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A Flash of Inspiration: The Accidental Backlight

Strobist reader Philip Rasmusson, from Göteborg, Sweden sent me the above photo, along with a tweet asking:

"This totally happened by accident, with someone else's flash going off in the back. What do you think?"

Well, I can tell what you think, Philip. I think you like it, 'cause you were happy to claim it and stick a logo up on it. (Smart man.)

And any time a happy accident like this happens, bells should go off in your head. In particular, I can think of at least 5 bells going off right now…

First time this happened to me was about 30 years ago. I was in high school, stringing prep football games for a local newspaper. Even though the fields were very dark, we didn't use flash. Flash was for yearbook photographers. Flash made all of your photos look the same. (I know, I know…)

Real men pushed their Tri-X to insane ASA's (that was before ISO) and follow-focused wide open at 1/250th of a sec. If you were lucky enough to be at a bright field.

One night a flash went off in my frame -- a camera-righty backlight from a guy on the other sideline. It looked friggin' awesome. The moment was crap, but the light made it look epic. It was probably my first off-camera flash picture ever, and the flash wasn't even mine.

Using the two or three adolescent brain cells I had to rub together, I could only see it as being useful for high school football. There was so much more I could have (and should have) gleaned from the experience. Oh well.

I use backlights a lot more now. And much of the "learning how" part of that has come (sadly) not from experimentation but serendipitous moments like the shot above. But if you stop to think about it, you can learn a lot from a happy accident.

1. Even Direct Flash Looks Good with a Backlight

Direct, on-camera flash gets a bad rap. Especially around here, I know. But it is not the direction of the light that is inherently bad, but rather that it kills all shadow and dimension. If you have cool backlight raking in from somewhere, on-camera flash can actually be a good thing.

That's because the on-camera light now has no pressure to create dimension -- it is purely informational. It is there to record detail. Doesn't even have to be full exposure (which it isn't, here). Great thing to remember when shooting with two lights: One light for shape, another for detail.

2. It's Okay to Have it in the Frame

For some reason, I long felt the need to hide my backlights so they were not visible in the frame. But now I am not so rigid, and am much more willing to go with the flow.

There are lots of instances where backlights are appropriate to have inside the frame, and the above is a great example.

3. You Can Disguise it with a VAL

If you are going to put a backlight in the frame, it is pretty hard to make a flash on a stand look like an organic part of the photo. But just like my football shot and in the example above, the fact that it comes from someone else's flash on a camera makes it completely logical.

Most everyone who has shot enough photos has caught someone else's flash. Get three people shooting flash at a basketball game, and it'll generally happen at least once during the night. So, play on this experience and hide your backlight in plain sight on someone else's camera.

Just slave it and do whatever you have to do to make the flash think it is not on a functioning camera. Either slide a piece of paper between the flash and the hot shoe, or turn off the other camera. One or both will work.

4. In a Pinch, Enlist a GWAC

A GWAC is like a VAL, minus the brains. A Voice-Activated Light stand knows where to go and what to do. A Guy With A Camera is, well, pretty mentally inert. But at any event you can usually find a person sufficiently bored (or socially inept) to serve as a GWAC.

"Just stand here and act like you are taking photos of [wherever you want the light pointed]. You can even provide the camera and flash. Easy.

GWAC or VAL, you can get creative with this technique:

This photo, from my friend Matt Adcock, takes hiding a flash in plain sight to an art form. It was taken in a church that (groin kick) did not allow flash photography during the ceremony. Padre even told Matt face-to-face during setup, just to make sure.

But Matt is like water finding downhill when it comes to good light, so he pulled the camo'd light stand trick by sticking his PW'd flash on the camera of a ringer he sat right on the aisle, about half-way to the alter.

Padre did not give a pre-lecture to the ringer, because Padre never saw the ringer with a flash until it was too late to say anything. And as far as anyone else knew, it was just a family member leaning out for one quick pic.

Even if they get a talking-to after, it was more of a "oh, sorry, won't happen again" kinda thing. Matt only needed one frame. And it is always easier to apologize than to ask permission.

5. Watch What the Backlight Does to the Edges of Your Frame, Too

This was a similar happy accident I saw while setting up for a quick portrait of an engineer at Google in Mountain View, CA. I was not even thinking about what that light would do to people along the edges of the frame. In fact, I was about ready to ask them to move. We were literally trying to do this photo soup to nuts in under two minutes.

But after the fact, this frame was the biggest takeaway from what was really an unrelated photo. I love how the in-frame backlight defined the people along the edges. It has affected how I pose and backlight groups ever since.

A backlight in the frame can do some cool things -- and not just for your primary subject.

So, Philip, to make a short story long, that's what I think.


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