Lighting Techniques: Backlighting for Band Portraits

Promos: The New Heathers -- Redbird RecordsIn this shot of The New Heathers, I superclamped an SB-600 just out of frame in the elevator shaft for accent lighting.

Q&ALove it or hate it, backlighting is a effective way to punch up music photography, whether it's on stage or off. Here's a look at getting the most out of a limited number of flashes to get this effect for band portraits.

Hey Todd,

I have two Canon speedlights, my 5D MkII, a couple f2.8 lenses and reflectors. I see a lot of your shots add at least another two speedlights for rim lighting.

So my question is: both indoors and outdoors, how can I make two speedlights work for me? Is this setup too lacking in light that I need to add some extra speedlights?

I appreciate your time heaps :)


Hey Dan,

Great question – even with abundant access to gear, it never hurts to know how to get the most out of one's gear. With multiple speedlights for backlighting, it's easier to get even coverage and to more finely tune to quality of the light, but two flashes or strobes is more than enough for both backlight and keylight.

Rimlighting for Band Photography

For outdoor, daytime photo shoots, one very simple and effective trick for maximizing your speedlights is to use ambient light as much as possible. With sunny days, you've got a third light to work with – gratis – and even on overcast days it's possible to use ambient light for an appreciable, if subtle, amount of backlighting.

Warped Tour Portraits:

For this shot of the After Midnight Project, the sun is coming from camera left, throwing some pretty broad and hot sidelighting across the group. A softbox above the camera and flash coming from camera right round out the photo.


In this portrait of 3OH!3, the sun was low in the sky, but still providing enough punch for accent lighting camera left behind Nat and Sean.

When working with no aid from the sun, it's still possible to achieve great backlighting effects with only two flash sources. In essence, all you need is one light for the key light and and one for the backlight.

Warped Tour Portraits: TAT

In this photo of TAT, a backlight behind the group and a softbox in front and above were the only lighting elements – simple and effective.

Promos: The New Heathers -- Redbird Records

In this shot of The New Heathers, I used several speedlights clamped together as a backlight, one light would have been enough to compliment the frontlighting here, no sweat.

Underoath – Portraits

Again, a light directly behind Aaron Gillespie of Underoath provides backlighting to compliment the main light.

Paul van Dyk

In this portrait of DJ and producer Paul van Dyk, a speedlight camera right and behind the subject created a simple and effective treatment for PvD in action.

Portraits: Slayer for Rolling Stone

With Slayer here, you can see the affect of a backlight adding a bit of definition to the group and also acting on the environment, while the keylight – a softbox – lights the group from in front and above the group.

In addition to strict backlighting, a background light washing the backdrop rather than aimed at the subject can be an effective use of lights for a different way of making the subject pop.

Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons

In this shot of singer Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons, a bare SB-600 positioned just below the mirror and pointed up provides a contrast to the softer light from a 45″ umbrella camera right. Still, just two lights.

If you want backlighting and only have one remote light, it's still a piece of cake to get the effect by using ambient light or a simple reflector.

Warped Tour Portraits:

In this example, I placed a 45″ umbrella directly behind singer Alana Grace for a highly feathered flavored rimlight, while a reflector in front did the rest.

Backlighting in Live Music Photography

Since I started out as a live music photographer, I think there's a huge correlation between band portraiture and the stage treatments used for concerts. Now, if only we could lug around stage rigging and a few dozen cans into the studio or on location…

Avenged Sevenfold @ the Pageant -- 2007.11.06

Hayley Williams of Paramore

Jack's Mannequin

Linkin Park @ Projekt Revolution

The Roots @ the Fox Theatre -- 2008.05.29

The Sounds @ Webster Hall -- 2006.11.24

End Notes:

In short, two speedlights or strobes is more than enough when it comes to creating rim lighting, especially when you have the sun at your disposal to use as a third light source. When you open up the possibility of reflectors and ambient/existing light, your options get even better. While multiple backlights will get you more flexibility, this approach is more more of a luxury than a necessary.