How to Capture Stunning Backlit Portraits During the Golden Hours | Light Stalking

How to Capture Stunning Backlit Portraits During the Golden Hours

Portraits taken during the golden hours – that is, the time just before sunset and after sunrise – have an incredibly powerful light to them. The dramatic back-lighting from the sun and the golden tones that flood your viewfinder can give you an incredible image. Not only that, the mood of your photo is vastly different from portraits taken with overhead or flat lighting – there's a warm, carefree feel to this time, and your artistic flexibility is truly unlimited.

16-05-10 Last Of The Summer (Wine)
16-05-10 Last Of The Summer (Wine) by Βethan, on Flickr

To achieve these stunning portraits, there's a need to place the sun behind your model and in your viewfinder, which makes this a bit different from your average portrait session. Below are a few key points to know to ensure you get the most out of this short window of opportunity.

Rim Lighting

A hge benefit to having portraits backlit with the sun is achieving that wonderful rim lighting – where the edges of your model are outlined by a thin thread of light. When photographed at the right angle, you have an incredibly powerful portrait.

Flower Girl by Rex Boggs, on Flickr

Rim lighting is most prominent on subjects that have a thin profile – such as hair and grass. The light can wrap around thin subjects which causes that great golden outline of light – a wonderful way to trace your model. Composing your photo so that the sun is directly behind your model is needed in order to achieve good rim lighting – and is why these golden hour portraits look so incredibly stunning.

– Four Thirty & Flares – by Anna Marie Gearhart, on Flickr


Using a Wide Aperture

For a truly artistic approach to shooting these golden hour portraits, you can open your aperture wide up which will give you a fantastic shallow depth of field…not to mention plenty of great-looking bokeh. As you may know, bokeh is more prominent when dealing with light sources – and the setting sun can provide a huge amount of light that can turn into beautiful bokeh – not to mention the benefits of selective focus and a less distracting background.

sis by dhammza / off, on Flickr

Depending on how much light you’re working with though, you may find yourself letting too much light into your sensor and overexposing your image – this happens often when using a wide aperture into the sun. If this happens, you can easily use an ND filter to reduce the amount of light entering your camera and bring your shutter speed back under 1/8000ths of a second.

Foreground Interest

A great layering technique that you'll find often with these portraits is to shoot with a wide aperture and place something in the foreground – usually some type of foliage. Lock the focus on your model and the foreground will become blurred – giving a natural, soft layering effect that adds depth and interest to your image.

The golden summer light in the field
The golden summer light in the field by ZedZAP, on Flickr


Tips on Shooting

A huge concern with photographing into the sun is the damage and strain it can cause to your eyes – you definitely shouldn’t spend an extended amount of time composing your shot with the sun in your viewfinder without some kind of protection.

A good way to get those stunning backlit portraits is to compose your shot with your subject blocking the sun – once you’ve got your settings down, sidestep quickly and take a few shots.

It’s also a good idea to have only part of the sun viewable and keep the majority of it blocked by your subject to avoid flooding your photo with too much light – it's a delicate balance to find that sweet spot which gives you a golden tone and great lens flares, so experimenting is key.

Backlit Dan by Dylan, on Flickr

#36 - The Distance
#36 – The Distance by JohnONolan, on Flickr


When photographing into the sun, you have a potential exposure nightmare. You’re not just dealing with a backlit subject,  but you’re trying to get the sun in your viewfinder and have it cast some dramatic golden light across your image. This can cause some major problems with your light meter and throw off your exposure greatly.
With this in mind, manual mode will work best for golden hour portraits. Fire off a few test shots in auto mode and make a note of your settings – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – and input them into manual mode, adjusting as you see fit to correct your exposure. Since you're working with your depth of field here, it would be better to not adjust your aperture to change your exposure – instead, select your aperture for the effect you want and adjust your shutter speed to move your exposure around.
Shoot in RAW format so that you can adjust the exposure in post process if needed, and remember – it’s better to overexpose than to underexpose since it’s much easier to recover blown highlights than blocked shadows.
If you're looking for some great inspiration for your golden hour portrait, check out our backlit portrait and our golden hour portrait collections – guaranteed to give you some great ideas on composition and perspective.
Finally, a nifty tool that I've mentioned before is The Photographer's Ephemeris – a program that uses Google maps to tell you exactly when and where the sun (and moon) will rise and set, letting you plan your golden hour portrait session without playing the guessing game on where the sun will be. They also have an iOS app which allows you to install it on your iPhone, iPad, etc. – it's an incredible asset to any outdoor photographer.

Read more great articles by Christopher O’Donnell on his website or follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can also add him on Google+ and 500px.

About the author

Christopher O'Donnell

I'm a professional landscape photographer living on the coast of Maine. Through my work, I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality; a show of beauty, emotion, and serenity. Feel free to visit my website.


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