The Creative Mama » inspiring art, encouraging women

Dreamy Summer Light

Some of my very favorite images are those that are sun-soaked.  The ones that instantly transport you to a picnic blanket beneath a tree in a grassy field, under the hazy late afternoon sun.  Yes, I’m talking about backlight!  Anyone who knows me will tell you I get giddy when I can shoot backlight in a field or on the beach, and what better time to take advantage of backlighting, than in the middle of a hot, hazy summer?  Today, I thought I’d give you a few tips to help you achieve gorgeous results using my favorite type of lighting… that dreamy, almost glowy light behind your subject.

Put your camera in manual mode, or at least aperture mode (A or AV) until you feel more comfortable.  I shoot in manual 100% of the time so that I can control my settings and therefore the feel of the image.  Even if you have a point-and-shoot, you can still get beautiful results if you set your camera’s exposure properly yourself.  Start out at the widest aperture your camera’s lens will allow and adjust from there (this might be f/5.6 on a point and shoot, so you’ll need to increase your ISO to compensate for the loss of light).  I typically shoot fairly wide, between f/2 and 3.2 most of the time.  BONUS: A very wide aperture also helps to get nice bokeh, those glowing circles of light in the background!

Stacey Woods backlight 7

Either Hurry Up or Wait. To get the most out of backlighting, shoot when the sun is lower in the sky.  That means you’re either going to need to rise early to greet the sun, or wait and take your subjects out an hour or two before sunset.  The below photo was taken in the late evening, and the sun had almost dipped behind the trees in the background.  If you look closely at the way the light falls on little Charley-girl below, you can see that the sunlight is coming from behind her and only slightly above.

Important note:  this depends on where you live and the landscape that surrounds you.  For instance, if you live in an area with mountains and tall trees all around, you’ll need to head out earlier in the evening / later in the morning to see the sun peeking through the treetops.  If you live a flat landscape, say in Florida like me, then you can push your time back until later and allow the sun to drop to where you need it to be.  (This image of Charley and her beloved blankie was taken around 7:45pm in early June, in Florida.)


Spot On. Utilize your camera’s spot meter, if it has one.  You’ll want to meter off the edge of the skin in most cases, so that you don’t clip the highlights of your subject.  I tend to overexpose my subject just the tiniest bit when I shoot backlit situations, if I’m going for a bright look such as this one below.  I didn’t care about the exposure of the sky ~ I wanted to ensure that her skin was well illuminated and that we had a little spill on her hair.  In this case, the sun was behind her and off to my right a little.

Stacey Woods backlight4

Sunblock. In the image of my kids in the sand, I actually chose not to overexpose.  I wanted more of a silhouette effect while still allowing some of that hazy light through, and so I simply increased my shutter speed to darken the image up some.  I still wanted an effect of rim light (the glowy light spilling around Parker’s hair and shirt), so I made sure to position myself so that my daughter blocked the sun with her body for me.  You’ll need to move around and experiment with your positioning when you shoot into the sun this way.  Just the slightest move to your left or right can make all the difference in the feel of the image!

Stacey Woods backlight1

Bounce Back. If your light is too harsh behind the subject so that her face is in shadow, you can either use your reflector or just use what your environment presents:  a bright patch of lawn, sand at the beach, a concrete sidewalk, or just the reflected sunlight on the floor in front of your subjects.  I also metered for my subjects’ skin here, overexposing just a tiny bit to get the effect I wanted.

Stacey Woods Photo backlight2

A full silhouette. One of the most beautiful ways to utilize backlight is by silhouetting your subject if you can.  Start out by exposing for the background rather than your subject, and adjust from there.

StaceyWoods backlight6

Add some flair.  Or rather… some sunflare! Don’t be afraid of sunflare; it can be used in a beautiful and creative way.  As long as the colorful orbs are not over your subjects’ faces, I believe they can really add some fun and drama to your images.  Different lenses produce different types of flare, and your aperture also changes the shape of those orbs and light refractions.  So experiment with what’s in your camera bag, and your camera settings as well, and see what you like best.  I typically use my 85 mm or my 50 mm, start out around f/2.8 or so, point my camera slightly at the sun, and go from there.

Stacey Woods Photography backlight5

I hope you’re encouraged to take advantage of the hazy summer sun over the next few months, and add a bit of fun and flare to your images too.

Stacey Woods

Co-editor, Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages. Her online photo journal can be found at Stacey Woods Photography. Stacey’s own husband and children (a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter) are her greatest source of inspiration… and laughter!

About Stacey Woods

Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages. She believes that the small moments are really the biggest ones, that photographs are legacies that we leave to our children, and that authentic love is beautiful. Her online photo journal can be found here.

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  • Bernard Martinez Oliveros

    What picture control settings do you usually use for outdoor shots? I mean, is it vivid, standard or neutral?

  • SomethingStrappy

    Thank you for sharing, I just shared your article with followers of my blog, as I know they would benefit from your excellent explanations.

  • Bethany_10

    what is your iso?

    • staceywoods

      For which photo, Bethany?

  • Shondra Walker

    Wonderful tips! Thank you.

  • Living Free

    I enjoyed this article. I found it through Click it Up a Notch. I actually ventured out of AP mode and in to fully manual just try this. I had fun and captured some good shots. Thanks for sharing.

  • Susan

    Thanks Stacy….these are really helpful ideas. I’m really drawn to shooting early or later and have to force myself out mid-day. Always great to have ideas on how to take better images.

  • Pingback: Dreamy Summer Light – Why Didn’t I Think of That? Wednesday | Click It Up a Notch()

  • JC

    I like this style?A plug-in of photoshop?

    • Stacey Woods

      Hi JC,

      I didn’t use any plug-ins or actions to get the haze or sunflare. It’s all done in-camera. Hope that helps!

  • mai

    awesome tips. thanks so much!

  • manuela Busack

    Thank you so much! I really enjoyed reading through this article and your tips will really come in handy. Very much appreciated!

  • Cara

    Great tips, I love flare (in moderation) and need to experiment and learn more about back-lighting.

    • Stacey Woods

      Flare and backlight are my most favorite lighting scenarios to shoot. A close second would be shadowy, moody lighting that converts beautifully to black and white. Yum. :)

  • Lauren

    Stacey, thank you for the great tips! I really appreciate you doing that, and your samples for each tip are amazing! :)

  • Stacey Woods

    Thanks girls! So glad that you found the tips useful.

    And Jessica, I’d be honored to have you refer to this post! Thank you so much! xo

    I have to say, I fell in love with backlighting by learning from some of the best in the business (Detra Perrotti and Deb Rogo) several years ago. I just double-checked, and Detra is taking registration now for her next online workshop now! Here’s the link for anyone interested. It’s worth every penny, and then some.

    PS, Jessica’s course is fully comprehensive and will teach you everything you need to know! Detra’s is specialized with regard to natural lighting. Both would be ideal if you can swing it!

  • http://www.melissadeakin.conm melissa deakin

    hi stacey!
    such great tips for capturing the beauty of light in your images.
    i especially love that one of the family by the boardwalk.

  • anita

    Thanks, that was great info. I live in South Florida and the sun can be a challenge. It was something to avoid. Now I can’t wait to use your techniques.

  • Jessica Cudzilo

    Stacey, I always love your posts! I’m gonna send my students this way b/c I know they will love this post, too!

  • Katherine

    Beautiful pictures! I am a beginner and really appreciate how you give very simple instructions….Nice to know great shots aren’t as hard to get as I thought!!! Thank you :)

  • Sarah@Clover Lane

    Thanks for all your tips! I just started experimenting last week and I LOVE the pics I’ve been getting. It’s the perfect time of year for sun haze!