It isn’t easy to learn how to photograph with back lighting, but it’s a valuable skill to practice and learn. Back lighting adds remarkable contrast to an image, but often comes with one of two issues. Either the foreground falls into dark shadows or the sky is wildly overexposed.

We’ve all taken our iPhones out and attempted to capture a stunning sunset. If we focus on the sky, the foreground turns completely black and the sky looks wonderful. If we focus on the foreground, we lose all the color and detail in the sky. To fix this on our phones, we can either use the built-in HDR mode or focus on the image’s subject and adjust the exposure by sliding that tiny sun icon up or down accordingly.

Luckily enough, fixing the issue on our cameras isn’t any more difficulty, but it does require a bit of practice. This short tutorial will cover everything from capturing the image in the field to post processing.

How to Photograph with Back Lighting

learn how to photograph with back lighting with this simple tutorial that walks through the common steps!

Select the right equipment

Luckily, selecting the right equipment for this shoot is easy, as any camera and lens will work. Here’s a detailed list of what I might use; however, it’s truly the one spot where any combination will likely yield similar results.

  • dSLR or mirrorless camera
  • Any focal length lens
  • Tripod, if desired

Choose the Right Camera Settings

the straight ouf of camera original image from my camel trek in morocco.The straight out of camera image from Morocco

In last week’s tutorial, How to Photograph Waterfalls, I wrote about the importance of balancing the exposure triangle. When learning how to photograph with back light, it’s important to understand not only how to balance the exposure triangle, but also how to alter it slightly to retain both shadow and highlight detail. This is easy to break down, but it does depend on what mode the photographer uses. While the end result is the same, the technique is slightly different when shooting in manual mode or in aperture priority mode.

  • Focus – Whatever mode you’re shooting, the first step is focusing the camera properly. At the start of this article, I wrote about helplessly tapping an iPhone screen to find the focus and exposure required to capture a sunset. It’s a terrible habit that needs to be broken. Always, no matter what, focus on the image’s subject. In this image, I focused my 70-200 lens on the line of camels. Because I was also shooting f/22, the entire image appears in focus (lots of depth of field) and I captured a beautiful sun flare, too, because the lens was at its smallest aperture.
  • Setting the Exposure – It is important to start with a balanced exposure, whether it was automatically set by the camera in aperture-priority mode or by manually adjusting the ISO, shutterspeed, and aperture to balance the camera meter at zero. Unfortunately, it will depend on how much bright sky and dark foreground is in the image, but it’s a safe bet that balanced exposure is incorrect. In almost all cases, it will either be several stops over or under exposed. Mirrorless or dSLR liveview will be the easiest way to watch, in real time, how the camera reacts and to intuitively learn how to make the required adjustments. The goal is create an image that doesn’t clip highlights or shadows, but it will have to come very close.
  • Aperture Priority Mode – Once the camera sets the exposure, it’s up to the photographer to assess how accurate it is. Either take a test image and review it in the camera or merely watch the liveview function. If the exposure is so bright, as it was in the above image, that the sky retains little or no detail, adjust the exposure compensation down to begin under-exposing the image. If the exposure is too dark, so that the foreground falls into complete blackness, adjust the exposure compensation up to begin over-exposing the image. The goal is to find the sweet spot that keeps details in both the shadows and highlights.
  • Manual Mode – it’s the same technique and reasoning as shooting in aperture priority mode, but without adjusting the exposure compensation dial. Instead, adjust the shutter speed to make the same effect. Increasing the shutter speed will make a brighter image, while decreasing it will underexpose the scene.
  • Watch the Histogram – If it isn’t intuitive to under or over expose the image, watch the histogram instead. The goal is to avoid any portion of the image hitting the left or right edge of the histogram. If it’s impossible, as it often is, it’s about making a sacrifice. In this image, the sun was too bright and clipped the right hand edge of my histogram. Because it was the sun, which doesn’t have any detail anyways, I stuck with that exposure so that I could keep the foreground detail.
    Watching the histogram for blown highlights or dark shadows is the key to setting the right expsoure

Post Processing for Back Lighting

This isn’t an in-depth post-processing tutorial, so I won’t go into detail about general post-processing techniques. That’s a theme for a later tutorial, but there are several settings I believe are critical when post-processing images with strong back-lighting.

Increasing Shadows or Recovering Highlights

Pushing the shadows with post processing.

Back lighting will often produce an image with strong highlights and shadows, so it’s important to learn to manage those two settings in Adobe Lightroom. It’s truly a play-by-feel game when adjusting the highlights and shadows; however, you’ll notice that I didn’t exceed +-50 with either slider. As a general rule, these sliders will pull information retained in the raw image between 0-50. Beyond 50, it begins to calculate a HDR effect that will greatly reduce the quality of the image. When adjusting these settings, it’s important to realize the true effect.  It isn’t adjusting the true blacks or whites, but rather the shadows and highlights. It’s impossible (and pointless) to try and recover blown detail in shadows or highlights, so avoid trying to create detail where the camera failed. In that case, reshooting the scene is the only viable alternative.

Sharpening, noise reduction and exporting

These next steps aren’t critical, but whenever I am editing a high-contrast image, I like to apply a healthy dose of sharpening and noise reduction.

  • Sharpening – I always apply this liberally, between 50-80 points. It might seem like overkill, but the key is adjusting the masking so only certain portions of the image will see the sharpening affect. Holding the alt key down, slide the masking slider towards the right. The image will initially turn completely white and, as the slider moves towards the right, portions of the image will slowly turn black. White is being sharpened, black isn’t, so adjust the slider until the important edges are the only details being sharpened.
  • Noise Reduction – Truthfully, I adjust this setting in every image, but it’s critical in a back-lit photograph. Introducing noise to an image is the consequence of pushing shadow detail in post processing. I almost always adjust the luminance slider to 20 and the color slider to 25 or 30.

Edit and Share your Image!

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