by Walter Graff

NOTE: Your computer monitor is not a TV set. The gamma settings of your computer monitor are usually different than a TV set, hence some of the photos may look dark or not as good as they should. Use these photos only as a reference.

Whenever I give a lecture I always preface my talk with one simple thought: there are no hard rules to anything in life, simply tastes. Lately a lot of people have been asking me about backlights, so I thought I'd take a moment to show you how I approach them. Once again I will use the template of the single camera interview in this discussion as it's universal.

Take a look at the old photo of Harry Bellefonte and Nat King Cole from Nat's short-lived show at the top of this article and you'll see one thing stands out, the light that rims their heads. When television was in it's early days of black and white there was a problem. The tubes in the cameras did not like contrast ratios. Hence, talent often wore medium tone clothing and the sets were always medium to dark. This caused problems in separating the talent from the backgrounds. Just imagine how much Mr. Bellefonte would have disappeared into the background had it not been for the bright back lights on his head and shoulders. While backlights were an important part of yesterday's television production, I don't feel they are as important today. With the advent of better technology and cameras that can handle highlights much better, we are not limited to dark grey curtains and medium tones anymore. Even so, it seems that the old-school method of lighting still remains with many who teach it today. I remember when I was in school in the early 1980's learning the basics of lighting. I was taught that in a simple three point set-up, my back light should be at least 1.5 to 2 times as bright as my front lights. If you're me, you realize that doing so today only produces an angelic unnatural effect. Perhaps there is a scenario where this much light is necessary, but in today's world, I think it's rare.

To quench the thirst of those who have been asking, I thought I'd spend a bit of time discussing what goes on in my head when I approach a situation and specifically how I handle backlighting. Look at this article as more of lesson in possibilities rather than a definitive lesson as I simply don't think there are any hard rules. Some of you might not agree with what I like here. There is no right or wrong.

#1: It's about what works for you, not any formula!

Most of the time when I am lighting various people for a single program, I try to create a synergy with all of the looks. When you see the examples that follow, know that they are taken randomly from different programs and don't necessarily have anything to do with each other. About the only thing you may notice is a theme concerning how I approach backlights.

Rather than blast light on someone's head and shoulders, my first tool is to use shallow depths of field to help accomplish separation. In the above photo (#1), I am doing just that, letting the background go quite soft so as to keep my talent in focus. In addition, notice a slight ring of light in the white area around his shoulders. I deliberately created that effect so that his darker suit wouldn't be lost in a darker background. While I do have a bit of light hitting his head from camera left, it is very subtle and unless you are looking for it, you probably wouldn't notice it. To me good lighting is just that, enhancing what exists and trying to create three dimensions in a two dimensional medium. I try to use shadow for that effect first and formost. In this case related to backlights, I only used what was necessary to create an appealing picture. To me that meant using depth of field to create the effect first, proper illumination within that depth of field second, and a bit of rim light third.

#2: Similar use of depth of field as the previos photo

In #2 from another interview with a politician, notice that my first method of separation isn't using lot's of backlight, but allowing my background to go soft. While I did include a bit of light on his camera right shoulder for a bit of rim of light on his dark jacket and dark hair, I would rather work my background lighting first so as to enhance the talent and to create a separation that is more natural and less forced than simply creating a pool of light on his head.

#3: Many times I just don't want backlights.

I'll often work backwards when it comes to light adding light instead of subtracting it. In this case with President Gerald Ford, I decided that I simply didn't need any backlight. I felt the background had sufficient contrast to his jacket for separation. In addition, I had enough of a difference in sharpness between the president and the background for my taste. I did do something very subtle though. Notice I lit him a bit brighter from one side (camera left). As a result, I took a small fluorescent fill-light and brought it around near 90 degrees from his head in the right side of the frame. Doing so allowed me to fill in the shadow on his left side and allowed me to give his hair a bit of highlight on that side. His hair has an even sheen from the key-side and the fill side and that sheen makes up for any backlight that would cause the same effect but probably slightly more noticeable.

#4: Color can be used in backlights too!

In the above still (#4), I decided that a bit of color was a nice touch. This was actually a difficult interview as I was in a hotel room that is about 12 by 12 with furniture so there wasn't much room for me, an audio person, and interviewer, and the talent. What you see behind the talent is actually a seven foot hallway that leads to the entrance to the room. I decided to use that space for my interview as it offered me some depth in a room that had light beige walls and nothing that I thought created an appropriate background. I decided to use a deep blue color as a break-up down the hall. The lamp and table are placed at the opening, and I grabbed another table and vase and placed it down the hall against the door. I felt it necessary to add a bit of a kicker to the talents head after looking at the shot. After doing so, I felt I wanted color, so I picked an orange tone to contrast the blue background.

#5: Again, not so much room to work with, but color.

In the above example (#5), I once again had very little room to work with. My talent is only a few feet from the background. So I brought the camera as far back away from the talent as possible and lit the talent with the lens wide open to create a very short depth of field. I also decided on a bit of orange color on a rim light on his right side would contrast the blue background while offering a nice kick of warm light to his brown hair. In fact, I often find myself using warm lights on brown hair and cool lights on white hair as both enhance their corresponding hair colors. Below is an example (#6) of a bit of 1/4 CTB I used on a gentleman with white hair.

#6: White hair, blue light.

There is one situation where I like to use more backlight then less and normally that is with women.

#7: Women look more glamorous with backlights.

I was trained by what I call "old-world" gaffers. These were guys who worked on films in the forties and fifties. Many of these skilled artists taught me that there are two things that make women look good, flatter front lighting and lots of back light. To this day I still like to light women with more backlight than I normally do with men. To me, they just look better and more glamorous. Photo #7 is a demonstration.

#8: Sometimes space limitations require effects you wouldn't normally use, but that work just fine.

What you might not be able to tell from photo #8 is that the available area in the room is about 4 feet by 7 feet. And the walls are white. So I can't make much in terms of separation in a room such as this. Color also is an important part of my backlight. Using a dimmer I have warmed up the backlight so that it highlights her hair and offers better separation of her light colored hair from the white wall. See photo #9 below.

#9: The final frame works nicely for me.

There are some times when I simply need to use more backlight than normal. To understand what I am referring to, I have to turn off the color in the next photo.

#10: I light in black and white.

I light for color last, and contrast first. What you see in photo #10 is how I see a scene when I am lighting. Understanding contrast helps you understand the nuances of better lighting so I've taught myself to see in black and white. Notice something about photo #10; the tones of the background behind his head are very close in tone to his skin and the clothing is very close in tone to the dark wood. While I could put all sorts of light on the background to bring up the level, I choose not to as I would be creating too much contrast ratio for my tastes and for a video camera. So in a case such as this, like the old black and white photo, backlight helps separate similar tones found in the talent and in the background.

#11: Now with the color put back in.

As you can see from photo #11, it works quite well, separating him from the background, yet not appearing too phony looking. And once again, I am using a dimmer to help make the light reflecting off his hair look more like a natural hair reflection than just white light.

#12: Another example of how the contrast is revealed better in black and white.

Once again photo #12 reveals a background that is similar in tone to many elements in the talent. Notice how close his hair is to the shelving in tone.

#13: Backlight is critical to a good shot in this case.

Photo #13 shows what the final shot looked like. You be the judge as to whether or not it works for you.

So in closing, I say use what works best for the moment. Know what the topic is about as you can set the mood for that topic with your lighting. If you are lighting for a broadcast television program, consider what time of day the program airs and light to represent that time of day. But most important, do what you think works. Nothing is ever wrong; rather it's about personal taste. I don't like ketchup on my eggs but it doesn't make it wrong because you do.

If you liked this article, my instructional DVD called "The Head Shot" will walk you through my favorite lighting set-up for shooting interviews. This 40 minute video includes graphs, charts, and clear concise instruction. It's a must for anyone wanting to learn how pros light the programs you see on TV everyday. Click here to learn more.

Copyright 2013 by Walter Graff. This article may be circulated and shared as long as the following reference is made: 'This article appears courtesy of Walter Graff-'

Please don't hesitate to send me an e-mail if you have any questions or comments please e-mail me at