Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Back-lighting For Fun and Profit or How to Add Pizazz to Your Wedding Photography

Back-lighting is one of the fastest, coolest ways to add “Dramatics” to your wedding images. This image is a “money shot” every time. Our clients love it. What’s the easiest and fastest way to do get a great result? It’s not just getting the light behind them, but how you get the right behind them.

Look at the diagram – notice that when the light is too close to the subject, the light just does not adequately wrap around the subjects and most does not make it into the lens. We could get into the “physics” of light here, a concept called “refraction”, but that’s beyond the scope of this article, so let’s skip it. Let’s just say that the light needs to be far enough behind the subject so that the light will gently wrap around the subjects.

The “magic” distance is from 12 – 15 feet behind the subject about 4 feet off the ground with the flash head pointing at the subject's shoulder blades. Check out the diagram again and look at the illustration on the right – it shows how the light wraps enough to make it to the lens.

I generally use a slightly wide angle lens set to F 5.6. The shutter speed is adjusted so that the ambient light is under-exposed about 1 – 1 ½ stop so the bride and groom really pop out of the scene. The flash is set to half power, which is about 100 watt seconds. The camera is set to 800 ISO. The bottom line is that there is a medium amount of light firing behind the subjects – don’t have a powerful flash, just increase the ISO on your camera or open the aperture.

This back-lighting technique gives you different results under different settings and situations. Check out the image of the bride and groom dancing. Here I slowed down the shutter speed to about 1/15 second to pick up some of the ambient light of the room. The wide angle lens adds substantially to the impact.The next image is one of my favorites – the slower shutter speed picked up the dappling of the light as it fell on the bride’s gown. The groom dipped at at just the right moment and I got a great shot. The following image is another nice result we got when we asked the bride and groom to pause for just an instant as they came out of the church. In this case my assistant was much closer to the couple and as a result the light splashed off of them and added some illumination to the arch of the cathedral doors highlighting the couple even more. Sometimes, back-lighting is just a “kiss” a light on the veil to create some separation from the background. The following image was illuminated with my “shoot-thru” umbrella technique I’ve discussed many times here. The back-lighting was from a very small, inexpensive, “slaved” accent light I got from B&H Photo and Video for about $19. Here are a few variations on a theme from the back-lit dance shot at the wedding reception. Look at the next image. See how the light bounced off the groom's shirt and illuminated the bride’s face – I love it.
And in our final image, see how the light mostly reflected off the bride’s wedding gown and bounced back into the faces of the bride’s mom and dad as they proudly watch the couple's first dance together as husband and wife while also waving their congrats back to the couple. As you can see, there are so many possibilities to really get some great images. Now use your own imagination, add gels, smoke, whatever your heart desires to tingle those brain waves and create some amazing images for you clients. The possibilities are endless.

My equipment of choice is my Quantum T5d Flash with their 2x2 Turbo power pack. It is triggered by my Freewire FW7T transmitter hardwired into the camera via the sync cord. The Freewire FW7Q receiver is attached (Velcro) to the T5d flash.


  1. Sounds fun - thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Hi Ania,
    Thanks, tune in to PhotoshopUser TV next week - I do a demo of the backlighting technique. See you then.
    Regards, David

  3. Hi David-

    After reading your article on back lighting, I felt compelled to let you know that i have been using that technique for almost 20 years. I was taking a course at Winona with another instructor. We switched instructors one afternoon and you demonstrated the technique. It clicked with me and I can't begin to tell you how well it has been received over the years. Thanks for the tip. I have always been a fan of your photography. It is always elegant and cutting edge at the same time. Don't stop.
    Best regards,
    Mark Karlsberg
    Studio Eleven
    Newton, MA

  4. Beautiful pics! So are you using the Quantum T5d as your flash attached to your camera? If so, what flash are you using as the backlight flash? Another T5d? I only have the Canon 580EX flashes (two of them) and have tried this technique, but unfortunately the sensors on them have to "see" each other to trigger, which puts the flash & stand in the photo :( Any ideas on how to make this type of shot work with those flashes? Thanks!

  5. Thanks to all for the feedback. Judy, I use the T5d off camera and 580EX on camera. I've also used the 580EX II off camera with Freewire attached to get same result. 580EX I doesn't have a sync terminal, but I gave a mod link on this site many weeks ago.

  6. Sorry to be a bit behind the times - just reading this now. But I suppose great posts never die!

    Quick question. I can see how you might set up these shots in a "posed" situation, but can you give us any advice on how you "organise" them for the more informal, reportage-style shots?

    Do you ask your assistant to wander around, always keeping the couple between you and them? Or are these informal, backlit shots quite hit and miss on the day?

    Thanks for a very informative blog :-)