Creating gorgeous backlit images can be very intimidating. When I first started, all of my backlit images came out very underexposed, hazy or overexposed. I didn’t realize that it took practice and learning your camera’s different metering settings. The most important thing you can do for your photography is learn your camera in manual mode. The time of day also is important with backlit images because you want the sun low and behind, not above, your subject. I like to photograph in the evenings about one to two hours before sunset.
When I first started teaching myself to shoot backlit images, I was practicing in areas where there was nothing behind my subject but open sky. A lot of those images were very hazy. There are many photographers who create gorgeous images that way and you may find you love that too. I discovered that I prefer backlit images where there are trees behind and around the subject. I like the light coming through the trees with gorgeous green and golden tones. Of course, editing can really enhance those tones. I will show you a start to finish edit at the end of this post.
The first thing you want to learn to get great backlit images is spot metering. I’m going to try not to give you a whole lesson on your camera, but I’ll give you a short version. Your camera has several different metering modes: evaluative, partial, and spot. Evaluative means that when you push your shutter button half-way, your camera is taking a reading of all of the light from the scene you see in your viewfinder. So, when an image is backlit, there is a lot of light behind the person and not a lot in front. If you’ve tried taking a backlit image in evaluative mode, you may have noticed that the subject is really dark and the background looks great. This is because the background light has tricked your camera into thinking there is more light than there really is available. The solution is switching to spot metering.
I know that the way Canon’s and Nikon’s spot meter are different. I own a Canon and my spot metering is linked to the center point. With Nikon, you can spot meter from any focal point. When you switch to spot metering, your camera is only taking a reading from the small area. You’ll want it to take a reading from the subject’s skin or face then adjust your settings for proper exposure and snap the image. After the picture has been taken, I look at the image on my screen and read the histogram.
The histogram is so important and I recommended learning how to read it for exposure. Reading the histogram use to seem so complicated to me. However, when I am shooting backlit images, I am looking at my histogram to make sure the image is properly exposed. You can’t always rely on the screen to determine if your images are properly exposed since your camera screen has different brightness levels just like a computer screen. So what you may be seeing on that screen may not be what it will look like when you upload it to your computer. The histogram won’t lie.
In Adobe Camera Raw (aka ACR), you can see the histogram on the top, right corner. For this post, I will be showing you the histogram from ACR. When you take an image, you can change your settings so you can view the histogram with each image you take. On my Canon, I hit the “info” button and it will bring the histogram up on my screen.
If you look at the histogram on the first image, you can see that it’s all the way to the left. Then, glance at the image itself; it’s dark and underexposed.
If you look at the histogram on this image, you can see that it’s more evenly dispersed. This is a properly exposed image. This image is my SOOC (straight out of camera) image.
Last, the histogram on this image is all the way to the right. Glancing at this image you can see that the image is overexposed.
The histogram on these images is a lot like the histogram on your camera. For a good exposure, you want the histogram to be evenly dispersed.
Once, you get the hang of spot metering and reading your exposure, you can play around with sun flare, haze and other neat tricks. You can see on my SOOC image that there is a little sun flare on the top right of the image. Occasionally, I will use a white reflector for backlit images, but didn’t do so in this image. When using a reflector, I will still use spot metering and read the histogram. The reflector will just help bounce some of the light back onto the subject’s face.
Once you have mastered getting good exposure out of the camera, you really don’t have to do much to your images to make them look great. I typically edit in Photoshop CS5, but I can do a lot of the same things in Photoshop Elements. The video below shows the start to finish edit on this image in Photoshop Elements 10. This is my usual routine for editing backlit images.