Shooting Backlit // Using Flash

Today in my shooting backlit series, I’m talking about using flash in your backlit photography. But first as usual, I like to help you get caught up:

I think for many new photographers, flash might be the scariest thing to dive into. I’ve said before that for the longest time, I took pride in being the ‘available light only’ photographer which meant I could justify my fear of flash and claim to never use it. But  it’s so very important that you master the rules before you break them so that you can break them successfully. And I think that learning how to harness the power of artificial light is a must.
So you have a few options when employing flash in your backlit photography. You have:
  1. Pop-up flash
  2. On camera flash like a Speedlite
  3. Off camera flash like a softbox or umbrella
I hate pop-up flash in any situation. There’s never a time to use it – it’s just plain gross. It gives a major deer-caught-in-headlights look, sucks the ambiance right out of a room and causes mega disgusting shadows. And outside, it does the same. When I see a photo taken with pop-up flash, it immediately reminds me that there was a photographer present in the equation. I believe that good photography puts the viewer and the subject together -it builds their connection- and leaves the photographer out of the mix. But pop-up flash is your camera saying, “Hey don’t forget me! I was there too!”
If you’re going to try to learn flash, invest in a flash unit. I have a Canon 430ex Speedlite. Now, a flash unit is going to give you more power to control the light than a pop-up. I am constantly turning the power up and down and where I shoot often with a lens like a 50mm and I like tight shots, I’m usually pretty close to my subjects which means a flash at full power would blast them to pieces. I turn it way down to allow the flash to be a bit of fill rather than the main light. When you use flash in your backlit photos, it’s the same concept as using a reflector: your subject will be lit from behind & from the front so they will be wrapped in beautiful light. A drawback from using your speedlite on-camera is that you can see the tell-tale flecks in the eyes. And I want to stress that these are not catchlights! Some may call them ‘catchlights’, but to me, it’s the same situation I described above. It’s your camera equipment making an appearance in your photos which can take the wonder out of it for the viewer. However, most non-photography-obsessed viewers won’t think twice about it but I notice it every time. I sometimes even clone it out in Photoshop.

Now, my favorite…off camera flash! Off camera flash can take many forms. Most obvious are studio lights and although you can get battery packs for your strobes (very heavy, very expensive), you can also use your Speedlite off camera if you have a couple small accessories. If you have a camera which has a pop-up flash (a 5D doesn’t) then you can put your speedlite on a stand or table to the side of you and set the unit to ‘see’ your pop-up flash strobe and instantaneously fire when you take the photo. This is a post I wrote with instructions for how to make this work with a 430ex and Canon 7D. A trick to this is that you may need to make sure that your flash unit is slightly infront of your shooting position because it needs to be able to see the pop-up flash in order to work. If you have a camera that doesn’t have a pop-up flash, you can either have one Speedlite on-camera pointing to the Speedlite off camera or you can buy a radio trigger or transmitter. I have this transmitter for my Canon. However, if I’d thought about it more carefully beforehand I would have spent slightly more and just bought a second Speedlite and used it as described above. When using off-camera, you can either leave the flash unit bare or add an umbrella or softbox. Umbrellas are pretty easy to travel with, but it took me a while to locate a truly portable and effective Speedlite softbox. This is my fave and I even use it in my small studio setups for schools so I can shoot wirelessly.

Although this shot isn’t an accurate representation of a backlit portrait with OCF, I just wanted to show you how I set it up.

Umbrella off camera flash *photo by Christine Neutgens*


Off camera flash takes a lot of practice and there are a bajillion different combinations and gizmos you can employ so play around until you find your perfect method. Like with all photography, I’m sure there are plenty of rules out there for metering, measuring and otherwise sucking the fun out of the experimentation. I’ve never paid attention to any of it. I just have fun and experiment when I can!
Further Reading //
This is a great post from the Strobist site about using OCF in a sunset portrait. The final result as well as the pull-back are beautiful shots.
This excellent post from Christine Neutgens (see the above photo) details how she took that portrait using OCF.
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  • cindy

    I’ve got to tell you, I SO appreciate this entire series!  I was referred to your blog from a photography facebook group when I had several questions about backlit photos, and I have not been disappointed!  In fact, I share you with all of my friends!  I am exactly where you described yourself as having been:  a natural light photographer who is a bit afraid of venturing into flash.  My new 430exII should arrive in the mail today…and because of you, I AM SO EXCITED!  Thank you for your generous spirit!

  • I have really enjoyed your shooting backlit series. Some of my recent shoots incorporating your lessons have been my best yet!

  • I agree with Cindy and Manda, loving this backlight post series, and the best thing is in real, plain english :) Tks Elizabeth xo

  • Mary

    Wow, what a difference. Thanks for sharing this and your setup.

  • GREAT tutorial! Love it!

  • Keep these posts coming!!!

  • Jamierubeis

    This is a great post! I am at the point in my photography where I really want to learn OCF and take my my work to the net level. I just purchased some basic equipment to start practicing, but wasnt sure where to begin. This kind of breaks it down for me! Thank you!

  • Jamiezenteno

    Awesome as always, and very inspiring … got my little creative gears goin :)

  • Sandy Young

    Thanks, Elizabeth!  Spot on for me.  I’m right at that point right now — fairly experienced with natural light, and scared to death to venture into flash photography.  In a couple weeks, I’ll have the money saved to buy my first speedlite and I’m going to follow your recommendations.  Thanks for this post specifically, and for this entire backlit series!  Fantastic stuff!  You’re the best! 

  • There’s no better blog than yours, and I read them all!

  • Christy Peterson

    So I am getting ready to buy a 550ex speedlite for my canon 7d.  Is the softbox you recommend and the 550ex speedlite a good combo for fill flash in forest shade? 

  • elizabethhalford


  • Craig Solow

    Love the post, and all the info, thank you..