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Backlighting subjects accomplishes a few beneficial things. First it creates a rimlight on your subject. This bright edge serves to enhance the illusion of depth in a scene, and it helps to make a photograph seem more alive. Aside from depth, though, a rimlight helps make a distinct separation between subject and background—which helps simplify the composition, make it more readable, and drive the viewer's eye to the subject.
Backlighting can also make a scene quite literally glow. Translucent elements—such as foliage—will come to life and provide a bright, beautiful background against which you can frame your subject. Backlighting is even a great way to make an interesting image when foliage is the primary subject; it transforms the scene quickly from boring to bold. Just look at the examples here. The front-lit leaves are boring, while the backlit leaves glow.
A backlight also serves to enhance the feeling of texture and depth in a scene by creating shadows that are seen by the camera. Think about backlighting as the opposite of an on-camera flash. The on-camera flash creates harsh, frontal shadowless light, whereas a backlit scene will create shadows that fall directly toward the camera. Those shadows, while challenging on the subject, make backgrounds more interesting.
This seemed like the opposite of everything I'd been taught. But I quickly saw on my film what this learned photographer intended: my images had depth, and drama and impact. All because I shot into a backlight.
Now you may be wondering how one shoots toward the sun and still makes good exposures. The first approach, and the one I use when photographing sports, is to open up my aperture to turn a silhouetted, backlit subject into a normally exposed subject against a bright background. The other approach—which requires that you're closer to your subject than you usually can be when photographing a sporting event—is to use a fill flash.
Fill flash gets its name from doing exactly what it does in a backlit situation: it fills in the shadows and creates a readable exposure. Done properly, backlighting with fill flash can create a very nuanced, very beautiful lighting scheme that looks almost as if it's been created in a studio. (When I advise friends on the best way to take simple snapshots—even with a point-and-shoot—it's to point your camera toward the sun and fire a fill flash. Trust me, it works wonders. And your subjects won't have squinty eyes from staring into the sun.)
Another concern when shooting toward the sun is fighting flare. Certainly if the sun is in your frame you're going to get flare—which robs your scene of contrast and color, and can even add distracting spots. You can sometimes position your subject or a scene element (like a tree) so that your camera occupies the shadow it creates. That's a great way to add drama and avoid flare. Even if the sun isn't in your frame it can still cause flare. Use of a lens shade helps considerably in this situation, and a flag made of foamcore, paper, or even your hand can cast a shadow on the lens and eliminate flare. Ultimately dealing with flare is a small price to pay in exchange for the great drama and depth that a strong backlight will add to your shot.