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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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Blogger Bruno Cardi said...

I took that photo using a accidental flash too:
and I really like the photo

November 07, 2011 9:18 AM  
Blogger ronanpalliser said...

Great to see your thoughts on this. As a wedding photographer, having accidentally had the same thing happen years ago, I know very often shoot for such an event on occasion. As well as back light, side light can work really well and with the number of cameras and flash pops during the first dance, a little bit of luck and a slow shutter to increase your chances of picking up that burst of flash can go a long way. Here's my favourite of the shots I've taken using this technique.

November 07, 2011 9:23 AM  
OpenID said...

Flash in Church - it's always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission! :) Cool post!

November 07, 2011 10:09 AM  
Blogger TA08 said...

I had the same thing happen shooting my friend at a bar. This is why I always shoot burst with manuel focus

November 07, 2011 10:26 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

Accidental or not, back lit flash looks pretty good in the wedding example.

The Google photo brings back a lot of memories. The bridge was where I shot one of my first digital pictures (back when the building was first built).

November 07, 2011 10:29 AM  
Blogger Wayne said...

David - assuming your in program, aperture or shutter mode, would the flash going off not affect your exposure? ie causing it to underexpose the subject?

November 07, 2011 11:09 AM  
Blogger Mary Martha said...

That is an lovely shot. I find some of my best life lessons come out of accidents!

That said, no flash in church means no flash in church. To be clearly informed of that and then disregard is is EXTREMELY rude and unprofessional. True professionals work within the restrictions they encounter.

This kind of breaking of trust leads to more and more restrictions. At a friend's wedding the priest had been so frustrated by untrustworthy photographers that he inspected the photographers equipment and locked all flashes in his office for the duration for the ceremony.

If you can't be trusted not to lie to a priest in a church, I am going to assume you also lie to and cheat your customers.

November 07, 2011 11:12 AM  
OpenID projectxo said...

David, in terms of relative exposure; what is a good rule of thumb when it comes to the back light? 1/2 of key light?

November 07, 2011 11:19 AM  
Blogger dougkeith said...

Hey David,

Do you have photos you've taken with backlight and on-camera flash that work?

My imagination is crapping out and I can't picture it.

Would love to implement it.


November 07, 2011 1:07 PM  
Blogger Kevin Blackburn Photography said...

when these happy accidents happen we should disect them and learn how to do it on purpose . Some of my best and favorite images have been created this way and it has helped me fordge friendships with other photogs when I couldnt figure out what happened and we all learned something new..

November 07, 2011 1:20 PM  
Blogger Eric Sven Stenberg said...

I'm glad you mentioned that a backlight can severely improve an on-camera flash. That's a technique I've been rockin' for a while now at wedding receptions. I'll usually place a light on a stand at the "back" end of the dance floor and shoot with a 580exII right on the body. That being said, I do bounce that sucker off the ceiling, but the presence of the backlight makes every single photo POP!

November 07, 2011 1:35 PM  
Blogger Stefan Simonsen said...

I came about a great blog post about off-camera-flash at weddings some weeks ago.

It's worth reading and learning so you never will have this backlight happens "accidentially" evermore ;-)

November 07, 2011 1:38 PM  
Blogger wonderlens said...

I've seen that technique (consciously) used by wedding photographer Marc Climie. If I understood it right he is working with a flash on a stick in a corner of the room. The power on the flash on stick remains unchanged, but is regulated by changing the aperture. Some nice examples of his are here and here, check his blog and portfolio for more. I vaguely remember seeing a diagram of the same setup by Zack Arias, it might have been in his book.

November 07, 2011 1:57 PM  
Blogger Lou said...

Very awesome post. Ghosting other people's flash has come up with some very cool shots for me with a couple of happy flukes here and there.

My favorite photo with some in-frame backlighting was from a super quick portrait of a local tattoo shop crew.

The flash was right behind the tatted dude in the center, aimed at the back of his head, set somewhat wide. It didn't get enough hair separation for my liking, but it worked, and they loved it.

November 07, 2011 2:56 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

I guess it comes down to what's worse: missing the shot or burning in hell? As an atheist I guess I know the answer for me LMAO.

Great how you provided a perfect lesson out of someone's accidental shot. Thanks for your spot on insights, as usual, David.

November 07, 2011 2:59 PM  
Blogger Steve Kalman said...

Seems to me that every time we take a sunrise/sunset picture with the sun in the frame there's a pretty big backlight there. Just sayin'

November 07, 2011 3:07 PM  
Blogger Hochzeitsfotograf said...

Backlight is realy nice for dancefloorshoots on weddings.
I use 1-2 in manual mode an one oncamera with TTL.


November 07, 2011 3:11 PM  
OpenID michaelmarten said...

The top one is a very nice shot, but I agree fully with Mary Martha on the ethics issue discussed in point 4.

My wife is a church minister, and I know that she really struggles with photographers (and others) who think it perfectly acceptable to ignore HER professional opinions/requirements in order to push their own agendas, as suggested here using the Matt Adcock example. Deceit and lies are not the foundation for a good relationship, and if he did that once in her church, she'd be very wary of him photographing at any future wedding she was conducting. Locking flashes away is a perfectly acceptable option when you cannot trust someone not to lie to you and to behave in a responsible way.

Now were I to be the minister, I'd be warning prospective couples away from such a photographer, who is quite simply not trustworthy. So that would also make it really bad for business, even if morals are seen as irrelevant.

November 07, 2011 3:29 PM  
Blogger Ben Yoder said...

I had this happen to me at a concert at a local bar a few years ago (the image is currently hanging in my office at home), and a good friend of mine - other than giving me grief about the slight back focus - kept telling me how lucky a shot that was.

Then I kept getting those shots.

Before long, I was engineering them (via slow-ish shutter speeds), then, after reading Strobist for a while, I started engineering them just through a well-placed flash. This article in particular is one that makes me want to jump back through my images and find the ones I kept with that special "pop" through an unintended backlight.. :)

November 07, 2011 4:09 PM  
Blogger Elysabeth said...

The photographer's trick (especially in limited use) isn't motivated by lack of ethics, but by the creative need to fulfill their contractual obligation to the client and honor their wishes to capture the important details of the day.

On the flipside, I would argue that couples should be wary of getting married in a church today that doesn't value their wishes to have photographs capture the memories of the most important day of their lives- which is what they pay their photographer A LOT of money to do.

If a priest is more concerned with running a militant wedding ceremony than with the couple's desire to enjoy the memories of the event, then I don't see how that is a good foundation for their relationship with the church.

Just sayin...

November 07, 2011 5:14 PM  
Blogger martybugs said...

Catching other people's flash can result in some interesting photos. I managed to do it twice in quick succession - see this blog post for the photos.

November 07, 2011 7:02 PM  
Blogger James said...

'And it is always easier to apologize than to ask permission.'

Whilst I completely see your point, this mentality taken too far has done a lot of damage to the photography industry's reputation.

Nice post, and a great picture! :)

November 07, 2011 7:46 PM  
Blogger Sassani Photography said...

Nice post. I rock all my weddings with off camera flash with the "accidental" flash. I think it adds a different look, and the rim light is a definite bonus.

thanks for sharing this!

November 07, 2011 7:47 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Same thing happened to me this summer at a wedding I was photographing as a second shooter.

Mine's the top one, and I have two flashes remotely triggered on the second-floor walkway around the room. I also used this set as a reason for the owner to start using gels on her flash. (The bottom one was by another photographer, not the owner, and he obviously didn't have gels on this flash.)

As for the conversation about flash at weddings, most common requirement is once they're at the alter and the pastor/priest starts talking, no more flash. Once they walk back down the aisle at the end, flashes back on.

November 07, 2011 8:33 PM  
Blogger said...

Great post! I remember the first time I caught an accidental flash at a wedding. Now, I use flashes as "room" or "ambient" lighting at every wedding. I'll occasionally position myself directly in line with the OCF. This allows the OCF to backlight, and the on camera light to expose the subject. Here's an example: [IMG][/IMG]
Thanks for all that you do David!..Chris

November 07, 2011 9:15 PM  
Blogger Tom Diakun said...

The priest or minister usually gives as a reason that it will disturb the solemnity of the ceremony.

"Bless me Father, for I have sinned." As a family member, I have cheated and used flash during the ceremony. Not hundreds of pics, but a few key photos. And I've been to a number of weddings.

NEWSFLASH: Not ONCE has anyone ever complained or even remembered my flash going off. But the family is ALWAYS appreciative of the photos I provide.

If I were in any way disrupting the ceremony or distracting the bride and groom from their special moment, I wouldn't be doing it. I don't think I disturbed anything but the self importance of the person making the rule.

I can understand the need for professionals to follow the "no flash" rule. They may not get invited back or be banned from the particular church. As a family member, I feel no guilt in taking a few carefully selected shots during the ceremony. The appreciation I get from the family for the photos I provide far outweighs any dubious claims of harm to the "solemn moment."

But again, I am not the pro taking the pictures. Just a family member caught up in the excitement and joy of the moment. And I am careful not to set off long volleys of flash. Just a sniper picking targets judiciously. Not a machine gunner with a spray and pray attitude that causes a lot of collateral damage.

November 07, 2011 9:47 PM  
Blogger Richard Kimbrough Photography said...

I've found I get these free range flashes in my shots somewhat often when I shoot roller derby. What's nice it is often at a key moment when something cool is happening, hence the multiple photographers shooting at the same time. I got one last week I liked better because of it. A girl had just been ejected from the game and was skating away when I caught her and another photographer's flash.

November 07, 2011 11:06 PM  
Blogger Richard Kimbrough Photography said...

I've found I get these free range flashes in my shots somewhat often when I shoot roller derby. What's nice it is often at a key moment when something cool is happening, hence the multiple photographers shooting at the same time. I got one last week I liked better because of it. A girl had just been ejected from the game and was skating away when I caught her and another photographer's flash.

November 07, 2011 11:08 PM  
Blogger GWC said...

Hey, a GWC is not some inert piece of lighting gear...I'm a person too!

November 07, 2011 11:16 PM  
Blogger Jorge Pastrana a.k.a (fresko!) said...

heres another accidental backlight

November 07, 2011 11:17 PM  
Blogger Ian Servin said...

I actually recently fell in love with backlighting and I recently shot my roomate with a very intentional and obvious speedlight in the back. I love the way it edges the subject.

Here's where you can find the shot:

November 08, 2011 12:14 AM  
Blogger Joosep Martinson said...


I have one lucky backlight shot from presidents meeting in Estonia (with Latvian president visiting).
Really happy with this shot and I think it stays in my portfolio a long time.
Link for the photo:


November 08, 2011 12:27 AM  
Blogger webmarketing said...

This kind of breaking of trust leads to more and more restrictions. At a friend's wedding the priest had been so frustrated by untrustworthy photographers that he inspected the photographers equipment and locked all flashes in his office for the duration for the ceremony.

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November 08, 2011 1:33 AM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Thanks for the great feature that will inspire a lot of photographers.
I'm all for clever ways of getting the job done with good intentions. I bet the minister later said,"damn that's a great picture."
The priority is pleasing the client. Amen

November 08, 2011 2:32 AM  
Blogger gretsch said...

Backlighting ftw. My approach is the it looks great when "accidental". If your whole album is full of "accidental" shots then yuck. A couple max.

Re the church pics: having chatted with many priests/ministers/pastors etc. they only ban as a result of bad previous experiences e.g. Auntie Marge and her never-ending-red-eye-flash-blitzkrieg or a pro on spray and pray with a mechanical shutter all the way through. Both are distracting and irritating. Once I have targeted the source of the irritation, I try to work with them to find a workaround (they are quite nice and accommodating people!).

For one, the incessant shutter sound and people running around with a camera drove her bonkers, so we agreed I would be allowed a static site with an electronic shutter, manual focus (no AF light ;) ) and NO flash. I even demo'd what I would be doing during the rehearsal! I got the shots, she got her peace and quiet, and the couple got their teary vows and readings with shallow dof and highish ISO grain. B&W ftw.

November 08, 2011 3:22 AM  
Blogger Wayne said...

As Pro's we should be ready to take shots in a church without flash. If the church is really dark, as pro's we should ask the priest to either put some lights on or allow some flash to be used. (this should all be done prior to the wedding day).

I recently shot a wedding where the priest was very dubious of photographers (ie didn't like them) from previous weddings because they were distracting (mostly noisy & insensitive to the proceedings).

At the end of the ceremony, the priest specifically thanked me over the mic for being discrete and professional and welcomed me back to his church for any future weddings. I even got a round of applause. Bottom line, if you're a pro, be 'pro'fessional.

November 08, 2011 8:39 AM  
Blogger William Long said...

What kind of tips does anyone have for taming flare? I always see nice photos of in frame flashes where the flash is at a nice point, with a small halo around it.

Whenever I try, it turns out like a big blob. My lenses are relatively clean, and if it's on purpose I'll take off the protective UV cover, which seems to help a little.

November 08, 2011 9:34 AM  
Blogger ModifiedPhoto said...

Good read. That's a nice "happy accident" shot.

In terms of flashes during a wedding ceremony, I prefer none at all, and push the aperture and ISO a little to get the ambiance of the church more than trying to throw typically un-natural looking light at them from too far away.

However, for the after party and dance, which is often done in an even more dimly lit reception hall, a few well placed flashes on wireless triggers can do wonders.

The photographer I hired to shoot my own wedding (after much consideration) set up two bare flashes on 10 foot stands and placed them either side of the DJ's booth. The resulting images looked great and due to the height, only a few had the flash actually visible in the resulting shot. And in some cases, he added an on-camera flash just for a little fill in addition to the stand mounted flashes.

November 08, 2011 12:50 PM  
Blogger didymus said...

So it all happened in high school, eh? That's where it all starts. First it's just this once: "Just one off camera flash, you'll be alright, I promise", he said, as he scurried off in t-shirt and shorts. Then it happened, I needed it again, and again and again... I couldn't stop it. Lord, don't let it stop...

Excellent article David on an excellent 'accidental' photograph!


November 08, 2011 2:58 PM  
Blogger didymus said...

...on flashes in church:
At my sons wedding this past August, the priest expressly stated that flash was permitted before and after 'the Ceremony', to preserve the sanctity of the Mass.
He went so far as to inform everyone at the point flash was not to used then informed everyone was it was alright to use flash again.

Everyone was happy and no problem obliging the priest!


November 08, 2011 3:02 PM  
Blogger Noel Chenier said...

The happy accident is always a great thing! I was shooting a wedding years ago, it was pretty informal, and managed to get an interesting image of the bride taking a photo that turned out really interesting!

November 08, 2011 4:25 PM  
Blogger wilsonongphotography said...

I love using off camera flash to add that something extra to a photo...I popped this backlit off camera flash was on 1/2 power after I exposed for ambient.

November 09, 2011 2:25 AM  
Blogger Az said...

I had a similar moment - albeit was my flash tho.... At a concert...

November 09, 2011 7:57 AM  
Blogger carlos benjamin - said...

ModifiedPhoto - Did I shoot your wedding? That's been my setup ( with a TTL on camera at -2) for several years now....

November 09, 2011 9:53 AM  
Blogger cameramart said...

I love the shot...serendipity is always great!

November 09, 2011 2:11 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Geiger said...

I accidentally the whole backlight. Is this safe?

Seriously, though, the only time I remember catching someone else's flash in a shot, I was shooting with ambient light, so the shot ended up overexposed, almost solid white.


"If you can't be trusted not to lie to a priest in a church, I am going to assume you also lie to and cheat your customers."

What's so special about a priest? I, for one, would lie to a priest long before I'd lie to someone who placed their trust in me.

November 11, 2011 9:23 PM  
Blogger Ido said...

Of course, some members of the clergy are Strobists too (I know of one) who understand completely, and wouldn't mind a white umbrella (which matches the bride's dress, of course) in strategic locations. They know this is an important moment (especially if they have ever shot a wedding themselves), and can strike a happy balance between the solemnity (which is important) and the need for good light.

Perhaps more of the clergy should be evangelized so that they can see the light. (In a darkroom, one says, "Let there be Safelight!").

November 12, 2011 8:51 PM  
Blogger nick scovelle said...

great post its rely made me think on how i use my off camera flash and i cant wait to tire sum of this stuff out

November 17, 2011 11:17 AM  
Blogger nicola said...

Just came across this non-accidental (?) accidental flash in a set of photos on the Guardian website from the Soyuz landing today - awesome photo. Do you think the shooter is a Strobist follower?

Here's the link to the gallery page where it came from:

November 22, 2011 1:52 PM  
Blogger John said...

I decided to try some non-accidental backlighting at a Lamborghini event here in Miami. I enlisted a couple of "assistants" (co-conpirators), equipped them with functioning camera and flash units, and then slaved their Canon Speedlites to the 550EX on my camera. That way, we could all take pictures, but mine looked like this:

November 25, 2011 5:12 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I remember a game of my son's I shot this fall. I had one of another's flash across the field (much in the way that you mentioned, Dave). So, I went back and found it.

Not much of a shot, but the lighting was dramatic.

November 30, 2011 10:53 PM  
Blogger Chris Newman said...

Shooting live concerts provides a lot more chances of this happening since there are hundreds of fans with cameras and I shoot so many frames.

This picture would not be the same without one lone fan extending their camera for a shot:

December 16, 2011 9:25 AM  
Blogger fdmount said...

At a concert awhile, I took advantage of someone using the red eye flash on their point and shoot. It made for a great off camera flash,

January 01, 2012 10:27 PM  

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