Perhaps the most important thing to consider when you’re shooting in backlit situations is time. The amount of light and the temperature and quality of light is going to be constantly changing. If you’re shooting at a location that requires an early morning shoot, don’t go partying the night before. and if you’re shooting at a sunset location, you don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark with your shoot only halfway done. Depending on your climate and location, you will likely only have a limited amount of time before the sun gets too high, or before it goes down completely. One thing I have implemented in my process is the Sun Seeker iPhone app. This handy little application (which does have a free version available for cheapos like myself) will tell you what time sunrise and sunset are, as well as the sun’s path and angle based on your phone’s GPS location and compass direction. It’s really helpful in gauging what direction you should be shooting and at what time.
In conjunction with the time factor, one thing to be conscious of is your physical location. If you’re shooting at sunset and there’s a skyscraper, mountain, house, or any other inconveniently large object somewhere along the sun’s path, it can seriously reduce your shooting time. My team and I like to joke that the sun is going away, and it’s never coming back, so you’d better have your stuff together. That was exactly the case in this shoot in Griffith Park. Typical sunset at the time of year this was shot was around 6:45PM but because of the hills surrounding this part of the park, our actual sunset was closer to 6:00. If you have 5 looks to shoot and only a couple of hours to shoot them in, you’d better know what you’re doing before you run out of daylight trying to figure out your exposure..
When shooting in backlit situations, the key to proper exposure lies in understanding and controlling lighting ratios. This can be done in one of several ways. The easiest way to achieve a good exposure on your model is to use only natural light simply over expose the background. While this is the easiest way to shoot in backlit situations, it’s also the most limiting. The overall success is really dependent on the model’s skin tone, clothes, and what is in the background. It also tends to leave facial features and clothing details looking a bit flat and without shape and detail since the light is almost entirely directionless.
￼The second way to even out lighting ratios is by bouncing light from a reflector. This is a pretty straight forward technique that most people know and is easily accomplished. When using a reflector in a backlit environment, I personally prefer to bounce the light from one side in either a split or a rembrandt lighting style to bring back some shadow and shape to the face.
The final way, and my preference, is to combine ambient light with strobe to fill in the model and add some contrast and depth to the image. In my opinion, when aiming to achieve the bright and sunny California aesthetic, it’s best to avoid over-lighting the scene so you maintain a fairly natural look. To do this I tend to keep my strobe at a fairly low power and, as with the reflector, I usually prefer to light from the side for either a split or a Rembrandt lighting style. In the event that you’re flying solo and don’t want to risk your strobe taking a dive outside, I have found that shooting a strobe with a bare reflector into the ground in front or to the side of your model at a very low power is a good way to pop in a very subtle, natural looking fill light. The trick with doing this is to keep your light at a low power to avoid the horror movie lighting that is a result of lighting someone from below. This works particularly well with sand on the beach, concrete, or any other light surface. While it is more difficult and requires more gear on location, the combination of strobe and ambient light is a great way to add a bit of refinement to backlit environments.
The sun is bright. Like.. REALLY bright. You might be thinking that’s an overly obvious statement, but basically staring into the sun through a magnifying glass for a couple of hours can get very painful. And it can make it very tricky to accurately focus on your model. Shooting straight into the sun is a challenge for any autofocus system so the key to successfully shoot backlit is to really know your camera and lenses. Some camera’s autofocus systems tend to struggle more than others, and some may only accurately focus when using the center focus point. If that’s the case with your camera, it may be best to use the focus and recompose method. The drawback here is that if you’re shooting wide open, the difference of a few millimeters can make the difference between a picture in focus and one out of focus. I personally am currently shooting with a Canon 5D Mark 3 which has a surprisingly accurate autofocus and find that the camera is able to use the top(in portrait orientation) focus point and accurately achieve focus even wide open and directly into the sun. The key is to try to focus on a point of high contrast on the face and as close to the eyes as possible. Usually a good place to start is where the cheek meets the hair.
Shooting in backlit situations is fun. It just requires a little bit of finesse and it requires speed and familiarity with your camera. The best thing you can do is to grab a model and go practice shooting into the sun, that way you’re comfortable with the challenges it poses when the time comes to do it with a client or for an editorial.