How to Use a Backlight in the Studio
A look at various lighting techniques for effective portraits
By bdery in Articles and Tips on Oct 13, 2015
Studio photography can open a world of possibilities. Often, however, creative techniques rely on expensive and very specialized equipment, which can be hard to obtain for beginners and hobbyists.
Today we present a backlighting technique that can be performed with standard studio equipment, but also with items you probably have lying around your house. The technique takes advantage of a light source located behind the subjects to create strong contrast, and a light gradient gently wrapping around your subjects to fall in shadows at the front. It is very effective as black & white but, as you will see, can still be interesting in colors.
Without further ado, let’s see how to build an image such as this one!
Equipment and light placement
The best way to achieve this look, when all the tools of a studio are on hand, is with a large rectangular softbox. The idea is to create a background illumination towards the subject and the photographer. The light source tends to be larger than the subject (or at least the visible part). For the image above, a softbox 3 feet by 4 feet placed horizontally was used.
When no softbox of the right size is on hand, a large white sheet can be used instead. Since the exposure of the background will be completely blown, it doesn’t matter if the sheet has small wrinkles, but it must be without patterns. Also try to make it as smooth as possible, because larger folds or important wrinkles might create shadows that will be harder to remove with portable light sources. Place a flash a short distance behind the sheet, ideally in the middle of your field of view, with its zoom head set at the widest setting.
Make some tests beforehand, especially if using a sheet. You need to ensure that the background is completely white, without texture. Check your histogram to avoid bad surprises that will be hard to recover in post-processing. Adjust the power of your flash as required. With a heavier sheet, it might be necessary to use two flashes if you have them on hand. Make sure your light sources do not overheat!
A softbox usually has an internal baffle to help diffuse the light and make it more even. With a sheet (or other homemade solutions) it is possible that the light won’t be diffuse enough. A semi-transparent material (such as a thin window drape, for instance) can serve as a replacement for such a baffle.
Here are two diagrams showing how to position the main light source.
Diagram of the studio setup with a drape serving as background
Diagram of the studio setup with a softbox serving as background
With only the back illumination, the front of the subject will be almost completely dark, which can lead to very dramatic results.
Playing with the exposure will allow the photographer to create vastly different looks. for instance, the following picture is identical to the previous one, except that the flash inside the softbox was set 2.5 stops higher.
Just one light won’t always be enough, however. The solution is to use a reflector. There are many portable reflectors available online, many of them quite inexpensive. To direct a fair amount of light back towards the subject, it is preferable to use a “silver” metallic surface that won’t create any color tint. A white finish will deliver a softer, lower intensity light.
If you do not have a reflector on hand, try a sheet of foil on some cardboard! It will work in a pinch.
Position the reflector so that it catches a good portion of the backlight and reflects it back towards the subject to lighten the shadows.
Diagram of the studio setup with a reflector for fill light
Subject and Composition
The lit portion of the background will be relatively narrow. Position your subject close to it, and use the longest focal length you can afford depending on the space you have in your home studio. It might be necessary to fine-tune the positioning of your subject, or to rotate your softbox to that it’s oriented vertically.
Experiment with the angle between the light source and the camera, to tune the degree of “light wrapping” you desire. Moving slightly towards the side of your subject will diminish the effect, and bring out a more even lighting, which might be what you’re looking for.
If the subject is looking towards the camera, try to have the reflector acts as a catchlight for the eyes.
This technique will result in tight compositions, often with parts of the subject outside the frame. Experiment and fine the balance between what your equipment allows and the look you prefer. Remember that it will be difficult and long to remove unwanted elements near the frame with post processing. You probably will not get images with a lot of negative space.
This technique is easy to perform with the right kind of studio equipment, but can also be achieved with common household items. The only dedicated photographic item needed is a flash (or flashes). Experiment and let your creativity express itself!