Of the many lighting techniques available to us as portrait photographers, using backlight with a simple reflector is one of the most versatile and least expensive methods you can choose. This method is widely used outdoors, but did you know that you can apply the same strategy to studio portraits?
Backlighting can give your images many different looks, from a hazy, dreamy pastoral feel to a high energy, high contrast, super white background that is literally lit from within.
A Different Take on a Tried and True Lighting Method
When we shoot outdoors in natural light, we use backlighting all the time without even thinking about it. Just about any time we shoot at sunset, or even in harsher midday light, when we are trying to turn our subject away from that hard light and into the softer shadows, we are using backlight for our portrait lighting.
While using backlighting outdoors can be as simple as setting your subject up in front of a setting sun, in the studio, there are many alternative methods of backlighting that we can use. Here, we will explore some different lighting scenarios using backlight, in the form of both natural light from available windows, and artificial light from studio strobes.
Bringing the Backlight Into the Studio and Onto Your Subject
One of my favorite ways to use backlighting in-studio is with simple, diffused window light and a large reflector. The reflector can be anything from an affordable 5-in-1 collapsible disc, to a large piece of foam board found at your local arts and crafts store, to huge 8 ft. tall v-flats sourced at camera supply stores, that make the light wrap around the whole room. Anything white that you can position to reflect light will work. This is a chance for you to get really creative and make use of some of your favorite lighting hacks. You’ll find a great DIY tutorial here for making your own v-flats, if you’re the handy type.
Making the Best Use of Available Natural Light
If you've just started to explore studio photography and are looking for ways to shoot without spending a fortune on studio lighting, finding a way to use the natural light available to you might be the way to go. Backlighting in this way can produce beautiful, dreamy portraits.
My studio, which happens to be in my home, does not have a ton of window light, but the adjacent dining room does, and I find myself using that room for backlight in a large percentage of my sessions.
In the image below, I diffused the window light with curtain sheets, and reflected that light back onto my subject with two foam core boards, one placed on either side of my camera. These boards are super easy to find at your local art supply, and they set me back less than $7 each. I propped the boards up against two apple boxes, at a suitable angle to reflect light back onto my subject, and I sat behind the boards and placed my camera lens right between them. The result is beautiful, soft light both behind and in front of my subject.
Using Window Light With a Backdrop
In this image, I wanted to use that same backlight, reflected softly back onto my subject, but I wanted to use a backdrop instead of showing the bright windows behind her. I simply placed her on the floor in front of a piece of painted foam core, and let the window light spill over from behind her. Again, I shot with my camera between two large pieces of white foam core to reflect the light back on to my subject, and it creates a nice flat, soft light that's very flattering. This allowed me to use all natural light, but still create a somewhat dark, moody look.
If you don't have a studio with big windows available to you, why not clean out the garage and turn it into a makeshift studio? An open garage door is a perfect source of beautiful backlight, that can be easily diffused with affordable sheer fabric from the local fabric store or anywhere you purchase curtains. Think of it as a whole wall of light! Using the same reflective light for lighting the front of your subject, you can control the amount of light coming through by raising or lowering the door, and it’s just as easy to throw a backdrop up in front of it.
Using Artificial Light as Backlight
If you love the soft, natural look of this backlighting but don't have natural light available to you, it is easily simulated by placing a large, soft light source behind your backdrop, in a way that it will spill over and be reflected back on to your subject. In this image, I placed a five foot octabox behind my back drop, and aimed it towards me.
It was then reflected back on to my subject with the same white foam core boards in the same manner as described above. Because I used a an artificial light source, I was able to control the light power and position, and I was not constrained to just shooting during the time of day when the light was best through my windows. This is a great option for nighttime or any space that doesn't have enough available natural light.
Using Artificial Light for Backlight and Front (Key) Light
In all of the previous examples, my key light was light reflected back onto my subject from the white foam core boards. For this image, I wanted to create a more high-key look.
I used artificial light from both behind and in front of my subject. Behind my subject here is a 7 Foot parabolic umbrella with a white diffusion panel over the front. Using this as a backdrop creates that “lit from within” look, and allows you to have a super white, flawless background. The key light here is the five foot octabox.
Try adding these simple tools and tricks to your lighting repertoire for a variety of beautifully backlit looks.