Sports Photography Class: Lighting - Backlit Subjects

October 23, 2020  •  Leave a Comment


Sports Photography Class with Pavely Photography

What is a Backlit Photo?


Backlight noun — “illumination from behind”

Have you ever seen a photo where the subject juts really pops out because it appears they are outlined with light

I was recently asked by a parent taking pictures at a soccer game how they could create the "halo effect" during action. The answer is... take a backlight photo.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh SteelersNFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh SteelersNov 3, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett (7) is pressured by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds (34) during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers vs Colts for USA Today (2019) shot with a Nikon D750 using a 70-200mm at 1/1600 sec; f/5.0; ISO 640; Manual


These types of photos can be hard to master and you will probably have many fails along the way, but with practice, you can make many dreamy photos as the light wraps itself around your subject.

Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon (2015) shot with a Nikon D3 with a 70-200mm at 1/2500 sec; f/46.3; ISO 640; Manual


The "halo effect" is the direct result of a backlit subject. When your subject has the light source directly behind them (at sporting events this is generally the sun but can also be stadium lights or the lighting setup from other members in the media or stage lights) it makes your subject appear as they they are outlined by highlights. 

Eddie Vedder in concert (1998) This is not from a sporting event, but I love Pearl Jam and the stage lights have him backlit


I love this effect so much that I routinely place a flash behind the subject when taking a portrait and using multiple lights. The second light would be used for fill flash.

I shoot backlit photos when I get the chance. The exposure can be tricky at times as the action switches from side-light to backlit and there are many chances to have bad exposures. Don’t be surprised if a lot of your first images are really dark.


How do I Expose for Backlit Photos?

If you expose properly, the reward can be an awesome image. The subject will pop and a warm tone will be present. You will also be able to see each individual hair if you shoot tight enough. People ask me routinely, ‘how do you get each hair?’ Well, I shoot tight and try to make my subject backlit.

The opposite end of the dial can leave you with a silhouette, which at times can also give you a good image. But this article is mainly about the non-silhouette backlit image.

PGP-BETTIS04PGP-BETTIS04Jerome Bettis struggles to get up the stairs in his Hampton, PA home the morning after a Pittsburgh Steelers game Oct. 11, 2004.

Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers shot for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review  (2004) is silhouetted as he makes his way upstairs the day after an NFL game.


When exposing, your camera may be fooled by all of the light coming in and leave you with a darker picture than you want. Just remember to open up the aperture a stop or so to make sure you can see the face in the finished product. You can also bump up the ISO or lower the shutter speed. Take a look at the preview image on your camera and make any needed adjustments. You can use the your cameras spot metering to get a more pinpointed meter reading if you are exposing in the manual mode.

Make sure you are using shallow depth of field as light objects in the background will be more pronounced and become very distracting. This will blur the background and isolate your subject even more. I prefer to be at f/2.8 to f/5.6 more often than not. If I venture above f/5.6, it is not by much.



Lens Flare

Another problem you may come across when taking a backlit photo is lens flare. Sometimes, this may be an effect you are going for, but for some images, it can be distracting. You may experience this when shooting directly into your light source. If the shadows are coming directly towards you, lens flare may be an issue.

One way around this is a lens hood. They are relatively cheap and very useful. They also protect the lens glass, to some extent, if it gets bumped or dropped. Hoods have saved me from very expensive repairs more than once after dropping my lens. 

You can also use your hand and hold it over the top of the lens while taking pictures. As you look through the lens everything will appear very bright. But as you place your hand in position above the lens, you will notice the blacks get blacker as the contrast starts to pop.

You can also find a shaded spot if possible while shooting. Common items I use at sporting events include a tree, pole, overhang or even another person. All you need is a small shaded space for the end of your lens.

Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon (2015) shot with a Nikon D800 using a 17mm at 1/2500 sec; f/6.3; ISO 1250; Manual


Warning! Do not look through the view finder if you are shooting directly into the sun!


Move Around

Be mobile! Make sure you move and check out different angles because a couple of steps in any direction can have huge effects. I try to be be mobile at most events if roaming is possible. Sometimes I am scouting out clean backgrounds, but other times I am seeing how the light changes by walking around a field.


When is the Best Time to Shoot Backlit Photos?

The time of day matters greatly when taking backlit photos. With the sun closer to the horizon, the hours coming out of sun rise or leading into sunset usually provide more chances than in the middle of the afternoon.  This would be during the ‘golden hour.’You will have a good idea if you see a long shadow. Just position yourself so the shadow is coming to you, and voila! You will now have a backlit photo.

So, grab your camera and get outside at the start or end of daylight to create a nice backlit photo. Just remember, take many pictures. I often say, “There is power in numbers.” The more you shoot, the more likely you will have great looking images as long as you are making camera adjustments and moving around. A few feet in either direction, or how high you position yourself from the ground can have results that vary greatly.

Good luck and if you have any specific questions related to making better sports photographs that you would like to address, email me at [email protected] or comment on this link, or you can find me at 


Thanks, and happy shooting!





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