Backlighting and Wraparound Lighting Effects

Backlighting and wraparound lighting (from behind), can produce soft, ethereal effects for portraiture. You can create these effects by simply blowing out the exposure of the backlight so that it seems to bleed around the subject, and by using strong light sources behind (opposite the camera side) the subject.

Natural Light for Backlighting

Your main backlighting source can be:

  • Natural light (sunlight)
  • Window light
  • Reflected natural light

This type of lighting can be beautiful; seemingly giving your subject a lift off the background.  With the sun at the right angle, you can just have your subject turn away from the sunlight and we get that nice natural halo effect.

If the ambient light on the shadow side of the subject isn’t quite enough to give you the fill lighting you want, you have a couple of options:

1) You can adjust your settings so that your subject is given the exposure you want on the shadow side.  This may result in blown highlights, which is usually fine with me.

2) The other option is to bring in some extra light using a reflector or a fill flash.

The following are natural, window light examples. And I shot these with the same technique of exposing for the subject and allowing the backlight to do whatever it’s going to do. If I really want to make sure I’m NOT blowing the window detail out, then I’ll probably add some flash to balance the exposure. I’ll find the correct exposure to get the window detail to show up the way I want it to, then I’ll add light to the subject and adjust that light so that I can get a proper exposure on the subject.

Flash (Studio) Light for Backlighting

You can also create backlighting with flash or studio strobes, or even continuous light sources. With studio lighting it’s easy to create backlighting AND a beautifully controlled wraparound lighting effect using flash (or studio lights).  Wraparound lighting from behind creates the effect of light bleeding around the edges of the subject and somewhat blending them out into the background. This gives us a really soft ethereal effect.

Here, I’m only using one light on camera left, reflected off a wall behind the model. I bumped up the exposure and lightened the shadows in post to get this effect.

The same technique was used for this maternity portrait.

See the video for more examples and details about setting up backlighting and wraparound lighting shots.