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Backlighting in film: Understand essential basics

Filmmakers often use backlighting in film, which is one of the most crucial film lighting techniques. It is a creative tool that improves the visual attractiveness of a scene, adds dimension to visuals, and contributes to the storytelling in subtle but meaningful ways. In this article, we'll delve into its definiiton, its significance and effects, and how to use it to create stunning cinematic visuals.

Use COLBOR video lights to create backlighting in film of music performance.

One of the backlighting examples in film created by COLBOR video lights

What is backlighting in film?

Backlighting is a film lighting technique in which a light source is positioned behind a subject and faces the camera. It casts light onto the subject from behind, forming a luminous outline around its contours and distinguishing it from the background. Using backlighting in film allows filmmakers and cinematographers to achieve a variety of visual effects that alter the overall mood, ambiance, and narrative dynamics of a scene.

It is a key component of classic three-point lighting, and it is what gives a frame a three-dimensional appearance rather than a flat one. When the backlight shines on the subject at an angle, it is commonly known as a kicker or rim light.

The use of backlighting in film is as follows:

  • Produce a sense of depth
  • Contour outlines
  • Minimize the flatness of an image
  • Enhance dramatic impact
  • Distinguish the subject from its backdrop

Why do you need it in filmmaking?

When having filmmaking, you're essentially transforming a three-dimensional environment into a two-dimensional recording, which will then be viewed on a flat screen. To maintain realism, it's crucial to convey depth within the scene, and this is where backlighting plays a crucial role. By effectively separating subjects from the background, backlighting brings them forward, lending depth to the overall composition. In essence, backlighting prevents scenes from appearing flat and lacking depth perception.

What effects can you create using backlighting in film?

There are four main effects. Each effect of backlighting in film is as follows:

It can highlight the edges in the scene.

Backlighting in film may help you establish the distinction between the subject and the background, but it truly shines when highlighting edges. Separation and clarity are important, but the focus is on the edges! Backlights that are well-angled can assist retain shadows while accentuating edges in your scene. This generates a sense of interest in your film, which can range from romantic to menacing to dramatic.

It can create an intense atmosphere.

You may create an intense ambiance that seems nearly claustrophobic by employing just backlighting in a scene with very little illumination from a key light or fill light. Placing the audience on the darker side of the scene, with the light emanating from behind the subjects, generates a palpable sensation of urgency, as viewers are drawn towards the light source.

It can create a halo effect.

Rim lighting, also known as halo lighting or hair lights, is frequently the default backlight in the 3-point lighting arrangement. It serves not only to distinguish subjects from the background but also to cast a luminous aura around them, accentuating their contours and edges. The light positioned behind the subject yields a halo effect. Depending on the narrative context, it can be employed to convey menace or a more positive tone; it is versatile in this regard. Furthermore, rim lighting can be utilized as an independent backlighting method, not just confined to the confines of a 3-point lighting setup.

It can create silhouettes of the subject.

If silhouettes are what you're after, backlighting is the key. With the background fully illuminated and no light falling directly on your subject, it will appear as a dark outline against a backdrop bathed in light.

COLBOR video lights are used to backlit the subject to create a halo effect.

How to use artificial light sources to create back light in filming effectively?

To effectively utilize backlighting in film, several factors should be considered.

Selecting the Right Light Source: It's essential to choose the appropriate light source to achieve the desired effect. Tungsten, HMI, or LED studio lights are all viable options for backlights, each imparting a unique quality of light. Experimenting with various sources will help identify the one that best suits your scene. COLBOR lights like COLBOR CL330 are a good choice to use.

Control Light Intensity: Backlighting should subtly enhance the scene without overpowering it. Use dimmers, diffusion, or flags to regulate the intensity, maintaining a balanced lighting composition.

Prevent Flare and Overexposure: Carefully manage backlighting to avoid lens flare or overexposed highlights. Employ lens hoods or flags to block unwanted light that may cause flare, and adjust backlight intensity to prevent overexposure.

Combine with Fill Light: While backlighting can create artistic effects independently, it's often paired with a key light and fill light to ensure adequate visibility of the subject's features. Achieving a professional look requires skillful balance among these different lighting sources.

How to get backlighting with natural light?

Utilize sunlight to effortlessly create stunning backlit images without relying on electricity.

For a natural appearance, aim for diffuse backlighting. Placing your subject directly between you and the sun may not yield smooth results, but positioning it too low can cause lens flare. Opt for a middle ground: backlighting works best when the sun is at a 45-degree angle.

One safe technique to ensure that you do it correctly is to try it during the golden hours. The sunlight softens and turns golden around an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, making it ideal for backlighting. Your subjects will be defined with a "halo" effect, making your frames appear magical.

How to ensure proper exposure when backlit the subject?

Light meters, whether in-camera or handheld, are designed to average the tonal values of a scene. Therefore, when the subject is backlit against a brighter background or light source, the meter assumes the entire scene is bright, resulting in underexposure. While some photographers may desire a silhouette effect, many aim for a well-exposed image.

To prevent silhouetting, take a light meter reading closer to the subject. With an in-camera light meter, position yourself closer to the subject, ensuring that most of the backlighting in film is not in view while allowing sufficient light on the subject. Through the camera's viewfinder, focus on the subject until it fills the frame, then take the reading and adjust the aperture and shutter speed accordingly. For handheld light meters, move as close to the subject as possible without obstructing light. A spot meter, which measures a narrow angle of light, is handy for backlit subjects.

To achieve a silhouette, meter the entire scene with the light meter and adjust the camera settings accordingly. It's advisable to underexpose by one or two stops to increase contrast and capture a complete silhouette of the subject.