Photo tip - Should you light portraits from the back or front?

10th August 2010
If this was a one word answer then it wouldn’t make a very good blog subject now would it? However, I’m starting to lean at an acute angle towards the back. Back-lighting, that is. I have been spending a bit of time with a fantastic photographer called Rupert Watts, who is actually a competitor of mine. Hey, that’s how I roll – too open and honest for my own good! Rupert is also based in Peterborough and he was working with me on the new RNID Products catalogue. He insisted on taking all the lifestyle shots with the sun behind the model. Now, I love the golden halo effect you get from backlighting but I had a slight concern about the lack of a catch-light in the eyes. If eyes look too dark they can begin to look lifeless – not ideal for aspirational catalogue photos…

However, we backlit all the shots regardless, although there were a couple of times where we used a reflector to bounce some light back onto the models face, but generally my concerns were unfounded. On a bright day you can still get enough of a catch-light from ambient light to give the eyes some extra life.

Should you use flash when backlighting a model?
More and more I’m moving away from using flash unless I really need to use it because the light levels are too low. If you want to try it then make sure you under expose the flash by at least 1 stop. Make sure it’s the flash exposure that you reduce rather than the ambient light. A short blast from the flash can work nicely to fill in the face if it’s looking too dark.

However, you will normally find that back-lighting on a bright day with no flash will give you the perfect combination of a golden halo and smooth facial skin. The face is smooth because it doesn’t have any direct light on it and therefore no harsh shadows. This is particularly good for women; although men sometimes benefit from some angled lighting on their face because it gives them a more rugged texture and character.

How about on a dull day?
If the sun is a little dull then that’s when I’d start to think about front lighting my subject at about 45 degrees. You shouldn’t have anyone squinting if it’s not too bright and the diffused light will brighten the model’s face without raking harsh shadows across it.

I was a guest at a wedding a couple of weeks ago and the wedding photographers front lit the posed group shots on a dazzlingly bright day. I stood behind the photographer to take a shot just so I had a shot of what not to do to show on my blog.

Sure the blue sky and fluffy clouds look nice, but the wedding party looks like they’re all doing a squinty impression of Clint Eastwood. So, the moral of this story is…

…don’t be a cowboy and make everyone squint like Clint.

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