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Backlighting in portraits

From: Lighting for Photographers: Portraiture

Video: Backlighting in portraits

Backlight isn't normally referred to as a key light even though it's often the brightest light in the setup. The key light would be the light that shapes the body from the front. As you'll see in the first setup, Evey was looking directly at the camera with a light behind and above her. The reflector then became my key light. Natalie Fobes: So today Sam, I want to have more of a dramatic look than we had on the other sessions. We are going to be working with one light. This is going to be in a backlight situation in the position.

Backlighting in portraits

Backlight isn't normally referred to as a key light even though it's often the brightest light in the setup. The key light would be the light that shapes the body from the front. As you'll see in the first setup, Evey was looking directly at the camera with a light behind and above her. The reflector then became my key light. Natalie Fobes: So today Sam, I want to have more of a dramatic look than we had on the other sessions. We are going to be working with one light. This is going to be in a backlight situation in the position.

It's going to increase the drama, working with one light and having a lot of shadows always increases the drama of a photograph. Sam: Okay. Natalie Fobes: So go ahead and take the diffuser off here while I do a little bit of adjustment here. How you are doing Evey? Evey: I am good. Natalie Fobes: Good. Okay, so just go ahead and relax a little bit I am going to fuss with your hair a little just to get it ready. We've got some beautiful light for you today. I am so excited about doing this, all right. Sam: Is that square enough for you Natalie? Natalie Fobes: No, yeah square it up please, that'd be nice.

And bring it forward toward me just a wee bit. There you go, that should be fine. Sam: Good. Natalie Fobes: Okay so what I am looking Sam is that I don't want any of that spill on her face; I want it only to highlight her hair and her shoulders. Look at the beautiful shadows that are happening right through here. We are going to do a few things with reflectors. I don't want to bring in a second fill or a second light to fill, because it's--I don't want to overpower this beautiful light that we have happening here, and so let's see what we can do with some reflector. Sam: Okay.

Natalie Fobes: Go ahead and let's pull this black cloth back. You know this will act a little bit more like what we have out in nature when we have a hard backlight situation. Sam: Like bouncing off the white. Natalie Fobes: It's bouncing off, you can see how it added just a little bit and you know maybe half a stop of balance to her face. Why don't we go ahead and let's try the mirror first. Sam: Okay. Natalie Fobes: This is kind of a cool technique, I love this because I can actually make it a spotlight right there, spot on her face.

So if we want to hold that I am going to take a quick shot. Sam: Okay. Natalie Fobes: We still have that beautiful backlight and we have a nice spot on her face. Now this is the--this is almost as bright as the backlight, in this situation though I think that the specular highlight is too much. Sam: It really is like a spotlight. Natalie Fobes: It does, it's a beautiful light, but I think not for you because your features are so gorgeous.

So let's put that down and take a look at our insulation board. Sam: This one? Natalie Fobes: Yeah. I got this at the hardware store on Saturday, I love it, I love it; it's just so awesome. And look at the light that bounces in her. Sam: Oh yeah. Natalie Fobes: Okay, so I want you to work a little bit, move it around to see about angle of incidence or reflection and see how it changes. Right about there is your maximum reflection back into her face. Let me take a shot there.

But you know I think I like it better this way. Let's feather it out so that we have a nice no shadow there, beautiful. All right, Evey you want to give me a little smile? Oh there you go. And we have got some beautiful specular highlights happening in her eyes. They are a little bit low so let's pull this off and I want to do a little softer light. So let's grab the white, white foam core, I got that at the art store. So bring it on in and again work the angle of incidence or reflection.

Let's see, oh yeah there you go, all right. And it is a much softer light. And you can see in her--the reflection in her eyes, you can see that it's much broader and softer. So I think in this situation I'm going to try something different. I'm not happy with the way our reflectors are working today. So go ahead and let's do a profile. I love profiles. Especially in this situation in this kind of light, the backlight.

If you're in a situation where you don't have reflection or can't reflect or put a fill in, you can still get a beautiful shot. Sam: It's a great outline too, yeah. Natalie Fobes: Showing the person yeah let me take a couple of quick ones. And if you really lean forward, really lean forward. Now you have got a little bit of a hair, I am going to pull this back. So lean forward from the chest, there you go.

And twist your body just a little bit toward me. Oops that's too much! Just your face back, there you are. Okay now really, really stretch, there you go, nice, nice. That's getting there. Sam: Yeah. Natalie Fobes: See how pretty it is on the profile of her face? Sam: Yeah it's so dramatic. Natalie Fobes: It's so dramatic and that's the shadows. You know shadows make a photograph very dramatic. I want to do a little bit of changing of the background, now I want to make it a little darker and I want to change out the light. It's not quite there.

So Evey swing around here and why don't you go ahead and pull your hair back for me, that's oh! Hold on, go ahead and do that, let's see, oh great. Let me take a couple of shots here. Oh that is gorgeous! And have your eyes up toward the light, I want to get the catch light in there. Oh, nice, nice! Okay one more shot and go ahead and maybe have your hand maybe really over like that. There you go, nice.

Sweet! You are going to love this. Sam: Wow that's amazing. When you are about to change everything. Natalie Fobes: Yeah, I know yeah. Well that's a bonus shot. That's a bonus shot. The light was great up for this shot. So anyway, go ahead and take a break. We are going to change out the background and the lighting and we'll be right back with you. Sam: Okay. Natalie Fobes: Okay, so for this one I am thinking that we want to pull this over here and let's--we will get a black background. Sam: Okay, on this side I'll put a new back drop up, okay.

Natalie Fobes: Okay Sam, I am going to have you do a little bit of tweaking here. So go ahead and assume the position Evey. Sam: Natalie why do we bring it down this way as opposed to lighting from the top like we were back lighting earlier? Natalie Fobes: Well I really wanted to emphasize her profile. It's just gorgeous. And the top, having the light on the top was creating a rim light around her whole upper body. Sam: Right okay. Natalie Fobes: So this when I finally get it tweaked you'll see that this is just spectacular.

Sam: Okay. Natalie Fobes: Okay, so push it back that way just a little, like a hair. Good, excellent, excellent, yeah looks good. So come on over here I want to show you something really cool. Okay so, take a look at that very slender--slim little highlight right here. That's bounce from the floor. Isn't that beautiful? Sam: Yeah it's great. Natalie Fobes: Just a small detail like that will make a difference in the photograph.

So let me take a meter reading here. You never want to use your camera meter when you're metering in this situation because the camera is going to take a look at the scene, it's going to want to make the shadows a medium gray. I don't want the shadows to be medium. Sam: No you want them to stay dark. Natalie Fobes: I want them to stay dark. And so this will be using my incident meter, I'm still getting it about at F4 but that's okay, because of the angle that I am photographing, there is that nice angle of incidence law coming in again where it's coming in and bouncing back.

So it's actually going to give me a little bit more of a highlight than what my meter is indicating. You'll see in a minute. It's going to be cool. Okay, so really stretch out, really stretch out, there you go. And put your head down just a little bit, there you go. Oh nice, that is so nice. This is going to be great. See how that's working? But now we are going to add a light here. Sam: Yeah it's real dark. Natalie Fobes: Yeah it's really dark, but grab that reflector and let's get it in here.

I want it just rimming her--her arm, okay. So pull it back just a little bit, back that way. I am getting a little flare off of it and raise it up. Yup there you go, nice, oh nice. Evey you are going to love this. Okay, and now put it down and turn your nose toward me. There you go, gorgeous.

So what I am doing here is concentrating just on her eyes. That's great! Hey how about, you have got your sunglasses, right? Evey: Oh yeah. Natalie Fobes: Yeah go ahead and put them on. There, go ahead and have your head up, oh yeah. And twist a little bit back toward me, okay and that's a little too much about--there you go. A little bit more, a little more, there. So what's happening Sam is that the sunglasses are reflecting that light, the specular highlight on that light is fantastic.

And it's just coming in and giving a little bit more of an interest to that part of the face, not that we needed that, but it still is kind of more, kind of a modern, kind of zoomy look, whereas before I was working with some of the classic lines and poses. So I think this is going to be fantastic. In the second setup, I moved the light to camera right and had Evey turn in profile. At that point the backlight did become the key light.

I love the variety of photographs I was able to get from this one light setup. I worked with poses and compositions and when I added the sunglasses, it resulted in a clean modern look. This photo session reminded me that you should always be ready for the unexpected. When Evey pulled her hair back, she naturally looked up into the light. I loved it and took a few moments to photograph her in that position. It was a totally unplanned photograph that resulted in one more fantastic look.

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Lighting for Photographers: Portraiture

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Natalie Fobes
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