Backlit photography, photography against the light, why not…?

Backlighting goes against many “standard” photography rules, which often recommend to “Keep the sun behind you”. When you’re backlighting you do the complete opposite and shoot towards the sun. The question is, of course, what would you like to achieve? Is a strong silhouette desired, or, do you still want to see the details in your subject?

What is backlighting?

In principle, it is a light source placed behind your subject to create a highlight that separates the subject from the background. This effect usually hides details, causes a stronger contrast between light and dark, creates silhouettes and emphasizes on a shape or form. A silhouette adds mystery to a picture as it transforms the subject into a graphical shape. Dawn and dusk offer wonderful opportunities with richly colored skies that can act as nice background for your subject.

Focusing with strong backlight can be tricky. The automatic focus and exposure metering on the camera sometimes gets confused with the light coming towards you and for most of the time it will give you a wrong reading.
It is a good idea to keep the majority of the sun blocked and to avoid seeing too much light as it will wash out your subject. Looking directly at a bright light or the sun through the viewfinder is also not a good idea as it is bad for your eyes.

Backlit elephant

Exposure compensation is your tool to work with

When your subject is against a bright background, the typical camera setting and light-metering will usually underexpose your subject, making it appear darker than desired. By overexposing just a bit (between 1/3 and 1 full stop) the correctly exposed backlit subject will get more detail. In case you overexpose the background too much or if you would like to see more detail in the background, you can post-process this in Lightroom. An effective method is to reduce the highlights, or reduce the shadows if you subject needs more contrast and detail. To get the best results from backlighting I would recommend everyone to start learning post-production, by using the software it is possible to achieve very rewarding images.

Lioness @ dusk

Pay attention to the time of day

The best times to get a lovely backlit glow is just after the sun rises in the early morning or before it sets at the end of the day. I think every keen outdoor photographer knows the term the “golden hour” which refers to the first or last hour of sunlight during the day.
Unfortunately the golden hour is relatively short, especially when you have to go out into the African bush and you still need to find a subject to work with. In order to create the desired golden outline, you do not necessarily have to wait for the golden hour if you can be creative.

Luangwa at dawn

Golden hour moment

Capturing Rimlighting

One of my favourite techniques; rimlighting is the fine illumination of light surrounding your subject. The first and last hour will provide a golden outline to your subject, after that your subject will get a ‘silver lining’ for another hour or so.

Capturing Translucence

This happens when light can partially pass through an object. Translucent subjects like the feathers of an Ibis or of some animals fur, when backlit, can provide some stunning results of details that are often unseen by using conventional photography techniques.


Capturing translucence into the wing of an ibis.


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