Center for Creative Media | Utilizing Backlight in Cinematography

Utilizing Backlight in Cinematography

Utilizing Backlight in Cinematography

As a cinematographer, backlight is one of the most useful tools you have in your arsenal. Backlights can create a dream effect, add to a glamour shot, create mystery, and so much more. We will break down three examples of backlight uses in this post, but there is no end to what you can accomplish with any of your lighting setups.

Just like any other lighting technique, you should be very deliberate with every decision you make. Different people have different preferences, and there will be people who prefer a different styles of lighting in a scene. Don’t let this discourage you. If you know why you are using each light in a scene, and they are helping the story, you are in a good place.

Let’s look at dream/flashback scenes first. You have much more liberty with your backlight, because these scenes are not reality, so your light sources don’t need motivation (depending on the director’s taste, of course). The screen shot below is from the movie Shutter Island. Roger Deakins, ASC, is a lover of heavy backlight, so when he has an opportunity, he lets loose. Using 20Ks and Dinos, he light this scene from behind, letting the passive bounce light the front of the actors.

A nice hair light looks good in almost any glamour shot, and what better place to look than the classic noir films. Those guys didn’t have color to help tell their story, so you better believe their lighting had to be on point. Next time you light a scene, flip that DSLR to the monochrome setting and see if your creation can stand the test of black and white. Does your morning interior look like daylight only because you put an orange gel on your light?

The examples below are from the film Double Indemnity. We see a glamorous hair light can go a long way, especially with lighter hair color. Again, there is a lot of room for lighting preference and what story you are trying to tell. If you have a female actor who is glamorous yet mysterious, you might have her stand in the shadows with stripe of light revealing an inviting smile. A backlight in this situation would probably look weird and do nothing for the tone of the character.

The last example below is, again, a black and white example. In this scene  there is a sense of mystery, because we can’t fully see the expressions on the actors faces. Combining the use of a profile shot and backlight/reverse key light can do wonders for your scene.

Here is another two shot from the Social Network with the use of backlight to expose the scene. We, as the audience, feel disconnected, but still engaged in what is going on — it’s as though we are peeking into the conversation. Combine this type of lighting with other composition set ups, and you’ve got yourself several ways to light your story.


These are just a few examples of what you can accomplish with your backlight. In a lot of cases, you may not use a backlight at all to light a scene. Just keep learning different lighting techniques, know how they make a scene “feel,” and be deliberate with your choices. Let this blog get thinking, and soon you’ll be that visual expert that directors will want on their set.

Josh Layton

Josh Layton is a 21-year-old cinematography student  from Pennsylvania. He attends school at Center for Creative Media, a Christian film school in Tyler, TX. He draws much of his inspiration from adventure and being in nature. He sites bacon as one of his greatest creative muses.

Bradyn Litster