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How to Use Backlighting to Enhance Your Photos

written by: fortynights•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/4/2009

Backlight is an often overlooked aspect of photography. With a little practice, though, you can learn to add backlighting and create images with more depth and interest.

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    What Is Backlighting?

    Backlighting refers to light that emanates from a source behind a photographic subject. With regard to photographic technique, it means that you're pointing the camera towards the light, a fact that can easily lead to overexposure, lens flare, or other potential challenges.

    However, with a little practice, it's easy to work the basics of backlighting into your repertoire. In the end, your results will be more colorful and more dramatic.

    A backlit spider and web. 

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    Controlling Exposure

    Shooting towards a light source, especially a bright one, means you have to be careful not to overexpose your image. An overexposed image will have very bright areas that overwhelm your subject and possibly ruin the picture.

    Be sure you understand how to read your camera's built-in light meter. If the meter shows a very high reading (usually to the right, or around +2 on the meter), your picture is probably overexposed.

    Using a faster shutter speed will reduce the exposure time, thereby limiting light on your camera's sensor, keeping overexposure problems at bay.

    Most cameras also have an exposure compensation function that let you increase or decrease exposure. Usually this feature is designated by a +/- symbol. Depending on your camera model, exposure compensation may work by altering the aperture, shutter speed, or both.

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    Backlighting Benefits

    Once you've learned to control exposure and flare, you'll see the real benefits of backlighting.

    Thin or translucent subjects, like fall leaves, flower petals, and the like, literally glow with backlighting. This brings out their true colors and adds real impact to your images. Backlighting also reveals extra details, like the veins in a leaf or the strands in a spider's web.

    You may find that in your efforts to avoid overexposed images, your subjects are too dark. This might be a good time to try fill flash to brighten your subject. Turn on your camera's flash and experiment shooting towards backlit subjects. This technique does take some practice but you'll be amazed at the potential for creating eye-popping pictures.