A Secret to Taking Great Photos of Kids? Backlight!

Oh, the frustrations of trying to capture that ever elusive “perfect picture”.  Yes, getting each kid to smile at the same time is a challenge, but often it is simply the case of brightness or darkness that stymies us novices.  We’ve got Ian Taylor to show us the light on this subject, backlight that is!

What is “backlight”?

In photography we call it ‘backlight’ when the strongest source of light is coming from behind your subject rather than the front which is the more common approach.  While there are several forms of backlight, in this case, we are referring to strong outdoor sunlight.

Backlight in kids photography


How it works:

There are a couple of ways.  The first is to bury the sun directly behind your subject.  This creates the telltale ‘halo’ around the hair where the sun is getting through, as a well as a rim of light around the body.  This is used a bit more with girls as they usually have more hair to work with, but it works just fine with boys as shown with this brother and sister act.

Backlight in kids photography


When is the best time to for backlight?

The late morning, or mid-afternoon, when the sun is hitting at more of a 45 degree angle.  Late in the afternoon when the light is low in the sky, it’s not as effective, nor does it really work midday when the sun is directly overhead.  The other method is to hide the sun behind foliage.  It can have a spectacular effect when used on leaves, as it lights up everything from behind.  (This is also how to photograph flowers and leafy plants in general.)  In this example the backlight is illuminating everything, the hair, the leaves and even the grass.


For a special touch:

You can let a tiny bit of sunlight creep out from behind whatever is hiding the sun — a tree trunk, a building, a mountain or whatever.  It will create a ‘flare’, a sort of dagger of light.  You will see this all the time in fashion photography.  You have to really play around with framing, just letting a bit of light leak in from behind the tree or whatever to give you that funky flare.  With digital photography it’s so easy to shoot and just keep checking your results till you arrive at the desired effect.  You will find that less is more, a tiny bit of the sun is all you need.

Backlight in kids photography


How it works:

There are a couple of things to consider when using this technique.  The main issue is metering, or determining how much light to let in through the lens for proper exposure.  Quite often the camera will underexpose the subject as it is tricked by the huge amount of light hitting the sensor.  So your shot will look like this:

Backlight in kids photography

When what you want is a result like this:

Backlight in kids photography


How to fix this problem:

There are several ways.  One is to use exposure compensation and overexpose (start with the +1 option then adjust to taste) the scene to get proper illumination (read your manual!).  Another way is go into fully Manual Mode on your camera and set f-stop and shutter speed yourself to get the right exposure.  Or you can change your metering method to Spot and point it right at the face of your subject.  That will tell the camera to expose only for the skin, not the sun. Presto, perfect exposure!

Backlight in kids photography


Avoid too much sun:

Another issue is that you let too much sun hit the lens and it “flares” the lens, and it just becomes a mess with no contrast.  The images will look ‘washed out’.  In this day of digital, just keep shooting and check your results.  Cheap lenses flare more easily, so it will work better with your DSLR than a cheap happy-snap camera or iPhone.

As always you need to practice to master these techniques.  There are no ‘magic bullets’ in photography, but with time little tricks like this can really add an extra dimension to your photography.


Ian Taylor is a Canadian children’s photographer working in Hong Kong several times a year. You can find his website here, and his Facebook page here.  

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