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Featured Photography

How to Backlight Translucent Objects for Dramatic Effect

Incorporating translucent elements into your compositions can add an interesting dynamic of luminosity to your photographs. Especially if you can backlight them.

Water spray, smoke, steam, and things such as flags, flowers, and fabric when backlit can take on an almost surreal quality because of the way the light refracts as it passes through these types of semi-transparent elements. In this article, I want to share with you some ideas and examples of how to make the most of backlighting translucent objects.

Front light versus backlight

If you light a translucent element from the front it will look pretty normal as the light will reflect naturally. Lighting translucency from behind means the light is refracted, (bent,) and scattered before your camera’s sensor records it.

As you can see from the two example photos of the mad scientist with the red liquid in the flask. Notice how the color of the liquid appears very different in the two photos. See how dark it is above, compared to the bright red color in the image below where it has backlighting.

Position yourself to create backlight

Water spray, steam and smoke all provide you with great opportunities to produce creative photos. Backlighting and photographing any of these elements will return very different results than if you position yourself so the light is behind you and the camera.

As the light passes through these elements, (or anything translucent,) the rays are bent and the light is diffused before your camera records it. Backlit semitransparent things tend to glow because of this.

In the image above, I found a good location where the sun was in front of me to photograph during the Song Khran festival in Chaing Mai, Thailand, (which is one huge water fight). This lit up the water spray as buckets were thrown and hoses sprayed on revelers.

Seeing the monk sweeping leaves and burning them in the temple grounds (below) I carefully positioned myself to photograph the sun coming through from behind the smoke.

Good subjects for backlighting

Flags and flowers are two of my other favorite translucent things to photograph. If you can find an angle where the sun is coming from behind a flag or row of flags the resulting photos can be far more colorful and interesting than if the flag is front-lit.

Photographing flowers where you have the opportunity to light them from behind, or even part of them from behind, (as in this image of the purple orchids,) can really make them pop. However, if you are wanting to get clear and realistic correct color of flowers you are photographing it is probably better to light them from the front.

Exposure Notes

When you are photographing any backlit element take care to expose well. Don’t be too concerned about getting a “correct” exposure as often slightly overexposing will enhance the effect. Expose to create a feeling or mood rather than to achieve a technically precise result.

Your camera’s exposure meters measure reflected light. When you photograph refracted light passing through a translucent element your camera may not give you an acceptable result if you are using any of the automatic modes. Being in control of your exposure manually will allow you to experiment and set it to give you the result that you think looks best.

The Background Matters

If you are able to include a dark background in this style of photograph this can often enhance your pictures as well. The glow of a backlit semitransparent element can really stand out from a dark background where the light is three or more stops lower.

This photo of a Lahu man smoking against the dark background of my outdoor studio is a good example of this.