Using the sun to backlight your portraits for a romantic feel

On of the most beautiful times to photograph people, or landscapes, or just about anything is around that golden hour of sunset. With portraits most of the time your first tendency is to shoot them with your subjects basking in that beautiful golden sunlight. It’s one of the things I always remember people telling me when I was a little kid, “have your back to the sun when taking a photo”. That is one thing I must have never paid attention to because using the sun as a backlight instead of a main light happens most of the time and can give you such a beautiful feel to the image.

One thing that I just love to do with portraits is turn the couple around and shoot right into the sun using it as a backlight. There are a few different things you with this type of backlight that will give you much different results to the shot. Sometimes if I want to keep that rich color of the background and have my subjects more defined i’ll set my exposure for the background and light the couple with a off camera light (or two or three). You can see a good example from this article (off camera lighting and sunset).

Many times thought I don’t want my subjects to be super sharp and instead want a very soft and romantic feel to the photo. I want the glow of the sun to just radiate in the image and don’t mind if my subjects are a little soft also. Then I won’t use any flash at all and let the sun be a strong backlight that gets a little blown out. Here are a few examples from my wedding work. This also works great for other types of portraits also, but as with everything make sure you match the lighting to the subject and style you are going for.

portrait and wedding photography using sun as a backlight

Depending on how much of the sun you have in the image that is creating flare this will change the light that is recorded on your subject, you can see here that just by moving in a little tighter in the frame the detail on the bride and grooms face comes through a lot more clear. Neither one is really better, each type really has a purpose but again should match the vision that you have for that specific couple or shoot. It all starts with our vision for what will show the true essence of the person you are photographing and then we match that vision to a certain type of light or technical skill.

using the sun as a backlight for portraits

A little tech info on those 2 images:
Canon 5d
Canon 70-200mm (top shot @70mm and bottom @105mm plus stepping a little closer in)
ISO 400
1/125th @f/4.5
no flash

Exposure is key with using the sun as a backlight

The most important part about getting a image like this is your exposure. If you let your camera average out the exposure the subjects will be very dark because the camera see’s the bright background as a predominant part of the image. The easiest way to get a accurate exposure is to zoom in on your subject skin and see what settings your camera gives you. Then set your camera to manual and dial in those settings. Now you will be properly exposing for your subject. The exact angle of the sun and where you are will play a pretty big factor in the look of the shot.

Because the angle plays a big part of how the light hits your lens try out a few different focal lengths and see how it makes a difference. For images like the first I love to shoot with a 70-200 and many times have it set around 150-200 on a full frame camera. Remember to take the lens hood off and let that light come right into the lens! The lower the sun and more your camera is facing towards it the more lens flare you will get. Experiment a little bit with your angle to see how that effects the shot, the best way to get a shot like this is try, try, try. The more you experiment the more you will know where to position yourself for the shot you are looking for!

using the sun as a backlightbacklighting for photography

If you have any backlit shots from the sun leave us a link in the comments!

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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  1. Great photos and great article! I’m a huge fan of golden hour photography and just downloaded an app for my iPhone called GoldenPic that provides me with the times for Golden Hour, Blue Hour, sunrise and sunset. Now I just need to get out there and start snapping away!

    You can find more info on GoldenPic at

  2. Hi Mark.

    I really appreciate all your write-ups and photo tips. They are soooo helpful. I’m a Pro-Photographer based in Lagos, Nigeria.

    Keep up the great work.


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