Backlighting is introducing a light from behind the subject, it’s that simple.

We use backlighting to make the image pop, or, as in this example, to show an important benefit or feature of the subject.


no-backlightI’ve actually committed an unforgivable sin (nothing new there) and photographed a product that isn’t new and shiny. This is in fact the coffee machine that we bought as soon as we moved into our new warehouse (it’s important to get the priorities right) and it’s lost its new look. That doesn’t matter to me because it makes good coffee, but it isn’t ideal from a photography viewpoint.

So, here it is with pretty standard product lighting, you’ll see that it looks a bit like the photo that’s used to sell the product. It isn’t my photo so I can’t reproduce it, but you can view it here.

Now, I’m not critical of that product shot, I’m sure that the photographer is more than capable of adding a cup and a backlight, and presumably his/her client chose not to have one – their choice. But, if like me you like hot drinks then it makes sense to show the machine in use, and if possible to show the steam, so I added a backlight.

Here’s the first shot, without the backlight switched on. Come to that, the machine isn’t delivering coffee either, but I’ve put my cup into place and added the milk…

Here, all the light is from the large softbox immediately overhead, and with another one at the front, camera left. You’ll see that the water container is full, it took a few shots before the final shot was done, which is why the water container ended up a bit less full…

Any you’ll see too that the green ‘ready light’ is clearly visible. I just took a few test shots, slowing the shutter down a bit each time until it looked right. We ended up with 1/30th second. Just bear in mind that you control the brightness of any continuous light just by adjusting the shutter speed.

So here’s my photo again, but this time with a backlight added. The backlight comes from a flash head fitted with a standard reflector, and a 10 degree honeycomb has been steamadded to the standard reflector. The honeycomb does two things.

  1. It dramatically reduces the size of the light spot produced by the standard reflector, allowing very precise lighting that doesn’t spill into areas we don’t want it to go into
  2. It dramatically controls the spread of the light, and when used more or less pointing towards the camera, it prevents lens flare from occurring. With a 10 degree reflector, all that we need to do to avoid flare is to make sure that the honeycombed light is more than 10 degrees off axis.

Even with the honeycomb, and even with it positioned as close as practicable to the steam, the area lit by it was still too big; so I simply fitted a piece of cinefoil to it, to reduce its physical size. Cinefoil (also known by its generic name of Blackwrap), is one of the most useful studio tools. Just adjust the lighting power to control the effect, anything from subtle to dramatic.

Actually it hasn’t worked too well, this machine simply doesn’t produce a lot of steam. The steam that is there is clearly obscuring sight of the flow of coffee, but there isn’t much of it coming out of the top of the cup. If you want to show more steam than there actually is then you can cheat. The best cheat by far is to add a pellet of dry ice to the contents of the cup, that’s pretty dramatic. The second best cheat is to simply blow a bit of smoke into the light beam, that works too. Both methods are used, a lot, in food photography.

As always with shots used in my tutorials, these shots are straight out of camera, except for cropping and re-sizing. Of course, if I was producing the shot for actual use, it would be retouched and I would also cut it out of the background, but I don’t do any of that on shots for my tutorials because doing so would hide faults and cause confusion.

And here’s the ‘step back’ shot. You can see that the overhead softbox is tilted forward, this softbox lights the top of the coffee machine quite nicely and tilting it forward has limited the amount of the front that has been lit with it.

setupAnd most of the lighting on the front/left side of the machine has come from the large (150cm) softbox that’s at the left of the shot. Both of these softboxes are about as close as they can be, this coffee machine is a shiny bit of kit, with chrome plating and suchlike, and it’s convex too, which makes it fairly hard to create diffused specular reflections. Having the largest possible softboxes, and getting them as close as possible, takes care of that problem.

To the right of the machine you’ll see an ElitePro 2 flash head fitted with a standard reflector and a honeycomb. As well as shining through the cup and the steam, it has added a bright line to the edge of the machine. Careful positioning would have avoided that, but I thought it added to the shot a bit.



08But although I’ve demonstrated this method  for this product-style shot, backlighting can be used for all types of other shots too, and careful use of backlighting improves most shots. This old shot of mine, for a bed manufacturer, shows the depth of the quilting on their mattress.

Bed manufacturers can be a bit of a nightmare. They always want to show the quilting on the mattress, but nobody ever actually sleeps in a bed with the mattress showing, so it always looks unreal. So I added a bit of sex appeal too, with the out of focus model in the background..

Again with this shot, I used a honeycomb fitted to a standard reflector, but this time I needed to light a much larger area, so it was quite a long way away, behind and to my left, and it was probably a 30 or 40 degree honeycomb.

People sometimes confuse the terminology used in lighting, and get a bit mixed up with the terms backlighting, sidelighting and rimlighting. In fact, the meanings of this jargon isn’t completely carved in stone, and also we often have a backlight that’s coming from the side as well, so it all gets a bit vague…

This is another one of my old shots. It isn’t sidelit, that would involve having the lightsblackisbeautiful_red (2 softboxes in this case) literally pointing straight in from each side. What I did here was to use rimlighting, with the lights at the side but also pointing forwards a bit, to leave her spine in shadow.

The positioning here was quite critical, I wanted the light to skim across her back and to also catch her earring, but if the lights were much further back I suppose this shot would have been backlit instead of rimlit – as I said earlier, these lighting terms can be a bit vague sometimes…

Incidentally, the background here was a white wall. It photographed as nearly black simply because I didn’t allow any light to fall on it.

And the reason the back of her head is unlit is because I used a smaller softbox on the left. As it happens, I have a lot of softboxes and so could use a smaller one on the left. But I could have used Cinefoil, or even a couple of binbags, to mask off the top area of the softbox if I’d needed to.