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Mastering Backlighting

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We don't always have full control of the light in a scene. Often times, we are forced to adjust our shooting technique to the light we are given. One tricky scenario is backlighting. Today, I'm going to show you how to be a champion of handling tricky backlit photo situations.

Backlighting is a situation that can really boggle our camera. Both the metering and focus systems are not immune to the challenges of backlit scenarios. With a little bit of technique, we can make sure that our photo skills can master the technical side of things.

Today, I'll be taking a look at some of the challenges that you will face while shooting backlit portraits. Although handling backlighting can be a bit tricky, the effect that it provides can sometimes create very appealing photos.

All it takes is a proper handling of the metering system and checking our focus. We will work to master the settings needed to overcome those challenges, and then edit our photos for the best look.


Why Backlighting?

As you venture into this tutorial, you might be wondering why I think it's important to handle backlighting. I can think of two big reasons for this.

Sometimes we need to master backlighting by necessity. We don't always have the luxury of manipulating the light or the way the subject is positioned in relation to it. There are situations that require mastering backlit scenarios in order to get the photos that we need.

Without the proper technique, our photos will be out of focus and/or terribly exposed. I have clients with expectations, and learning to handle backlighting was essential to making sure I could complete a number of jobs.

Believe it or not, another reason to master backlighting is because it creates interesting photos. Putting the light at a subject's back can create some interesting highlights, particularly around their head. Those highlight angles can create appealing looks. Also, the somewhat "washed out" look of backlit photos seems to be increasingly popular.


I captured this photo on a recent engagement shoot and like the way the light at the back of the subject shapes the photo.

The Challenges

I will be the first to admit that shooting backlit photos comes with a unique set of challenges. My first few attempts left me underwhelmed, with photos that were either too dark, too bright, or severely out of focus. Let's take a look at how we can fix the two major factors that challenge our backlit photography.

Metering

Metering is the way that our camera evaluates how much light is in a scene. It helps us choose the settings that contribute to the final photo. Good metering gives us photos that are exposed the way we want them.

Sometimes, our camera's metering system is a bit stumped. When it comes to metering, the camera's default setting is to take into account the entire photo. One of the situations that this occurs is when photos are backlit.

When we have the sun or another bright source of light behind a subject, our camera gets kind of confused. I've noticed that many cameras become torn between metering for the dark subject, or evaluating all of the light in the scene. It usually selects settings directly in the middle, and thus underexposes our subject.


Here you can see the metering modes on a Nikon camera. The top metering mode, "center weighted metering" allows us to refine the area we take into account to a much smaller area. The default metering mode is the one in the middle, and considers the entire scene when metering.

There are two ways that I will try to overcome this challenge. The first is to change the metering mode that my camera is in. Backlighting fools the metering when our camera is taking into account the entire scene.

By default, most cameras meter the entire scene. They are taking into account the lighting of the entire scene, when all we want to meter is a smaller portion of the photo. We can switch into other metering modes that allow us to narrow the area that we meter.

This is exactly what we want to do - we want the camera to meter the part of the photo that matters. Who cares if the background is too bright and blown out? In this case, we're thinking of portraits or other types of people photography.

If we switch to a metering mode such as spot metering and we point the camera to a small portion of the photo, the metering is far more likely to be accurate. The backlit portion of the photo should be excluded so that we meter only the subject.

Of course, this introduces a certain amount of risk or confusion if you're just getting started. I have frequently switched my metering mode, only to later forget to revert my settings. Ensure that you switch back to your normal metering mode once you've finished conquering the backlighting.

Another way we can overcome this is to use exposure compensation. With this option, we can actually leave the camera in our normal metering mode, and "dial in" an alteration in the metering.

When I have a backlit subject, I often find my Canon 5D Mark II underexposing the subject. This means that the photo is darker than I desire. If I don't feel like switching my metering mode, I will likely just dial in a bit of exposure compensation in order to overcome the metering.

From my experience, I will usually add back one stop of light. This means setting exposure compensation to +1.0 . This usually gets the subject in the desired lighting situation.

Paying close attention to your metering is so important. In the digital age, we can instantly check our results and then adjust accordingly. Considering adjusting your metering mode or use exposure compensation to help the metering system along.

Focusing

Focusing is probably the toughest factor to overcome. With metering, we just dial in exposure compensation or remember to account for the backlit effect. Focus presents a pretty serious technical challenge that we need to pay close attention to.

Autofocus systems are challenged by backlighting. Frequently, my camera will backfocus and simply not put the subject in the focal plane. This is a tough challenge, and I'm not sure that there is a "cure all" solution for overcoming it.


During a recent wedding, I depended a little too much upon my autofocus system to nail the focus of my photo. The backlighting definitely threw my camera for a loop.

As always, apply the same careful focus techniques that you use anytime your autofocus system is challenged. I tend to select lenses that allow me to also manually override the focus. This means that I can grab the focus ring on the lens at anytime and manually focus if the camera isn't getting it right on its own.

If you're letting the camera pick the autofocus point, make sure that the point is on target with where you want to focus. In portraits and people photography, this is likely to be the subject's eye. I make sure that the autofocus system is getting me the subject in focus, and if not, I adjust manually - this is where a lens with focus override is so important.

Keep an eye through the viewfinder to make sure that the focus is the way you want it to appear. Paying close attention to the subject will ensure that we are getting our focus right and not letting the autofocus system be fooled by backlighting.


Use a Hood

If you aren't wanting the "flare" feel to your photo, I would definitely recommend using a hood. This certainly doesn't conquer backlighting, but it can save you from flare that can ruin a photo. Sometimes, we want flare for an effect, but if we're looking to block the harsh rays of light scattering through our lens, a hood is a great idea.


A hood won't completely fix a backlit scenario, but it can help keep light from sometimes flaring the photo beyond use. Photo by Flickr user Cheon Fong Liew

Post-Production

Backlit portraits frequently need just a bit of polishing to make sure that they look their best. When you have a bit of lens flare or the sun at the subject's back, you may experience a loss of contrast or a somewhat "washed-out" look. In my style of photography, this is actually a great starting point when I take photos into the "digital darkroom."

My image editing platform of choice is Adobe Lightroom, but these same tips will work in Camera RAW in Adobe Photoshop, as well as many other image editing suites.


Remember the photo from earlier? Here is my starting point. As you can see, it's going to take a bit of tweaking to get right.

This is my basic starting point. You'll see here that we have a backlit subject with a bit of flare, and this leads to a washed out style of photo. It's also a bit underexposed, which I will fix momentarily. Again, this is actually very appealing to my eye and is a popular style, and can be perfected with a bit of editing magic.

With just a few sliders, we can really restore the potential of this image. The first thing that I add is "Blacks". When I push this slider up, it restores the black levels of the photo.


In this photo, I've adjusted the blacks level and exposure.

Next up, I'm going to add some contrast to the photo. It is a basic limitation of a lens to lose some contrast when flare or backlighting is in photos, so adding contrast is a way to overcome this in post production


The finished product, adding a bit of contrast to taste.

Conclusion

Fear backlighting? Don't worry. Spend some extra time paying attention to metering and checking your focus and you're on your way to much better results. With a few post production techniques, you can bring your backlit portraits up to speed and create unique images.

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