Essential Photography: Embrace Backlight

“Daughter of the Sun” Giraffe in backlight at sunset, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Light is the lifeblood of the photograph.

As a photographer – or an aspiring photographer – you might have heard the preceding phrase a time or two. You might have also been taught that the origin of the word photography is a fusion of two Greek derivatives: photos meaning “light” and graphe meaning to “write” or “draw.” The inference here being that photography means to write with light.

George Eastman, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, knew a little something about light.

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

These are indeed lofty and inspiring words which happen to be mostly true. But he was also fond of saying:

“You push the button and we do the rest.”

It should be noted that Mr. Eastman is best known as a businessman, not a photographer.

It might seem obvious to most of you, but it is light that you capture with your camera, not the subject in your viewfinder. This is pretty profound when you really think about it. Your subject is always the light reflecting off the scene; its direction, intensity, and color. Not only is light the lifeblood of the photograph, light is everything.


When you point the lens in the direction of the light source (for outdoor photographers this usually means the sun) with your subject between you and the light, you’ll encounter a back-lit situation. Backlight produces dramatic lighting effects on your subject or scene and can take an ordinary photo subject and elevate it to something truly extraordinary. Backlight can create beautiful rim light with hair, fur, or feathers or a pleasant glow with other translucent materials like autumn leaves. With more solid objects, backlight will result in silhouettes, especially if the scene in underexposed.

“Shadow Bear” Rim light illuminates the fur of a coastal brown bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska USA.

Backlight Challenges and Solutions

While using backlight can produce dramatic lighting effects and visually compelling, jaw-dropping images, it can also present some challenges you will need to overcome. Here are a few.

  • Trouble locking in autofocus. When shooting into the sun, one of the first problems beginners encounter is the autofocus not locking onto the subject. Autofocus systems using Contrast Phase Detection particularly have this difficultly. This is quite common and something I always come to expect during a backlighting situation. The solution is finding a strong contrast edge on which to focus. Refer to the bear photo up above. If your autofocus indicator is over the head of chest of the bear, there wont be enough contrast to lock onto. Rather, move the indicator to an area of rim light – like the ears, where there is strong contrast between the light and dark. You will then discover the autofocus works and the camera fires with no problem.
  • Lens flare/ghosting. Pointing the lens into the direction of the sun will usually cause sun flare and ghosting. Trying shading the front of the lens using the lens hood (if the angle of the sun is somewhat off to the side), your hand, a hat, or some sort of reflector or diffuser board, If none of the solutions work before the actual sun is in for image frame. wait until the sun in low on the horizon and its naturally diffused by the atmosphere or airborne water vapor and dust. Sunset is better than sunrise since there is more dust in the air at the end of the day. It also helps to have a clean, dust and dirt-free front lens element.
  • Underexposure. The bright light or sun streaming through your lens will convince your camera’s meter into severely underexposing the photo. Depending whether or not the sun is in the image frame and unless I purposely want to underexpose the scene (such as shooting silhouettes), I will add +2 to +3 EVs using exposure composition to brighten it up. Consult your histogram to be sure you have shadow detail where you desire it to be and there are no overexposed areas as well.

If you can overcome these common backlight obstacles, you will master backlight and elevate your photography a notch or two.