Favorite Outdoor Portrait Techniques: Backlighting

by | Aug 7, 2020

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

One of my favorite techniques for outdoor portraiture is using backlighting to produce highlights on the subject’s hair and, depending on the available light in scene, maybe blow out the background to create a pseudo high-key effect.

Want to give it a try? The next time you photograph somebody outdoors, place them in the kind of position you normally use with the sun shining onto their face but instead of making a photograph turn the subject  around. Right away the subject is more relaxed because the sun is behind them and they won’t have to squint!

Next turn on your flash and it doesn’t matter whether it’s built-in or a shoe mount speedlight. But be sure to use flash, otherwise she‘ll appear as a silhouette in the portrait. In order to get a final image you can live with, you may have to open the aperture a stop or two over the metered exposure (or just use exposure compensation) just as you might with any other backlit subject. Tip: If you plan to shoot full length portraits instead of close-ups, a more powerful speedlight will be more effective for fill than the weaker pop-up flashes found on entry-level digital SLRs.

How I made this shot: I photographed Jamie Lynn at a group photo shot in Fort Collins, Colorado. As I was making this and similar shots, I overheard several photographers talking saying things like, “look at that dummy Joe, he’s got her back turned to the sun and is using flash—outdoors.” Yes I was doing that very technique for all of the reasons that I articulated just a few paragraphs above.

Camera used was my Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN (that I sold but still kind a miss) and no longer available EF135mm f/2.8 (with Softfocus) lens. Yes, this is the replacement for the famous, in my mind anyway, Stupid Photographer’s Trick lens. Fill was provided by a dependable 550 EX speedlite that I still own. Exposure was 1/200 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 200. The RAW file was retouched with Imagenomics Portraiture then tweaked on Color Efex Pro with a little corner burning from the now free PhotoKit.

For more tips, tricks and techniques for creating studio lighting effects without spending the big bucks on gear, please pick up a copy of my book Studio Lighting Anywhere. It’s available new from Amazon for $7.56, with used copies starting at the amazing bargain price of $3.49, as I write this, less than your next trip to a Starbucks drive-through. The Kindle version is only $7.23 for those preferring a digital format.