Do you ever watch a movie and find yourself asking “What is it that makes it look so cinematic? What trick do I need to pull when I’m lighting my YouTube videos to create the same impact?” If you do, we think that you might be interested in learning more about backlighting. It’s often described as one of those techniques that make footage look “cinematic” and while it does have that effect and it will help to elevate your filmmaking, there’s more to backlighting than “looking cinematic”.
What is backlighting?
The simple definition of backlighting is lighting that you position behind your subjects, illuminating them from the rear. A backlight is a standard element of the 3-point lighting setup, but it can be used as a lighting technique in its own right.
As part of the 3-point lighting setup, a backlight is usually positioned on the same side of the set as the key light, behind the subject and pointing toward the camera or balancing the fill light from an elevated position. These aren’t hard and fast rules, though. You can, for example, have the backlight on the same side as the fill light or coming from a different angle. The important thing is that the light source is concealed from the camera. And, as we’ll see, backlighting in film isn’t just about 3-point lighting. Whatever quality of light you choose for your scene, backlighting will help to bring the softness or accentuate the hardness you want.
Why do you need backlighting?
When you make a movie, you’re creating a 2D recording of a 3D scene, which will be displayed on a flat screen. To help make it realistic, you need to ensure that you capture the depth in the scene, and this is where backlighting helps. Backlighting works to separate your subjects from the background, bringing them to the foreground and giving a sense of depth to the scene. In short: backlighting prevents your scene from looking flat and two-dimensional.
What effects can you create using backlighting?
Backlighting in film might be key to helping you create separation between your subject and the background, but where it really shines is in highlighting edges. Separation and definition are vital, but the interest is in the edges! With well-angled backlights, you can help maintain your shadows while highlighting the edges in your scene. This creates a sense of intrigue in your footage that can be anything from romantic to sinister to intense.
By using just backlighting in a scene with very little by way of a key light or fill light, you can create an intense atmosphere that feels almost claustrophobic. When the audience is on the darker side of the scene, with the light coming from behind the subjects, it creates a pressing feeling, with the audience reaching toward the light.
Rim lighting–sometimes also called halo lighting or hair lights–is very often the default backlight used in the 3-point lighting setup. Not only does it help to separate your subjects from the background, but it produces a glow of light around them that highlights their outline and edges, too. With the light positioned behind the subject creating a halo-like glow, you can see why it’s sometimes called halo lighting. Depending on your story, you can use it menacingly or much more positively. It works both ways. And, of course, it doesn’t have to be used just as a part of a 3-point lighting setup. Rim lighting can be used as a standalone backlighting technique, too.
If silhouettes are your thing, then backlighting is essential. With all the light illuminating your background and nothing falling on your subject, your subject will show as a black outline against a beautifully lit background.
Silhouettes with artificial light
Silhouettes with natural light
The great thing about backlighting is that you can create it with both artificial and natural light. So let’s look at both ways.
Creating backlighting with artificial light
In a standard 3-point lighting setup, the backlight will balance against the key and fill lights to create separation between the subject and background. For a rim lighting effect, make sure that you have a backlight positioned directly behind your subject. The halo-like effect can be as pronounced as you want or need it to be, and if necessary, you can always combine a specific rim light with other backlights. Or you can go for just a rim light for a very dramatic effect.
For that dramatic, backlight-only setup, you might need to bounce some light back into the scene so that it isn’t too dark and shadowy. You might want to do this with reflectors, but you can also use props, such as sheets of paper if that works with your story. Practicals, for example, desk lamps, can also be used in this situation too.
Using Natural Light as Backlight
The sun makes an excellent backlight if you’re working outside. Depending on the chosen angle, you choose, the sun can be used as a traditional backlight or rim light. Or you can use it as a more dramatic key or single light that’s coming from behind. This will give you great highlights on the edges, but be careful to ensure that the sun isn’t directly in the scene! It’s also vital when you’re using the sun like this to be absolutely sure where it will be and at what time. You need to make sure that you have your timings worked out to get the shoot right.
Sunset backlighting looks beautiful: you get contrast, you get edges, you get definition. Depending on the angles you use, and the look that you want, backlighting at sunset can produce the most beautiful rim light effect, a stunning silhouette, or just something that is sumptuous looking.
Even if you didn’t know it, you were probably making use of backlighting one way or another. But when you really know what it is and how you can manipulate it, backlighting can bring something very special to your filmmaking.