Keeping Detail in Backlit Images
Keeping detail in backlit images requires more than just “pointing and shooting”, but it’s not rocket science. With a few pointers, you’ll be on your way to rich photographs that show the depth and detail of both shadow and highlight. Below I have outlined 4 tips that will help you improve detail in your backlit images.
Time of Day
If you’re shooting outdoors, one of the first details to pay attention to is what time of day it is. When the sun is high in the sky, contrast will be your most difficult enemy. The shadows will be very dark and the highlights very bright. This makes proper exposure for both of these ranges more difficult. Depending on where you live in the hemisphere and what time of year it is, between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM is the most difficult time to shoot. What photographers refer to as “golden hour” is more ideal. This will be either in the morning when the sun is rising or in the evening when the sun is setting. Not only will you get that beautiful golden hue, but also the contrast between light and shadow is much less during this time of day.
Are you trying to achieve that glow that illuminates the edges of your subject? You’ll need to use what has been termed rim light. Rim light is often created by having your light source directly behind your subject. As I shoot primarily using natural light, I like to change things up a little and move myself so that my light source (often the sun) isn’t directly behind but slightly to one side of my subject or the other. This allows for the sun to illuminate the front of my subject more, rather than having the front of him entirely encompassed in shadow.
Below I have an example of this. The sun is behind but slightly to the camera’s right. This illuminates the older girl’s face. The baby’s face is illuminated by the sun reflecting off of the strawberry container they are playing with. (Pay attention only to my subjects in this example as the background my be slightly deceiving. It has been flipped and edited in on the left side to cover up an otherwise distracting background.)
I am going to be speaking here about your histogram, that chart on your camera that looks like mountains. I have an example below. (When I first set out to understand the histogram, I was a little overwhelmed; but once I understood what I was looking for, I realized it was quite a helpful little tool.) The right side the histogram represents the highlights in your photograph, the left side represents your shadows, and the middle is a representation of your midtones.
The mountains on the graph show what your photograph consists of. If the mountains are primarily on the right side of the graph, your photograph will be considered high key. If the mountains are primarily on the left side, your photograph will be low key. And if they are directly in the middle, you will have a good balance of light and shadow. Any variation of these three options can indicate a well exposed photograph. Be careful when those mountains are touching the edge of either the right side (this would indicate overexposed areas of your photograph) or the left side (this would indicate underexposed areas). In both overexposure and underexposure, you lose detail. In most cases, you do not want the histogram touching the edges. As with many things, though, there are always exceptions. There are times you can expect your photograph to have under or overexposure (such as an overexposed sky in order to maintain proper exposure of your subject, or underexposure when your photo consists mostly of deep shadows). Practice makes perfect, as the old adage goes; and the beauty of digital is that you can, Try, try again! In keeping detail in backlit images, learn to read your histogram.
If you have maintained proper exposure taking your photograph, you’ll have much greater playing ground when it comes to post processing. Post processing should be much more about creativity than about fixing problems.
When keeping detail in backlit images, I will often edit using two exposures of the same image. I will convert the well exposed RAW file into both a properly exposed jpeg and an underexposed jpeg and then blend them. This allows for the shadows to be richer while maintaining those well exposed highlights.
Sometimes, I will get extra creative and make a photograph like the one below. This photo did not come out of the camera backlit, but by converting the RAW file into a few different exposures, I made it appear as though it did.
Keeping detail in backlit images is mostly about proper exposure which creates more depth and interest. It’s a matter of paying attention to your direction and quality of light and then setting your camera accordingly.
Sonya Adcock is a fine art photographer based in the beautiful state of Pennsylvania. She specializes in artistic child photography. Sonya’s artwork has been featured in Photography Monthly Magazine, Digital SLR Magazine, and Redbook Magazine. In the hectic pace of a digital era, her artwork encourages you to slow down and remember the joys and magic of childhood.
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