I was recently asked by a new photographer “how do you achieve such a soft look to your photos?” It didn’t take me long to realize what she was referring to and the answer is shooting backlit. Part of my shooting style involves the use of light. I purposefully try as hard as possible to schedule my sessions around the sun. I want to be shooting during the early morning or just before sunset, when the sun is low in the sky, creating even, beautiful light. If I’m forced to schedule a session at a different time, I’ve learned to use natural diffusers and find beautiful light even at high noon. No matter what, I’m always looking for soft, even light for my clients. It’s so important to creating an image with the certain look I’m going for.
Shooting backlit takes practice, so my advice to new photographers would be to get out there and shoot. It takes a lot of time to find your personal “sweet spot” and the more you practice, the easier it will get. I promise. In general, I like to place my subjects in open shade and move myself so that the sun is at a 45 degree angle to the subject. I don’t necessarily want the sun directly behind my subject unless I’m shooting that specific shot because the image will be flooded with light and most likely completely washed out. Shooting with the sun at the edge of the frame or through a natural diffuser (like trees or bushes) helps soften the glow and create beautiful backlighting without completely ruining the image. Sometimes, you’ll have to get creative with your angles and use your subject’s body to help diffuse the light. Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting 10 more minutes until the sun is in the right position in the sky. It’s also really important to know your gear and how it will pick up the light. For instance, I know my 70-200mm lens picks up sun flare like crazy – so I rarely use it for backlit shots. How do I know that? Trial and error from all the time I’ve spent practicing.
I always expose for the subject in camera using partial metering on the Canon 5D Mark III. That is the metering mode that I’ve grown most comfortable with, although I used to use evaluative metering on the Canon 5D Classic. After I meter in camera, I take a test shot, look at it on the LCD, and adjust my shutter speed and/or aperture accordingly. I don’t use the histogram or worry about blown highlights at all because it’s going to happen when you are shooting his way. I know some photographers hate blown highlights, but I honestly don’t care. If the image looks good and my client is happy, that’s all I’m really worried about
I often find myself bumping up my exposure in post-processing to achieve an even softer image. Even though the image looks good straight out of the camera most of the time, I spend time in Lightroom and Photoshop perfecting each image before it is seen by my clients.
I hope this was somewhat helpful for those of you starting to shoot backlit. If you have any questions, please post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them! Good luck!