Lighting 101: Back Light as Main Light

When you are deciding how you are going to add light to a scene, don't forget to consider the idea of adding only back light.

And try not to think of it as such. Learn to think "separation" light.

Those of us in the newspaper biz need all of the help we can get when it comes to repro. And using a separation light can really make a photo pop.

Additionally, if the light is strong it will create shadows that will create leading lines into the direction of your light source.

One caveat is that you have to hide your light from your camera. As mentioned before, one good techniques (especially in a darkened room) is to mount the flash backwards and turn the head around. This will let you use the recycle light as a guide to help keep some item in your frame between you and your flash.

The shadows should tell you which performer I am using as a GoBo to block my flash. It's the guy in the middle. In the photo below, the hidden flash's location (behind the guy) is revealed by a red dot. You can also see that the shadows always point to the flash:

One other thing you should notice with this photo. This small, shoe-mount flash is about a hundred feet away from the kids rehearsing their end-of-show theatrical bow.

These little strobes put out a lot more power than you might think, especially when working in low light conditions. As you get a little experience with your lighting, you will become less and less afraid of the dark. The dark is your friend. It is full sunlight that is hard to compete against with small flashes.

Next: Lighting 101: Headshot in a Corner


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Anonymous Tyler said...

Hi, i'm really diggin this whole tutorial, really informative, i didn't realise how ingorant I was of off camera flash!

There's one comment i'd like to make on this particular section, I didn't get the "mount the flash backwards and flip the head around", is this to get a better understanding of the light reading??

June 07, 2006 4:18 AM  
Blogger David said...

Nope. Just means you can use the "ready light" to easily see if your flash is being obscurred by something in the foreground (as you would want it to be to control glare.)

June 07, 2006 9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

uhh...excuse me, but i had the same question and i'm not clear on the answer.

does the flash unit's hot shoe get mounted in the opposite direction? and the benefit again?

please bear with me, i'm a newbie.

October 11, 2006 4:51 PM  
Anonymous Katie said...

I'm a newbie, too, but I think I understand what he's saying. It sounds more complicated than what it actually is.

The flash (which is assumably on a flash stand - it's definitely not on your camera) is set up so that the back of the flash (the side with the controls, pilot button, etc) AND the flash head are facing you (you'll just have to rotate the head backwards).

This way, when you're shooting, you'll be able to see the controls on the back of the camera (mostly you'd be looking for the pilot light, from that far away). Hope that helps.

December 02, 2006 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Katie is correct, but to be clear, you DON'T want to be able to see the back of your flash when you actually press the shutter release.

Yes, mount your flash facing *away* from your camera, so that the back of it is facing the camera. Then, rotate the head around so that it is facing backwards...but now also pointing at the camera.

Take the position David did when shooting the photo. If you can see the back of the flash--particularly the little red ready light, which should be visible from a long way away--it means that some light from the flash is going to go straight into your lens, messing up your photo.

If you shift your position slightly so that you can no longer see the red light/back of the flash, you will know that someone is now blocking the direct light from the flash (acting as a "GoBo," mentioned above). Now you will get all the cool shadows as in the photo above, but you won't have a big white spot in the middle of it from the flash shooting straight into the lens.

Hope this helps clarify just a bit.

March 22, 2007 4:27 PM  
Anonymous wedding photographer french riviera said...

With the Sigma 530 DG no need to turn the head backwards. When that strobe is in slave mode the red sensor in its front blinks to tell the photographer "I'm ready!".

I use this blinking to make sure my main light is hidden.

July 08, 2008 5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This shot would be a "terrible" b&w conversion!

January 26, 2009 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Why would you think that? it is dramatic light and dramatic light looks good no mater what color space it is in

February 07, 2009 6:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this backlighting effect is terrific.

This shot still begs the question of where the front light is coming from.

Is it the stage lighting? a second strobe?


March 26, 2009 5:02 PM  
Blogger Stephen Lee said...

It is from the strobe. Look at the long shadows, they cannot be from above.

July 02, 2009 6:58 PM  
Blogger Donovan said...

Stephen, I think the question about "front light" by anonymous refers to the well lit back of the actors. In other words, the strobe is camera-back from the subject, so how is the subject itself (the backs of the actors) lit?

August 10, 2009 1:43 PM  
Blogger Gary Rhodes said...

How are you triggering the back-lite?

November 07, 2009 10:46 PM  
Blogger Gary Rhodes said...

How are you triggering the back light?

November 07, 2009 10:47 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

PocketWizard radio remote.

July 14, 2013 10:28 PM  
Blogger Michael Heatley said...

David, thanks for adding the diagram, now I get it, GoBo and all. Well, maybe not all, some of us still don't get how the actor's backs are illuminated, but since you say the back light is the "main" light, I guess we infer that a secondary light is dialed down and somewhere near the shooter to light up the foreground. Super diagram!

July 19, 2013 7:25 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

At Michael-

Just the normal ambient stage lighting, which I included in the exposure. If this is unclear, definitely reread the Balancing Light posts in L101.


July 20, 2013 1:10 AM  

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