George Wilson: Backlighting – A Simple Technique with Great Results

Gw Katelyn Crawford 090716 02

I held my first camera when I was eight years old, now forty-eight years later I still find that the basics I learned in my youth provided a solid base and a skill set to always fall back on. I mention this because backlighting started my portrait photography work years ago. Today, those same backlighting techniques are still employed in various aspects of my work. I firmly believe that good photographer is always eager to experiment in order to improve their craft. But that same photographer should also be willing to fall back to very simple beginnings and very simple techniques that produce good consistent results.

My early photography was done with black and white film and one of my favorite techniques was to place my subject on the edge of a strong shadow. The trees, buildings, bridges of the elevated subway lines in the city or whatever was there, would cast the background in a darker light than that which the subject was in. This created contrast and depth within the image – I always referred to this as “transition light” and in many cases this adds drama to the scene. In other words, it made it more compelling for the viewer to see.

One early morning while working with a subject, sunlight came streaming through the trees I was working in front of. These trees split the light into many different shafts of light giving me a rim-light on my subject. The effect I saw was tremendous! Excitedly, I fired away through numerous rolls of film and raced to the darkroom to see my results! Time seemed to move extra slow that morning as processed my film. Finally, I held my loupe over my eye and the film to the light – wow, what a great look!!

Today, years later, backlighting is one of my “tried and true” methods outdoor portraits. For working with a new model, it is an easy way to begin the adjustment to a new photographer and a new working relationship. Sometimes only a reflector is added to bounce a small amount of light back into the model’s face. The backlighting setup is not an intimidating set up with lights, cords, smoke machines, batteries and a host of other items.

Backlighting, defined in the simplest terms, is when the primary light (key light) is behind the subject and the photographer is shooting into it. This creates a rim light or hair light depending on the angle of light. In the morning hours, the sun would create a rim light on the model due to the lower angle of the light rays. During the mid-day hours this would be more of a hair light due to the higher angle of the light source. In the studio, this same lighting can be achieved in a controlled setting with any number of strobes.

In the first image, I have asked Katelyn to stand on the edge of a large stand of trees with her back to the sun, which was streaming through the trees. This created the rim light around her I that I was looking for. To achieve this look in the photograph, it is essential to work with early morning or late afternoon light. The light during these times of day is more in a horizontal direction than the harsh overhead light of mid-day. Working on the edge of a large group of trees, the light is broken up into small easy to work with shafts of light. I could have also made this image later in the day, by the higher overhead position of the sun would have created a light on top of Katelyn’s head rather than a rim affect. The higher position of the sun would have also created a more “mottled” light on my subject.

By asking her to turn one shoulder closer to the camera position, it created a slimmer and more engaging pose. Katelyn has worked with me a number of times and typically I ask her not hold a pose for longer than three seconds. This engages the model in the session and helps create a more collaborative environment. The trees behind her also created a darker background, which accentuated the natural rim light in the image. In a studio setting, the light remains constant, whereas in the field working with natural light continually changes as the sun traverses the sky. As a result the photographer must always stay aware of the position in the sky and how it relates to the model. There will also come a time, that the sun will no longer work in your favor and you will have to move on to another technique.

In the first image, I chose the manual settings on the camera and used a hand held light meter to measure the reflected light from Katelyn’s face. In a portrait, the face is the most important element. This dictates the exposure here must be correct and the focus sharpest on the eyes. Working on the edge of the shadows, the lighting meant I use an ISO of 200 and an aperture of f2.8 on my 80-200 f2.8 zoom. Using f2.8 creates a very narrow plane of focus - in other words a shallow depth of field. These settings resulted in a sharp focus on Katelyn and a less distracting background around her. Reviewing the image on my LCD told me that I needed to bounce some light back into Katelyn’s face for better lighting.

Using the Photoflex 32” 5-in-1 MultiDisc Reflector on a Photoflex Large Litestand with LiteDisc Holder placed between the camera position and Katelyn, I was able to capture a small amount of light to better illuminate Katelyn’s face. Choosing the Soft Gold side of the reflector gave me just a slight amount of warming light to make the image more appealing. My exposure settings did not change from the previous image.


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