The Noob Photographer’s Guide to Shooting Backlit Portraits With Natural Light

Lots of photographers that don’t like to or know how to work with a flash often go for natural light when it comes to portraiture. The most common method of shooting involves using an area with lots of shadows or overcast. But one of the coolest ways to create an image that you’re bound to become smitten by is backlighting your subject. Backlighting means placing the main light source (often then sun) behind your subject. The best of us like to put it behind their head to give off a nice glow to the subject, but there are a number of fantastic ways to use backlighting when shooting portraits.

Shoot Tight and Up Close

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Lomography Petzval Lens review images samples (10 of 24)ISO 4001-320 sec

While it’s totally possible to shoot a portrait that is backlight from a bit further away, the best results come when you work up close and personal. There are a number of reasons for this, starting with how the light tends to work in the scene. The further away from the subject you go, the more of the light source is actually seen in the scene itself. Generally, you don’t want it to be seen and many photographers tend to place it in a corner of the frame and forget about it. But when you shoot up close, your subject tends to take up more of the overall frame.

Chris Gampat Clay Von Carlowitz Portrait Session March 2015 (49 of 56)ISO 4001-640 sec at f - 3.5

Lots of modern headshot photographers do this process partially because headshots are supposed to be very close up. But additionally, you simply get a better look overall.

If your lens doesn’t let you get up close without creating lots of distortion in the scene, try shooting landscape style. Most photographers shoot portrait style but you can create a much different and sometimes better look when going landscape.

Use Spot Metering and Focusing

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 G VR sample photos (22 of 42)ISO 1001-100 sec at f - 2.8

Metering is a mystery for so many people. Many photographers tend to shoot in aperture priority and simply overexpose by a single stop. That doesn’t always work though. To get the most out of the scene, your lens and what the camera can do you should spot meter the scene.

Spot metering involves telling the camera and lens to look at a specific spot in the scene and just the metering off of that. Since your subject’s back is going to be facing the light source, the front will be darker. You’ll need to add more light to the scene to get them looking perfectly exposed–and to do that you spot meter. Most photographers place the focusing point over the subject’s eyes, expose, focus and shoot. That’s what you should do.

This way, you’ll get all the details that you truly care about.

Work in Some Lens Flare

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Model: Natalie Margiotta

While camera manufacturers are trying their hardest to keep down any sort of lens flare in a scene, it can surely be used very creatively to deliver a nice looking scene. It simply just adds character to the the subject in the frame and to the overall scene. To make a lens flare, stop the lens down a bit and shoot into the light source. You’re going to get a bit of lens flare and the more you stop down, the more flare you can get depending on the lens.

Either way, flare tends to be a creative choice. But lots of photographers and clients alike like it.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.