Backlighting refers to any lighting which comes from behind the subject. Many people will tell you that you should always take photographs with the sun behind you so that it is illuminating the faces of your subjects. This is a naïve old wives' tale. At its worst, your subjects will be squinting into the bright light and have ugly shadows of the photographer and tripod cast across them. At the very least, frontal lighting is generally quite boring.
Look at any collection of top-quality photos and you'll see the ones which really make you say "wow" are lit in some way from behind. Watch for backlighting and rim lighting in movies as well. Directors love to use it, with reflected fill, to make their leading men and ladies stand out.
Your next assignment is quite simple. Head out into the community, the urban jungle, a local park, wherever and take photographs of subjects that interest you using backlighting. Especially try shooting some leaves as these render great with backlighting. Shoot them also with front lighting so you can see the difference.
Using backlighting has its challenges. Often it masks detail on the subject matter. In the case of people shots, it is sometimes necessary to add light directly to the subject to bring out some of the detail. The usual ways of doing that are overexposing, using fill flash or using reflected light and that usually requires having an assistant. It's often necessary to reposition yourself so that the light comes from behind the subject. This is not always easy, or even possible.
With natural subjects backlighting lights up translucent materials like leaves, grass or flowers and gives bright edges to harder materials like wood or stone, highlighting textures with deep, dark shadows.
This early-morning shot, taken in the dead of winter in Vancouver's Stanley Park, starts with the silhouette of a whole complex scene. The fog of a still morning lights up like neon as the backlighting passes through it, clearly delineating depth from the foreground to distant Mount Baker over the border in Washington State. Backlighting also flares up the lighthouse beacon and captures the silhouette of a cyclist passing beneath it. I waited specifically for that cyclist; it makes the shot. Thankfully I wasn't the only madman out riding in the cold that morning.
As light passes through this rainforest fern, the leaves seem to glow from the inside and many are edged with a thin bright highlight of gold. Slightly out of focus, you'll note rim lighting along the edge of the moss behind the fern as well. Positioning yourself so that the background remains dark enhances the impact of the shot by adding drama to it. Taken in Gwaii Haanas National Park.
Backlighting fires up the edges of the sharply-focused bush in the foreground, contrasting with and balancing against the out-of-focus silhouette of a tree in the background. The natural light at dusk in the California desert lends a sepia tone to the entire scene.
The light source in this picture is high and to the left, behind the eagle, providing a special kind of backlighting called "rim lighting". Note the very thin outline around the body of the eagle and the edges of the pilings. The high source helps to add shape to the beak and head of the eagle as well. The very tip of the beak is thin enough for light to pass through, causing it to glow like the fern above. Enough light has been reflected from the surrounding water, land and sky to illuminate the front, particularly the eye, of the subject as well. The dark background of the trees only enhances this shot which was taken in Carmichael Passage off Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii.
All photographs were taken by Brian Grover.