How to shoot with sun behind the subject
As mentioned in 3 tips for taking pictures in the sun, shooting with the sun behind the subject is one of my favorite ways to shoot.
Backlighting certainly is not the only way to shoot in natural light, but I like it for the purpose of adding dimension, depth, drama, and contrast to photos.
I won’t attempt to write everything I know about backlighting on this post, but I promise to give some nuggets so that you can go practice shooting with the sun behind the subject.
In this post, I’ll focus on separating the subject from the background, which is one of the purposes of backlighting your subject.
Separating your subject from the background
Some ways to separate your subject from the background are:
1) Having contrasting colors between the subject and background.
2) Keeping the subject at least several feet away from the background.
3) Using a combination of both 1) and 2) while using a low f-stop number on your lens to create shallow depth of field and blur the background.
4) Using a combination of 1), 2), and 3) while shooting with a long focal length to blur the background even more.
5) Backlighting your subject. You can do this with or without any of the combinations above.
Backlighting creates a highlight around the subject against a background. It’s also called rim light or hair light. Rim light is what separates the subject from the background.
If there were no rim light around the bride in the photo above, she will blend in with the background.
The main thing to know is the separating highlight is only created against a DARK background.
By dark, I don’t necessarily mean black. Darker the better but darker than bright white will do just fine.
Same backlight and subject against a bright background won’t give you the definitive highlight that separates the background the subject. The background needs to be dark.
Sunlight hitting the subject from behind against a dark background is the formula for creating rim light. Rim light is what gives you the separation between the background and subject.
Shooting in shade is fine on sunny days, and it has its purpose. Shade provides even light so photographing in the shade is an easier and safer thing to do than photographing in bright sun. However, my personal preference is to use sunlight if it’s available.
As you see in the photo above, the photo taken in complete shade is fine but the photo is too flat and bland for my taste. Although the subject and the background is separated by different colors they still blend together. I prefer to use backlight to add some dynamic, depth and interest to the photo.
Once you understand this concept, the possibilities are endless. It’ll be up to you to add your own creativity and style.
You can adjust the angle in which the subject is backlit, you can change the exposure, you can use a reflector to bounce some light back to your subject while the subject is being backlit and so on.
Another thing you’d want to remember when backlighting a subject is to try not to shoot directly into the sun. If the sunlight is shining directly into your camera lens, it’ll have hard time focusing and overexpose your photos.
Some ways to avoid this is to position yourself at an angle where the sun is not directly facing you, as I did in the photo above, or shield the sunlight. You can shield the sunlight with a lens hood, or your hand. You can also position yourself at an angle where a tree, a building or even the subject will block and shield the sunlight from directly pointing to your lens yet still backlighting your subject.
If the sun is pointing directly into the lens, the camera will have a difficult time auto-focusing, it will make it difficult to properly expose your image, and your image will lack contrast.
Go outside and practice identifying a time of day and locations that provide this combination of backlight, shield and a dark background.
One of the things that I love about photography is that the possibilities and opportunities to create images are endless. The hunt for finding good light never ends. Good light is more important than a fancy location as long as you understand how to use light to your advantage and know how to look for the ingredients mentioned above.
As we were walking out of the church building I noticed a sliver of light shining at an angle in between the church building and the tree. So, I had backlight, the tree as a shield, and a brown door as a dark background. Avoid overexposing the important parts such as your subjects face or the white dress in this case. I exposed for the brightest spot which was the white dress in the photo below.
Now we know what backlighting is, and know how to identify backlight, a shield and dark background. Let’s get into the shooting portion and talk about how to shoot photos with sun behind the subject.
How to take photos with sun behind the subject
This depends on where the sun is and where a dark background is. The sun can be behind the subject at an angle. It doesn’t need to be directly behind subject. If it has to be directly behind the subject, look for a way to shield the sunlight a little.
2. Assuming you normally shoot in Auto mode, try Aperture Priority mode.
AV for Canon and A for Nikon. If you know how to shoot in manual mode, go for it.
3. Expose for the a) subject’s face or b) the sunlight.
This is a creativity decision you need to make.
a) Since your subject’s back is to the sunlight, the front of the subject is darker. So if you’re taking a portrait, you need to expose for the face. If you let the camera decide for you in auto mode, the subject’s face is likely going to be dark, or the camera in auto mode is going to set off the flash to compensate for the dark face.
There are ways to handle this.
i) If you have an assistant to hold a reflector for you, great. I don’t usually have that luxury. You can also look for any kind of reflective surface like white building, or a silver or white car near you. Think about using it as a reflector to bounce light back into the subject’s face. Bringing more light to the subject’s face will offset some of the difference is brightness so exposure will be more balanced.
These headshots were taken at my brother-in-law’s drive way. An evergreen tree use as a dark background and a white SUV parked behind me as a reflector. Also, notice the rim light is more visible on a dark outfit vs. a white outfit.
ii) To expose for the face without a reflector in aperture priority mode, first, focus and meter on the face. Then increase the exposure(brightness) by dialing the exposure compensation toward + by +⅓ or more until you find the correct exposure.
b) Instead of exposing for the face, you can also expose for the sunlight. Or more precisely, the highlight, aka rim light around the subject. Doing this creates darker shadows on the opposite side of the sun which adds mood and drama. When photographing people this way, shooting their side profile works well when doing this. It’s ok if their face look dark. There’s beauty in the rim light and subtly seeing their expressions.
In aperture priority mode, simply meter the brightest spot. You can still focus on the subject’s face, but since you’re trying to expose for the brighter highlight you’d need to dial the exposure down. After focusing on the subject, dial down the exposure compensation toward -⅓ or more.
What do you think? Hope this helps. If I missed anything or if you have questions, please let me know. Your questions may prompt me to either update this post or share more in-depth posts on this topic.
Below are more samples of photos I took with the sun behind the subject. As you scroll through notice the angle of the sun, the darker background, the rim lights, and whether I shielded the sunlight or not. I often use trees to shield the light.
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