How to take a photo against the light?


For many people, avoiding backlight is part of the divine rules of photography, like respecting the rule of thirds. In reality, it’s a little more nuanced (and less simplistic) than that. You won’t be struck down by the god of photography if you’re shooting against the light, but to get good results you need to know some technical camera settings and have some knowledge of light. . Nothing insurmountable in all that, but technical enough not to succeed the first time. So let’s go step by step.

Backlight: definition

According to the Petit Robert, backlighting is “the illumination of an object which comes from the side opposite to that from which one is looking”. Here is a small diagram of you photographing a pretty sparrow against the light:

In other words, it’s as if there was an imaginary plane that contains: the sparrow, the sun, and you. As the alignment of the three is not always perfect, the plan can be a little twisted huh. But all the same, who says backlight, says sun more or less in front of you to illuminate the subject from behind. For example in the photo below, the lighting is lateral, and it is therefore no longer backlighting.

To create a backlight, I’ve told you about the sun so far because it’s the most common, but it also works with any artificial light (spotlight, flash). This light source, artificial or natural, must have certain properties. Let’s look at this together on this little aside on light.

Reminders on light

I promise, I’m not going to give you an hour-long lecture on light. As a prerequisite, you can read the article on light, which presents its four characteristics in detail. Among them, two will interest us more particularly to understand the interest of the photo in backlight: the direction and the quality of the light. Direction : this is the  easiest. The light must come ”  from the side opposite that from which the subject is viewed” as we saw above.

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The quality of light actually refers to the appearance of shadows on the subject we are photographing. And this aspect depends on the relative size of the light source that illuminates it:

  • If your light source is small compared to the subject, the shadows will be very pronounced, that is to say very black. We are talking about hard light. This is typically the case of the summer sun at noon, on a sunny day. You can of course see it on the face of the young girl, on the left belowIt is important to understand the notion of “relative size”: the sun may be huge (its diameter is still more than one million kilometers), its relative size compared to us is small because it appears to us as a small disc in the sky.
  • If your light source is large in relation to the subject, the shadows on the subject will be softer and more subdued. This is exactly what happens in gray weather: the clouds in front of the sun act like a huge softbox that scatters light across the entire sky. You’ll notice that these softer shadows are more flattering for highlighting a face, but again, there’s no divine ruleYou could do the same in bright sunlight, either by using a size-enhancing diffuser relative of your light source – as in the photo on the right below – or by getting close enough to the surface of the sun so that its relative size increases (ask Thomas Pesquet or SpaceX if this is planned ^^)

Obviously, you have intermediate scenarios, for example when the sky is just cloudy and the sun is partially hidden, but I think you have understood. But why am I telling you all this? Well, because understanding this notion of light quality will help you know WHEN to photograph against the light.


Why take photos against the light?

If you take photos against the light, it is better to do it in full awareness. That means what it brings to your images. I’m going to show you a few examples, so that you can clearly visualize the effect of the backlight. The idea of ​​this part is right is that you see what backlighting brings to an image. I therefore suggest that you focus only on what the light is doing  in the images that follow! Right after, we will see how to do it in practice, with the technical aspect and everything!

Backlit Portraits

As I told you, when the light is harsh – typically in the middle of the day when the sun is at its zenith – here is what is likely to happen if you place the sun directly in front of your subject.

See the harsh, unsightly shadows that appear next to the nose and under the brow bones and give a gorgeous raccoon look. This is normal: the sun is a point source located above the subject.

These contrasting areas on the subject’s face do not highlight it. In addition, his eyes are almost closed, so dazzled by the sun from the front. Let me tell you that it is difficult to fix that in post-processing.

Silhouette effect in backlight

This use is quite classic and allows you to draw profile from the backlight to highlight shapes or silhouettes. In this case, the sun may be obscured by the shapes, as is the case in the image below. Read more on

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Note that in this case, it is not a problem if the shadows are blocked and do not contain any detail, since the goal is precisely to bring out the shapes of the silhouettes so that our eye can identify them immediately!

And then you don’t have to plunge those shadows into complete darkness at all. It’s up to you to decide  what will reinforce your photographic intention.

Give more depth to the image

When your image has several planes, backlighting can accentuate the effect of depth in the photo. This is understandable since the backlight increases the contrast in the image (the difference between the light tones and the dark tones in your image).

The backlight to highlight the light

This ties into the previous point: when shooting backlit in haze, you can literally show rays from a light source . It works very well in the forest with the sun’s rays filtering through the trees. It can also work with a smoke machine in concert.

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