Perfect backlit outdoor portraits

Add a sense of dimension by using a light behind the model.

Studio portrait photographers often go to great lengths to set up their lighting to create hairlighting or kicker light effects. Outdoors, you have the power of the Sun to do this job for you. When low in the sky, particularly during late afternoon or early evening, the Sun can produce dramatic effects, including flare, which many photographers choose to incorporate into their photos for artistic effect.

Even during the winter months, the light from the Sun is powerful so you’ll almost always need to use a reflector to bounce some light back onto your subject. For this, a gold reflector works particularly well, as it complements the colour temperature of the light from the Sun. Silver or white reflectors will produce a more subtle result.

Alternatively, you can create a similar effect by placing a flash behind the model. This needs to be positioned very carefully though because a speedlight won’t have anything like the same reach as sunlight and will therefore have a much more dramatic and noticeable fall-off. You’ll also need to ensure that the flash isn’t visible in any way in the frame, as it might not be particularly easy to edit out in post-production.

One potential difficulty that you are almost certainly going to encounter when capturing portraits on location is that often, you and your model will not be the only people around. In most cases, there will be nothing that you can do about this. However, even if it is possible to move on to a quieter spot, why not use the crowds to your advantage and make them a part of your image?

By using a slow shutter speed you can blur the crowds to ensure that, despite the people milling about, your model is still the centre of attention. As ever, one of the best ways of directing the viewer’s eyes to the desired location is to use focus judiciously. Provided that you have a tripod, you can set a narrow aperture and low ISO to force a longer shutter speed of around one or two seconds. The main way to achieve this kind of image is to ask your subject to keep as still as possible. If this causes over-exposure problems, a one or two-stop neutral density filter, or perhaps even a polariser, will help solve this.

When you’re concentrating on a creative effect like this, it can be easy to forget the basics, so double-check that your subject is well-lit using a speedlight unit or reflector.