Photography Tips - 10 Ways to Improve Your Backlight Portraits Instantly
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
One of my favorite styles for portraits is backlit portraits. When I see the sunlight coming through my Fujifilm X-T2's view finder, I can feel the sun's positive energy. Sunlight gives me a feeling of hope, energetic vibes and warmness. I believe backlit portraits photos will radiate positive energy throughout the community.
In this article, I am going to share my top 10 tips on improving backlit portraits.
Tip 1: Use EVF or Back screen
The EVF in Fujifilm X-T2 stands for Electronic View Finder. Most of the mirrorless camera should have an EVF. The advantage of EVF is that it reduces the brightness of the sun ray while against the sun, and you will see the end result in the view finder in realtime.
Versus in DSLR camera, the view finder will bounce the sun ray directly to your eyes, which is making it very hard to compose the backlit portraits.
While using EVF, seeing the live results, you can adjust the setting on the fly to get the exposure that you want. If you are using a DSLR right now, the way to get around the issue is to use back screen to compose so that the sun ray won't blind your eyes.
For example (see below) from my shoot with Katie in downtown Sacramento sunset hours, the sunlight was super bright. In my mind, I had an idea to position the sun at the upper left area of the photograph so that it creates some dreamy ray. Without EVF or back screen, I couldn't compose my photo correctly because the sun ray was blinding my eyes. EVF reduced the brightness electronically and I was able to accomplish the results below (using Fujifilm 35mm F1.4).
Tip 2: Selecting Background
I would like to select two types of background for shooting backlit portraits.
Clean Background like sky or open field
Background with Trees
Open fields in the sunset hours will create a sense of space for the photo. Examples for open fields can be wide open farm land or ocean side. (Below is an example using Fujifilm 56mm F1.2 R)
The second type of background I would choose is tree. The sunlight coming through the leaves create so many bokeh balls. I love #bokehlicous vibes. (See below for an example using Fujifilm 56mm F1.2 R for bokeh)
Tip 3: Exposure Compensation
As I mentioned in the Tip 1 using EVF, I always adjust the exposure compensation on the fly while I am looking at the EVF or back screen. In Fujifilm X-Series camera, the compensation dial is located conveniently on the top right and I can adjust it comfortably while shooting. I believe you can accomplish the similar technique with other camera as well.
Tip 4: Lower the camera angle
Because the sunset hours sunlight angle is pretty low, usually you can create some interesting perspective of backlight while lowering the camera angle. When the angle is lower, the light will create an halo effect around the portrait. (Below is an example using Fujifilm 56mm F1.2 R)
Tip 5: Using the edge for focusing
When the shooting backlight, it often occurs to me that the sensor AF system is tricked and couldn't find the focus. My solution is to use the edge of the body or the face to get the focus first and then focus panning to re-compose.
Tip 6: Change White Balance
My camera setting is staying the same most of the time. The white balance I use is Fluorescent 1, which is a warm profile for sunset. You can change to cloudy day in some other camera to achieve the similar warm effect. I like to combine the classic chrome profile in Fujifilm X-T2 with these settings. Below is my detailed setting video of my camera:
Tip 7: Create Atmosphere
The other way to add an edge to a backlight portrait is to have atmosphere. I use dust from farm land or flying bugs in the park or evening streets to create this effect. Below is an example of how I utilize the flying bugs and dust to create an atmosphere to a photo. I used the 56mm F1.2 to blur out the bugs, and the sunlight reflected on the bugs created the light dots in the photograph.
Tip 8: Using Side Profile
Side profile for backlight portraits helps create highlight around the border of the profile and make the portraits stand out. Also, side profile will cause more area of the hair to be highlighted. (See example below)
Tip 9: Create Movement
Speaking of highlighting the hair, movement such as hair flip will definitely help for sunset backlight portraits. I would recommend to have a focus on the model's face first, and then ask the model to flip the hair horizontally like the image below (using Fujifilm 56mm F1.2) Additionally, you can have some foreground to be blurred out to create a sense of space.
Tip 10: Outfit Colors
The main outfits colors I usually choose are the following:
I will have couple examples below to demonstrate the color contrasts.
White dress contrasts nicely with golden sunflowers field and backlight. (Using 35mm F1.4)
Blue denim color creates contrast of cold and warm colors:
Yellow creates harmony of colors with the golden sunset light:
In summary, these are my top 10 tips to enhance backlight portraits based on my past experience. Remember to keep shooting and practicing. Stay tuned for more blog posts coming up. Be sure to subscribe to my mailing list for more upcoming blog post notifications.