Amazing Macro Backgrounds: The Broken Backlighting Technique

In this article, I’m going to share with you one of my absolute favorite macro photography tricks:

The broken backlighting technique.

It guarantees you amazing macro backgrounds, full of bright bokeh like this:

And in this guide, I’m going to explain exactly how the technique works–and how you can use it for incredible macro photography photos.

Are you ready?

Let’s dive right in.

Beautiful Bokeh Explained

Bokeh refers to the background blur in your photos.

Generally, a photo with a creamy background is said to have good bokeh, like this:

Now, bokeh is caused by the aperture of your lens. If the aperture of your lens is narrow, it will give you a photo that has absolutely no bokeh. The photo will be sharp throughout.

Like this photo:

But if the aperture is wide, you’ll get a photo with a blurry background, like this:

A wide aperture doesn’t just make your background look blurry, however. It takes light and changes the way it’s rendered. Small spots of lights are made to look like circular splashes of color.

Look at the background of the photo below. Each circle was caused by an individual light source (in this case, an LED fairy light).

Cool, right?

This is the look that I’m often going for in my photos. This geometric, circular bokeh–that just looks, well, amazing.

And while you definitely can spend your time carrying around a nice light source, such as in fairy light photography, it’s pretty inconvenient to do it constantly. And you can’t even see fairy lights until the sun sets.

So if you want to create geometric bokeh all the time…

…what do you do?

You use the broken backlighting technique. Which will allow you to create amazing bokeh while the sun is shining, in all sorts of shooting situations.

The Broken Backlighting Technique: How It Works

The broken backlighting technique requires no special equipment. Not even a tripod.

You just need a camera, a lens, and a subject. You also need some nice natural light, which is why I recommend shooting in the early morning and late afternoon, for beautiful golden hour lighting.

Now, here’s the basic idea:

Your lens creates beautiful geometric bokeh when it interacts with small, isolated spots of light. But if the light source is too big, you won’t achieve the effect.

And if the light is too bright, it won’t work, either. An ultra-bright light just blows out the image.

In general, the light has to be pointing toward your lens. You can’t just wave your lens and get bokeh. You need bright spots in your image.

And the best way to get these bright spots is to find broken backlighting. 

Broken backlighting is simply sunlight that comes from behind your main subject. And it’s broken by some object, such as a tree or a bush.

If you position your subject so that the broken backlight is in the background, the bokeh will appear–and it’ll look amazing.

See, when the sunlight streams in from behind your subject, it goes through the tree. And the tree leaves and branches break up the light into smaller spots of light.

Which are then captured by your camera sensor.

And the spots of light turn out really, really good.

A few tips:

1. Don’t Include the Sun in Your Frame

No matter how good the broken backlighting looks, it’ll be completely ruined if you actually put the sun in the photo.

Because the sun is too bright. It’s too strong.

And it will blow out a large chunk of the photo, making it look white and washed out.

Instead, put the sun off to the side, or make sure it’s almost completely blocked by something (for instance, your broken backlighting object).

That way, you’ll still be able to get the broken backlighting effects–without actually showing the sun itself.

In the photo below, the sun was blocked by my main subject, the poppy:

2. Get Down Low for the Best Broken Backlighting

If you want beautiful bokeh, I suggest you get down low to the ground.

That way, you’ll be able to angle your lens up toward the sky–and achieve the best broken backlighting possible.

You should also experiment with different backlighting angles. You can go slightly up, down, right, or left, and take note of how the bokeh effect changes.

For this photo, I got down low, and put the coneflower up against the trees.

3. Find Broken Backlight Wherever You Go

Here’s the thing:

It may seem like broken backlighting only exists in a select few places.

But in reality, it’s actually pretty easy to find.

If you get low enough to the ground, and if you’re willing to move a bit, you can pretty much always find a tree, a bush, or some tall grasses to break your backlight.

And then you’ll be able to capture broken backlighting photos!

Broken Backlighting: Next Steps

Now that you know how to take amazing broken backlight photos…

…the next step is to get out and shoot!

You can find all sorts of bokeh opportunities, if you look for them!

I also recommend you sign up for my newsletter, where you’ll receive notifications of new content, tips, and so much more–straight to your inbox!

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  1. Sarajit Sil


    Thank you Jaymes for sharing your experience with the world. Your articles are very informative and helpful. It’s always a pleasure to read through.

  2. Melinda


    Hi Jaymes- I am new to your blog, website, etc. Can you tell me what lens you use? And, would filters be able to achieve the amount of zoom you have or do I need a specific lens?


    • Jaymes Dempsey


      Hi Melinda, glad you reached out, and welcome to the site! Absolutely–I use a Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro, the first lens in this post on the best Canon macro lenses. It’s not ridiculously pricey, but there are plenty of cheaper, high-quality options if you’d prefer to pay less, such as the Tamron 90mm macro, which is on that same list.

      For high magnification shots like you see on my website, you have a few options. You can use close-up filters, but these tend to negatively impact image quality. Extension tubes are another possibility, which will let you get closer, but there are a few drawbacks here, such as sharpness at high magnifications. That’s why I do recommend a dedicated macro lens if you’re really interested in diving into the genre. They’ll give you sharp photos at very high magnifications. If you want to keep the price low, you could buy used–there are some great deals on eBay.

      Hope that helps, and let me know if you have any questions!

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