surreal images. Lens flare can be dramatic and beautiful.

Lens flare can be a great creative tool. Here I placed the sun just to the side of the subject. When I focused I put it behind her head, and then would slightly move the camera to allow the flare to wrap around the face. Sigma 85mm 1.4. ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/1600sec. © 2011 Lindsday Adler

If you do add lens flare to your image, this often makes your image ‘muddy’. Because light is bouncing around in the lens, this often decreases the contrast. Its fine to use lens flare, but keep in mind that if you want contrast in your image (aka a black and white point) then you may have to increase contrast in Photoshop. My recommendation is that you shoot RAW images, and then add contrast (or drag the black point) in ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) or in Lightroom.

I recommend shooting at a wide aperture. Personally I shoot with the Sigma 85mm 1.4 or the Sigma 50mm 1.4. When shooting at such wide apertures with a backlit subject, any highlights become beautiful glowing circles/orbs.

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  1. First time visitor to your Sigma site and so useful. I have a Sigma 70mm1:28 DG Macro on my Canor 50D. Love it and want more Sigma EX lens. The balance of my lens are Canon, but going to Sigma because of quality and cost.

  2. Amazing series of photos! Awesome tips!