DIY Photography Backlighting for Beginners

Have you ever noticed how the subject stands out in professional portraits? How about the beautiful contours of bottles and glass objects in advertising photography? Do you wonder how they do it? You can achieve these and many more effects with backlighting.

Keep reading to learn what it is and how to DIY your way into it.

Backlighting means that there is a source of light coming from behind your subject and pointing directly (or almost) at your camera. This can be used as the only light source or as a supplement, and it can create depth in the image.

For example, in the above photo, I used backlighting to highlight the feathers and clearly separate the subject from the background. This is often used in portrait photography to highlight the hair of the model.

1. Wider light sources

The sun can be an excellent source for backlighting even if you are indoors. Just by placing your subject in front of the window, you are already using this technique. Although, more often than not, it will need some form of manipulation. For example, if the view from the window is not the best backdrop for your subject or the sun is coming in too bright, you can add a diffuser.

A cheap and easy solution is to tape some oven paper, tracing paper or a thin white fabric to the window to soften the light.

The photo on the left doesn’t use a diffuser. The sun was so incredibly bright that I couldn’t blur the background with a shallow depth of field. The shadows were also very dark and distracting.

In the image on the right, I had a white, even background to showcase the subject, which also worked as a diffuser to soften the shadows.

This kind of lighting works well for transparent objects. However, you can always complement with another light, or you can put a reflective surface in front to bounce the light if your subject (or part of it) is opaque.

To show you how it looks, I used the same setting for this bottle but placed a hand mirror in front of it next to the camera.

Most locations are bound to have windows unless you find yourself inside a dark room or something with a specific use where daylight is not wanted. However, if you find yourself in one of these places, you can always use the screen of your computer or tablet. You can look for a nice booked photo, or just open a blank document to create a white background.

2. Narrow light sources

Narrow light sources such as small spotlights create a very bright center diffusing towards the edges, and it’s usually a hard light, so it creates strong shadows. To create this effect, you can use a lightbulb, a candle, a torch or even the LED light from your smartphone. Add a creative element into it, by putting some color in it, like this example:

To create the silhouette of this little coyote, I placed the figurine in front of the background, which in this case was a red semi-transparent folder.

Remember we are getting creative here. If you don’t have a folder like this, you can use other things as long as they are thin enough or transparent enough to let the light pass through.

After this, as backlighting technique dictates, I placed a smartphone which was my light source directly behind the red background pointing directly at the figurine and the camera. Also, I used clothes pins to hold everything in place and for standing them up.

Keep in mind that the closer you put the light, the smaller the light spot will be. So move the phone (torch or whatever you’re using) back and forward to achieve different results.

These DIY hacks don’t substitute professional lighting equipment. However, they certainly allow you to get some creative images, practice your photographic skills and keep your budget intact. And, the most important thing is to keep practicing.

Have fun and let us know any other tricks you come up with in the comments.

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