Monday, April 19, 2010

Natural Light Shooting in Backlit Conditions

Spring/Summer is one of my favorite times of the year to shoot! My children LOVE being outdoors after months of being crammed inside due to frigid temperatures. They are all too eager to jump on a slide, ride a scooter, and play in water. To me, these are the things childhood is made of! On top of it all, the light is fantastic this time of year.

One way I like to enhance these warm/whimsical moments is by shooting in backlit conditions. Backlighting creates such great tones and adds energy and warmth to an image. Backlighting, simply put, is when your light source is behind your subject. So basically, it is when the photographer shoots 'into' their light source.

Backlit scenes can be challenging for the family photojournalist for a few reasons: 1. we are often shooting wide, so if we go by our light meter, we will often underexpose our subject. 2. we have been told to look at the histogram and not to 'blow the highlights'. when shooting backlit with natural light, you will blow the highlights.

So how do we shoot backlit scenes?

1. Expose FOR YOUR SUBJECT. I shoot in M (manual) mode 95% of the time. So I will often times get really close to my subject (fill the frame with your subject) and dial in the exposure using my in camera light meter. When you step back to recompose your scene, your light meter is going to lie to you! It is going to read that the scene is overexposed. But we know that our subject is exposed perfectly!

2. Work the sun! We are generally shooting into the sun. However, you can place the sun just off to the side so that its just outside of the framing of the photo. Also, I like to put the sun just behind the subject's head. A lot of time this will yield lens flare. Sometimes this is desirable other times it is not. So it really depends on your intentions! So move the sun around in the frame to play with different effects.

3. Post processing a backlit shot. Shooting backlit will often cause your subjects to be less contrasty. I try to capture back some of that loss of contrast in a few ways (I use Photoshop CS4): a.) Using ACR (Adobe RAW Convertor), I will often increase my blacks from a +5 (the default) to about a +10. Obviously, this is arbitrary and will vary from image to image. b.) Using ACR, I will often adjust the clarity to about a +10 (again, vary from image to image). c.) After any editing I do to an image, I will often 'dodge and burn' the photo for any 'local' tonal adjustments (to see how I dodge and burn, go to my tutorial on 'seeing in black and white').

Below are a few examples of shots in backlit conditions using the techniques above:

Quick recap: Meter your subject, not the background. Position the sun in various locations. Recapture some contrast in post processing. Have fun with it!

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  1. You make the toughest subjects so easy to understand. Backlit subjects have always confused me. Your info just gave me an "Ah Ha" moment. Now I get it. Thanks very much.

  2. Chuck, thanks again for another great writeup.
    One question though.... wouldn't it be easier/faster to shoot in aperture mode on a sunny day and not have to worry too much about shutter speed for some of the action shots?

  3. You're having to do photoshop adjustments because you aren't handling the incoming light correctly. It has nothing to do with being robbed of contrast, and everything to do with knowledge of handling a backlit situations. There's ugly flare and crud in some of these too.

  4. Interesting article, added his blog to Favorites

  5. Thanks, good information. I keep wanting to try this. I wouldn't worry about what was said on May 3rd. Now days the flare and crud are all the rage.