How To Take Good Pictures: Put the light behind you

This post is part of an irregular series about improving your photography while using the camera you already own. You can read the introduction to the series in this Q&A post (just scroll down to the third question).

One of the first things I learned when I first started getting more serious about photography was that having plenty of light is not the only key to taking good pictures. The quantity and quality of light is important, certainly, but it’s also essential to think about where the light is in relation to the camera.

As a general rule (though there are exceptions, of course!), it’s best to put the light source behind you, so that it illuminates your subject.

This is true when you take pictures of people (this is my friend’s new baby. Isn’t her hair delightful?).

Or pictures of objects.

Want to see how NOT to do this? (I took a bad picture just for you!) In the following photo, the window light was behind Zoe, so it was illuminating the back of her head. Which would have been great, except that I wasn’t taking a photo of the back of her head.

On a related note, this is why it’s good to take pictures when the sun is not directly overhead. When the sun is right on top of you, it’s obviously impossible to get into a position where the light is behind you. When the sun is rising or setting, though, and is lower in the sky, it’s quite easy to put the light behind you.

I mentioned at the beginning that there are exceptions to this rule, and I’ll cover that more in another post. In a nutshell, though, sometimes it works out nicely to put your subject in front of a light source. This is called backlighting and is useful if you want to do a silhouette.

And it sometimes makes people’s hair look really lovely (see the pretty wisps on the other side of Zoe’s head?).

But, this is a little trickier than the front lighting I’ve been advocating in this post, so if your camera and skills are limited, you are most likely to get good results by keeping the light behind you (I do have a lovely camera, and I still shoot with the light behind me at least 75% of the time!).

So, next time you get ready to take a picture, figure out where the light is coming from (window, sun, lamp), and position yourself with your back to the light. It doesn’t cost a thing, and will make a world of difference in your photos.


You may also be interested in other posts from this series:

How To Use Outside Light

Getting Down


  1. says

    How do you keep people from looking all squinty-eyed because they were looking into the sun? That’s just a question I’ve always had, since almost every outdoor picture that has been taken of me leaves me with what I call “sun-squint”.

    Thanks for blogging! I just got started reading, and I appreciate all the little tidbits of information especially regarding living frugally. Keep up the good work!

    • Kristen says

      Katy, if at all possible, I don’t shoot while it’s really bright outside. I prefer to shoot in the morning or the late afternoon (evening in summer) when the sun is not so bright and high. When the sun is lower in the sky, your subjects will not be nearly as prone to squinting.

      If you have to shoot during midday, try to find a shady spot to shoot in (another side of the house, by a tree, under a beach umbrella, etc). Or, if you don’t care too much about getting the eyes of your subjects, consider shooting them from the side or from behind. Some of the nicest pictures I’ve taken of my kids have been done this way…on a sunny beach with me trailing behind them as they walk.

      A cloudy day is often a really nice time to take pictures because the available light is soft and diffused, not harsh like bright sun. You can shoot people from almost any direction on a cloudy day, which is great if you’re a little unpracticed at working with sunlight.

  2. says

    If you must shoot with the sun behind them, then fill flash can save what would normally be an unusable shot. I am not a fan of flash but there are times it works well.


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