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Backlit Beauty

Sunlight is thought of as warm and enveloping. You feel it in a photograph. More often than not, however,the reality is that  it’s not your friend. Unless it comes at a severe angle (like early morning or late evening) it is not flattering light. It does not have that warm feeling we just discussed. It’s hard, harsh, casting distinct shadows. We must diffuse it or hide from it to be useful.

Or put it at the model’s back.

Then things change. Dramatically. For the better.

Now it’s warm and glowing. Now we can shoot virtually any time of the day and get beautiful results.

But only if we use Mr. Flash.

Ironically, it is in combining these two very different light sources that brings out the best in both. Look at this example of a dancer in a static pose:

Here, by backlighting her,  we’re using the sun as rim, hair light, and fill. There is a single strobe that is exposing her (our “key” light). However, it is not matching the sun – it is actually 1 “stop” over (it is producing twice the light the sun is). You have often heard me refer to “key shifting” as a personal style of mine – this is what it means.

Think about the image. I am shooting directly into the sun. If you did this without using flash one of two things would happen: if you exposed for the background the model would essentially turn into a silhouette. If you exposed for the model the background would wash out and you would lose a lot of detail around the model where the sun wrapped around her (this is a popular look. BTW). By controlling the sun (overpowering it), I can control how much wrap occurs around the model and what the background looks like.

You could use a reflector, but in direct sunlight like this I would not recommend it. For one thing, you have to be careful how close you are to the model; too close and you will blind her with the reflection. Farther away and you provide subtle fill; the laws of physics are such that you cannot add light by reflecting it and therefore cannot control as effectively background exposure or the rim that is highlighting her.

In this case, even shooting into the sun, the background is not washed out because I am underexposing it (making it darker and more saturated). I am using the sun in 3 ways: as a rim light (and I am controlling how this looks – I just want that pencil line of light around her), as a hair light,  and as fill. The fill light provides details in shadow areas. The hair light provides highlights in her hair. The key light provides the exposure.

So I basically get 4 lights (key, fill, hair, and rim) for the price of lugging 1 around.

Look at the shadow transitions on her face. What shadows, you say? Look close and you will see them – but they are open and the transitions are large.In fact, she is being lit in a technique called “broad lighting” – the light is coming from the camera side of her face. The off-camera side (the “short” side) is at least 1 stop (half the light) different. But the transition between the two is, again, soft. It whispers.

The softness of light is determined by how large the light source is in relationship to the subject. The larger, the softer. This is relative size. You use a light modifier to increase the size of the light source. In this case, I am using a large, rigid reflector. But, because the sun is so bright, it is providing enough fill light that smaller light sources can still provide the look of relatively soft light.

Notice I said “relative size.” The sun is one great big ball of burning gas, but it is so far away that its relative size is small -it covers a very small region of the sky, and therefore it is considered a small (and by definition harsh) light source. Look at the ground and her shadow there and you will see this. It is sharp and the lines distinct – as if someone drew it with a marker. Light on her: soft. Light on the ground (and everywhere else): hard. Soft light, like our dancer and her outfit, pretty. Pretty seems appropriate in this case.

I don’t always use pretty light. A hip-hop dancer doing a freeze in a parking lot probably doesn’t call for pretty light.

The point I am trying to make is that using a photographer who can control light – even sunlight – especially sunlight – will help you get the type of images you are looking for. Pretty? Intense? Dramatic? Subtle? It’s light that largely determines this. Understanding the vocabulary will help you communicate with your photographer more effectively. Or, at the least, you’ll understand what he is talking about when he starts mumbling this mumbo-jumbo.

Now, back to our image. She is backlit beautifully, isn’t she?

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