It’s summer, and with warm weather comes a million photographic opportunities. You’re seeing beautiful back-lit images all over Facebook, with creamy sun flare, orange hues, and hazy glow, and you’re asking yourself one thing: “Why can’t I get my images to look like that?!”
You can. All you need to do is follow a few simple guidelines, and – as they say at Carnegie Hall – practice, practice, practice! So, without sounding like a weight-loss infomercial, here is Michael Kormos’ patented five-step program to backlighting success:
First, the technicalities (I know, I hate them just as much as you, but that’s exactly the reason I want to get them out of the way first):
- Set your camera’s exposure to MANUAL. I could write a whole essay as to why, but I’ll save that one for another day.
- As always, focus on the eyes. If your autofocus is having trouble getting accurate focus (and it probably will, with the sun in the frame), use your hand to block the sun, then focus on your subject, and then take your hand away. Pretty neat, huh?
- Set the metering to Spot, and take the reading off your subject’s face (again, blocking the sun with your hand, in order to get an accurate reading). Take a few shots, review your histogram, and make sure that your subject’s face isn’t overly bright or dark. Once you’re happy with your exposure, leave it as-is! Use Hoodman Hoodloupe (see step #5 below for more) for accurate image review on your camera’s LCD.
- If you’re not doing it already, shoot RAW. The dynamic range of a RAW file will later allow you to pull back the highlights, and adjust exposure and white balance. You’ve probably heard this a hundred times, but yes, shoot RAW.
Ok, now that we’ve gotten the obvious out of the way, let’s talk about how to bring out the beauty in a beast.
1. Shoot during the golden hour:
Simply type “sunset times” into Google, and you’ll get the sunset time in your location (thanks, Google!). It’s simple, effective, and invaluable. Aim to start shooting one hour prior to your sunset time. The sun can be quite temperamental, especially with a sensitive machine like your camera. The “Golden Hour” (fancy word for “one-hour-before-sunset”) tames its rays. For those technically inclined: You’re trying to balance the exposure of the back light (Sun) with the face of your subject (sky). They’re several magnitudes of f-stops apart, and your camera just can’t capture that wide a dynamic range. So the weaker the Sun is, the better. Thus, aim to shoot late in the day.
2. Filter the sun:
Even during the Golden Hour, the Sun can pack quite a punch, so it helps to filter it. Ultimately, many factors affect the Sun’s intensity during sunset. Atmospheric pollutants, humidity, temperature, etc. (yes, I’m a geek). On some days, the sun is as strong during sunset as it is during the afternoon. On others, it turns red, balloons up to a giant ball of fire, and that’s when photographer’s jaws go dropping. So when it’s strong, I often position myself and my subject in places where sun comes through a tree, or a large bush. This helps to minimize its intensity, so that instead of blowing the hair (when the backlight on your subject’s hair is overexposed), it creates a pleasant glow instead. After all, nobody likes blown highlights. IMPORTANT: Remember to use your lens hood, and here is my little trick: I sometimes use my left hand (the right one is holding the camera, after all) to block just a small part of the Sun, when I can’t get it dim enough through trees or bushes. Though this trick will require practice and finesse, or else you’ll end up with… well, your hand in your picture.
3. It’s the lens, not the camera, that matters!
I have used just about every telephoto prime lens under the sun (okay, enough with the puns!). Some handle flare better than others. I have found Nikon’s 105mm f/2 DC lens to have THE most elegant way of handling sun flare. It creates a creamy haze with beautiful crimson hues. And despite it being a lens that was released 20 years ago (no, seriously), it offers unmatched bokeh (another fancy word that describes the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of an image).
4. Bounce it!
Even when you shoot during the Golden Hour, and even after you filter the sun through the branches of a tree, your subject’s face is probably going to be underexposed. Now, I find reflectors bulky, scary (sometimes, to kids), and impossible to handle even in a mild breeze. Oh yes, they also require ANOTHER PERSON to hold and manuver them! So I prefer more…watered down versions of reflectors, such as (are you ready?)…a plain white sheet. Yep, I spread it on the ground, nice and easy, and I tell you, that white sheet bounces enough light back onto your subject to not only minimize the shadows under the eyes, but also to add extra light, which helps balance the intensity of the sun. Just position your subject some 6 feet or so behind it, so that you can photograph adequate foreground.
5. Use a Hoodman Loupe.
I could swear by it. Carry one. It’s an absolute MUST. Reviewing your images in direct sunlight makes it very difficult to judge focus and exposure. This little guy turns day into night, and lets you view the images on your cameras LCD with luminous precision! I find it to be an invaluable tool not only to judge focus but composition and exposure too.
That’s all there is to it! Now, don’t get me wrong, it will take practice (and time) to get the types of shots you see lining the covers of all the famous blogs. But if you remember to follow the aforementioned steps, I guarantee your backlit photos will improve, quite a lot! And since you’re shooting RAW, adjusting exposure in Lightroom (I actually use Aperture, but I doubt anyone else does) should be quick and easy! As you review the photos, pay attention to focus (you want those eyes to be sharp!), and face to be properly exposured. Use the recovery slider to control highlights, and adjust your white balance and hue slider as needed to bring out the warm tones (I prefer warm sunset images, with the hue slider going toward the purple end of the spectrum).
The more you practice, the better you’ll get. You’ll address your own failures and improve upon them. So grab your cam, grab a friend, and don’t forget to bring a white sheet and Hoodman Hoodloupe with you. Yes the sun can be a beast, but it doesn’t take much to tame it into a work of beauty :)
Michael Kormos, New York
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Michael Kormos is a portrait photographer serving NYC and San Diego. Working together with his wife, Michael has a fun and fresh approach to family photography. He has two beautiful children who keep him very busy and constantly inspired. “Like” him on Facebook to see updates of his latest art!