Photography Lighting Techniques

Easy Backlit Beauty Lighting Technique With 1, 2 or 3 Lights

Studio Lighting Technique

Beauty lighting behind the subject?

I know you are thinking the title is wrong. Even in the film days, the inside of the Kodak boxes had the Daylight Lighting Table that explained that you should put the light behind the camera with the subject facing towards the light. 

This backlit beauty lighting concept is very simple. ALL of the light will be behind the subject – hence “backlit.” The exposure is based on the light being reflected back to the subject from the reflectors placed in front of or in front and to the subject’s side.

I am not a big fan of traditional white backgrounds when coupled with butterfly, clamshell, or 2:1 Rembrandt lighting arrangements; they feel too sterile. Great for products, boring for people. Images made with those lighting arrangements on white backgrounds always feel circa 1985 to me.

I love this technique because of its dream-like quality and how it brings all the attention to the subject. I use it primarily for women because of the fantasy-like feel.

A black and white photo of a woman in a bra, showcasing backlit beauty.
A Black and White beauty portrait shot with the backlit beauty technique. 2 strobes behind the subject to light the white background and two reflectors in front to create the soft shadowless light on my subject.

The origin of this concept

One of my absolute favorite sets of photographs is a group of black and white images of Marilyn Monroe taken by the great Bert Stern. These images became known as The Last Sitting because they were taken a few weeks before her death.

Stern’s masterful use of backlit beauty lighting is a key factor contributing to these images’ allure.

In contrast to traditional lighting setups that place the light source in front of the subject, backlit beauty lighting positions the light behind the subject, illuminating the scene with a soft, diffused glow. This technique accentuates the subject’s facial features and creates a dreamy, ethereal atmosphere.

Stern’s decision to employ backlit beauty lighting in “The Last Sitting” was a deliberate choice. By placing Monroe against a bright background and using reflectors to bounce light onto her face, he was able to capture her natural beauty in a way that was both flattering and captivating.

The success of Stern’s approach lies in the delicate balance of light and shadow. The soft, diffused light from behind Monroe accentuates her facial contours, while the shadows add depth and dimension to the image. This interplay of light and shadow creates a sense of mystery and intrigue, drawing the viewer into Monroe’s captivating gaze.

📸 Did you know?
The term “beauty lighting” is often used interchangeably with “glamour lighting,” but there is a subtle distinction between the two. Beauty lighting is typically used for portraits of everyday people, while glamour lighting is more commonly used for portraits of celebrities and other public figures. Beauty lighting is typically softer and more diffused than glamour lighting and less likely to create high-contrast shadows. Beauty lighting aims to create a natural, flattering look that enhances the subject’s natural beauty.
A backlit beauty in a blue top and jeans.
While I prefer this backlit beauty technique for Black and White images – it is always an option for dreamy color portraits

Black and White or Color?

Both!

Sometimes it is hard to decide. The dreamyness of this effect works well in both color and black and white.

In some instances, you will find that the lower contrast created by the effect does not work well with the colors in your shot, which could influence your choice.

A little Social Media Tip: If you want to get great engagement (comments) on a post, share the color and black and white versions in the same post and ask your followers to choose and tell you why. People love to give their opinion. 🤷🏻

Don’t do this with every post; otherwise, folks will tire of participating.

A woman in a bikini is posing for a photo, bathed in backlit beauty.

Shoot Black and White In Black and White

Back in the film days – remember when we had to take pictures and then wait 7 days to find out how much we sucked?

When shooting film, photographers routinely would light and expose black and white film differently than color film. Digital technology came along, and many of us got really lazy because we could easily make the conversion in post-production.

I always try to identify BEFORE I press the shutter if I want a color or black and white image; I set my mirrorless digital camera to the appropriate profile so I see the finished image – in camera – as I imagined. This way, I know that the tonal range in black and white or the color combinations in color will look good.

I shoot all of my black-and-white images in RAW, meaning I still have the color data, but I want to see the black-white preview BEFORE I press the shutter. This way I am evaluating the images based on lights and darks and gray tones – not millions of colors.

A woman is capturing her own beauty with a camera, utilizing the backlit lighting to enhance her features.
You can see the Black & White preview on the LCD of this Olympus OM-D E-M1X. Also note that this was a 4 light setup and I added a white reflector under the subject to highlight more detail in her eyes.

All mirrorless cameras on the market today allow you to switch to a black-and-white profile so that the jpeg preview in your EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) or your LCD screen will be black and white. Nikon calls this setting Picture Control, Canon calls their profiles Picture Styles, and Sony refers to them as Creative Looks. Fuji does it with Film Simulations and Black & White Simulation, Olympus calls it Picture Mode, and Panasonic calls it Color Effects.

Sony menu - backlit beauty.

Regardless of the camera brand, I will select Monochrome or Black and White and boost the contrast to a plus 2 or 3, depending on what the camera will allow. This gives you a higher contrast black and white preview image that resembles Tri-X film. 

That contrast boost only affects your monochrome settings, so it won’t mess up your color shots if you forget to set it back. Important Note: While these setting changes are not advanced settings – they are customizations from the default settings. Please refer to your camera manual to ensure you change the proper settings.

If I shoot tethered, I will convert the images to black and white on download so that I can see the images in black and white on my computer screen. Software like Capture One or Smart Shooter 5, which I use to tether to my Sony cameras, can handle this change in real time without slowing down your shooting workflow.

A black and white photo capturing the beauty of a woman's pose, illuminated with backlit lighting.
This technique is also very useful if you want to have your subject or model move around. You won’t have to worry about unwanted shadows because your subject is looking away from your key light.

The Lighting Set Up

This beauty lighting set-up works best with two or three lights and two large reflectors, and yes, you could pull it off with one light in a pinch.

You can see below how I have the strobes set up slightly behind the model and on either side of the white background: This is a standard 9ft wide vinyl seamless. I like the vinyl because it is more durable and wipes clean.

This backlit beauty technique benefits from a low ceiling and doesn't require a large space.
Always keep your lights above your subjects eyes – even though they are behind the subject. Since this lighting concept relies on light bouncing around, you still want the majority of the light coming from above.

This is a lighting arrangement that actually benefits from smaller shooting spaces. In a smaller space, your light will bounce off of walls and ceilings and will help to create the soft fill that makes this light work.

All of the images in this article were created in my Home Studio which you can learn about in this video.

My Home Studio Set-up.

Your reflectors can be diffusion panels or v-flats, or, if money is tight, you could make it work for three-quarter length shots and headshots with two Walmart reflectors. You can also make your own panels like those I showed in my home studio video above.

A photo of a woman sitting in a room with backlit beauty.
If you are having trouble keeping the light from hitting your subject directly – add a black flag between the light and the model like you see in the diagram on the right. I have done this with foam board, cardboard, reflectors, and even aluminum foil.

You can work with any sized strobes from speedlights on up – this technique does not require a lot of power, especially if you are in a smaller space with a low ceiling like this home studio. If you shoot with speedlights, be sure to set their zoom heads at the widest possible setting so the light has the maximum spread. 

If you prefer to work with LEDs – that is also doable, but you will need a more robust set of lights if you are uncomfortable raising your camera’s ISO by several stops.

No Reflector Panels? – No Problem!

If you don’t have the reflectors or a way to make them, you can achieve an almost identical glamour lighting look by using a third strobe and bouncing it into the ceiling in front of the model. Here is the same set-up with a bounce flash instead of the reflectors.

A photo of a backlit beauty studio with lights and a camera.
You can create the effect without reflectors or panels by adding a third light and keeping at least a 3:1 lighting ratio between the background and your key light.

The Benefits of 3 Lights

As I matured with my photography and learned a lot about cognitive psychology from my wife, I learned to always desire catchlights in my portraits.

I share this not because I have given into the dark side of the ancient photography competition rules. Hell no! I share it because science teaches us a better approach to catchlights than the rules ever offered.

From the time we are just two years old, our brains are hard-wired to expect round catchlights coming from above. (Think the sun) That is, in part, why we put lights on the ceiling and not on the floor.

By adding the third light to this arrangement and keeping the power VERY low, I can maintain this soft, dreamy, backlit effect and have a small round catchlight in my subject’s eyes.

It is essential, though, to keep the power of your key light very low; otherwise, you wind up with that circa 1985 commercial white background look.

A woman in a grey bikini posing for a photo under beautiful lighting.
A 3 lights version of the backlit beauty lighting – same dreamy feel with a small catchlight to bring a bit more life to the eyes.

Exposure:

My exposure is based upon the light reflecting onto the subject – NOT the light behind the subject. In other words, you are actually exposing for the shadows. 

It will generally take a 3:1 or greater lighting ratio with your background being three times brighter than the reflected light or the key light if you are working without reflectors.

You cannot create this technique with automatic exposure settings on your flash or camera. (Remember… AUTO = Four Letter Word)

A woman with blue eyes is posing for a photo, illuminated by beauty lighting.
An extreme close-up like this with a subject that has colorful eyes is more forgiving to the lack of a cacthlight.

Shooting Tip 

The most important element to this set of images is not the lighting and the settings; it is the model and your ability to coach her into giving you lots of personality.

When I do a session like this, I shoot very heavy, and my focus is on keeping things playful. I give my models lots of direction and feedback, and I never expect them to entertain me – my job is to coach them toward the shots I want.

Post Production

Even though we boosted the contrast in the camera, remember that only impacts the jpeg preview – not your RAW file. Two things will happen when you view your raw images in Lightroom or Bridge or whatever culling software you choose. They will all revert to color and look flat – low in contrast.

So, I will generally process one of the frames, adding the contrast back in. If I am working towards a black-and-white image, I will do the black-and-white processing on that same frame. Then, I will copy and apply those settings to all the frames so that I am culling through color images with proper color and contrast or black and white images with proper tonal ranges.

If I am creating a story of photos, it also helps to make sure they all look like a cohesive group and not a bunch of different-looking black-and-white shots, so I don’t wnt to be processing for color, exposure and contrast individually.

Because of the very soft light, you will also find that your images will require much less retouching for skin flaws, and fly-away hairs virtually disappear in the strong backlighting. As always, even good lighting does not substitute good hair and makeup with a makeup artist.

A backlit beauty photo of a woman wearing a hat.

Conclusion

This is not a technique you will likely choose for a formal portrait hanging above the fireplace. It is, however, a creative lighting concept that puts all the attention on your subject and can add to the story of a portrait or boudoir-type image.

Experiment and have some fun with it. There are no rules – it is just another tool to add to your lighting toolkit, and it won’t cost you any money. (You can thank me later! 😉)

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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