Backlit Photographs

Backlit Photographs or encounters of the third kind

That's right, encounters of the third kind… you did read well! More often than not, photographs taken with the light behind the subject are underexposed. This has the effect of turning the subject into a silhouette while the background looks just perfect. In this article, we will attempt to clear up the mystery surrounding those ghostly silhouettes...


When the light is behind the subject-and the subject is inevitably in the dark-all the details of the subject will obviously not appear in the photograph. In addition, the light meter reading of your camera may not be accurate, as the entire scene is taken into account, including the background, which will be in the sun most of the time. In such cases, the light meter reading will tend to underexpose the shot. Have a look at the pictures below:

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Backlit Photographs photography tips 2

Underexposed picture

Overexposed picture

Luckily on the majority of recent reflex camera models, the field of vision or reading zone of the light meter can be defined. This is done using three metering modes: evaluative metering, which calculates exposure based on several areas in the picture, selective metering, which measures the light in a central zone representing approximately 10% of the picture, and centre-weighted average metering, which calculates average exposure over the entire surface while placing more emphasis on the centre. But when should you use one mode rather than another?

Evaluative metering:

To capture a sunny landscape, a group of people, a building, or for a long shot.

Selective metering:

When backlighting is used, when the subject is against a contrasting background, or for a show with stage lighting.

Center-weighted average metering:

For close-ups, near-close-ups, portraits, or shots of animals.

The three examples below show the results of these three metering modes used with the same subject:

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Evaluative metering

Selective metering


average metering

Fill light

Several backlighting situations require the use of a fill light to cast more light on the subject, which is in the dark. This is the case when the difference in lighting between the subject and the background is too great for the film or the sensor to register all the details of the scene. Either the subject will remain in the dark and the background will be perfect, or the subject will be properly exposed and the background will be washed out and overexposed.

There are two ways of correcting the situation

1. Adding a reflector:

By simply using a reflective surface such as a white piece of cardboard, white fabric or a reflective disc, you can partially redirect the natural light to your main subject. For this purpose, a Litedisc type reflective disc will give you great results and is also very practical. As it folds up, it is compact and easy to carry from one outdoor setting to another. Have a look at the following pictures:

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Backlit Photographs photography tips 7

Without a reflector

With a reflector

2. Using a flash

Several cameras with a built-in flash have a backlight mode. This mode activates the automatic flash even when you are working with daylight. The use of a flash has the effect of highlighting the details that are in the dark and at the same time creates a balance between the subject and the natural light in the background. This is an ideal technique for shooting undergrowth with light shining through the transparency of the leaves or for a background with a sunset. Here are two examples:

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Backlit Photographs photography tips 9

Without a flash

With a flash

Advantages of backlighting

Imagine a group photograph with everyone facing the sun. How long will they be able to stand the torture before they start squinting, blinded by the intense light shining directly on them? Worse yet! Your sister is getting married. She is exuding beauty and happiness, and you would like to offer her a very special souvenir: a picture of her in her most exquisite dress trimmed with the finest lace, shot in the loveliest park of the city! Oh, disappointment! The magnificent details of her gown are scorched by the blazing sun, the trees and lawn look unhealthy, not to mention the bride's makeup, melted all the way down to her chin...

For these situations, it would have been a lot better if the subjects had been placed in the shade of a tree, an umbrella or a balcony, with the light behind them. It is also good to remember that at the beginning and at the end of the day, you can take splendid photographs with the rich warm sunlight highlighting the contours of your subject.

Several natural elements can also benefit from backlighting. One just has to think of leaves in fall, with so many lovely shapes and gorgeous colours, of soft, filtered light nestled at the centre of a flower, of the texture of stone and wood enhanced by shadows created by the angle of the backlight. Here are some examples:

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Backlit Photographs photography tips 12

To be sure, it isn't always easy to work with backlight! But the results are well worth the efforts of learning how. No more need to let those encounters of the third kind make you nervous, as you will now know how to handle the situation!

Go for it, and Happy Shooting!

With the cooperation of Jacques Bourdages, PFE.