Here’s How to Take Ethereal Photos With Backlighting

Using light to create a halo-like glow around the subject’s head has only grown as a photography trend. What exactly is this style and how can you create it yourself?

back-lit girl flowers child

This crazy, called backlit photography, essentially involves taking a photo with the light BEHIND your subject rather than in front or beside them. This can seem like a complicated process but, it can be simplified to three easy steps:

Step 1: Grab your camera. 
Step 2: Find the sun. 
Step 3: Place your subject in front of the sun and shoot. 

OK, it’s not quite that cut and dry, but that’s pretty much what you have to do.

Using spot metering mode for backlit photography

To succeed with backlit photography, you’ll first need to select the right metering mode.

What are metering modes?

Metering modes determine how your camera interprets exposure. In other words, it tells your camera how and where to read the light. There are several options, but there’s one that’s better than the others for backlit photography: spot metering.

Digital cameras these days come with an internal exposure metering system. When you look inside the viewfinder on your camera, you’ll see this handy-dandy tool inside. That slider tells you whether or not your image is properly exposed based upon the metering mode you chose.

exposure dial

You want to try to keep that slider in the middle as much as possible. With backlit photography, that can be tricky, which is why it’s best to use spot metering mode. 

On my camera, the button to the left is where I make the metering mode adjustment. Check your camera’s manual if you do not have this button. After pressing the button, I can then switch between metering modes using my dial.

spot metering

Why spot metering?

Spot metering mode tells the camera to gauge the exposure from a set focus spot. Essentially, you look through your viewer, point your camera at your subject and your camera will adjust the exposure based on what’s in the middle. This is ideal when light is filling the majority of the frame except for your subject.

How to use spot metering with back lighting

Beware if the subject is wearing a dark or light shirt! If you meter off a white spot on their shirt, the camera will think the subject is brighter than it is; with a darker area, the camera will think the subject is darker than it is in reality.

In the image below, I took two shots both using spot metering. In the first, the spot focused on the white area of the doll’s outfit. For the second, I put center focus spot over the elf’s body.

spot metering image

The left one is too bright. My camera thought so, too: The slider on the exposure meter was too far to the right. So the camera though it was too bright. To correct this, I could either increase the aperture number and/or increase the shutter speed to allow less light in and take the exposure down a bit. Another solution is to move the spot metering focus point somewhere else in the frame.

That’s what I did for the photo on the right, which is the best solution for backlit photos. Essentially, I tricked my camera by placing the spot on a darker part of the composition. I shot this photo as it was, and it’s a little dark. You could also adjust your shutter speed and aperture for a better exposure and then re-compose as you see fit.

When I did meter off of the body and adjust the shutter speed and aperture, here’s what I got:

back lit elves

Lens hoods for backlit photography

You can see there is a halo in the photo above as well, since I do not like to use a lens hood. Using a lens hood does help reduce glare and lens flare.

What is a lens hood? It’s a piece that attaches to your lens and creates a sort of protective barrier against overbearing light and lens flares. There are three types: butterfly, round (shown below) and square. The round lens hood is the most common, while the butterfly hood is specially shaped for wide-angle lenses to prevent the lens hood from showing up in the images. Most lenses come with these already included. They are used to keep the image clear and prevent unwanted sun flare from showing up in the image — which can come in handy for backlit photography.

lens hoods
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