How I edit backlit beach photos in Lightroom and Photoshop

  • Shooting at the beach in the summer is one of my favorite ways to capture summer memories for my family. With strong backlighting, we often have to pick what we want to expose correctly - our subjects or the sky. This is how I edit those potentially difficult photos.

How I edit backlit beach photos in Lightroom and Photoshop

Shooting at the beach in the summer is one of my favorite ways to capture summer memories for my family. 

We are so fortunate to live within 4 miles of the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline in Holland, Michigan.

We often visit during the heat of the day, but when I notice there is going to be a beautiful sunset we pack up to head for an evening swim. My favorite way to shoot at the beach is with backlighting as the sun sets over the lake, however, this adds some challenges with exposing my images.

With strong backlighting, we often have to pick what we want to expose correctly – our subjects or the sky.

We could, of course, use additional equipment to properly expose both with the addition of a reflector or off camera flash, but personally neither of those methods work well for me at the beach. It’s not my favorite past time to chase my children with a reflector while trying to shoot and lugging more equipment to the beach on top of what the children have already deemed “necessities” is not my idea of fun.

Shooting at the beach in the summer is one of my favorite ways to capture summer memories for my family. With strong backlighting, we often have to pick what we want to expose correctly - our subjects or the sky. This is how I edit those potentially difficult photos.
before
Shooting at the beach in the summer is one of my favorite ways to capture summer memories for my family. With strong backlighting, we often have to pick what we want to expose correctly - our subjects or the sky. This is how I edit those potentially difficult photos.
after

For this reason, I choose to deliberately underexpose my subjects, and overexpose my sky knowing I will have to use post processing to achieve my vision for the image.

Finding the balance between underexposing your subjects enough to minimize blowing out the sky and not underexposing them so much that they cannot be brought back without significant noise and quality issues, can be hard. Shooting in RAW will help editing since it gives you more data to work with and greater flexibility with bringing back highlights and opening up shadows.

Practice makes perfect with this technique and I promise it gets easier to judge the line between underexposure/overexposure as you deliberately work with this technique more. Practice also helps with knowing how well your camera will handle the noise that will be introduced when you open up the shadows on your subjects.

I have included my process for editing my beach shots that are backlit in the video below.

While I use Lightroom and Photoshop to achieve my vision, my process can be easily adapted to the combination of Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop.

About the Author:

Mickie DeVries resides in West Michigan close to the beauty of the Lake Michigan shoreline. She is married to her husband Luke and has two children. Mickie’s work is centered around documenting her children, and she also teaches Unlocking the Magic of Photoshop through Click Photo School. Visit Mickie DeVries online.
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11 Comments

  1. Kaylene May 13 2017 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    great tutorial! thank you for sharing!

    • Mickie May 16 2017 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      Thank you I’m glad you liked it!

  2. Annmarie Kopey May 14 2017 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    Great post. So informative. Thank you!

  3. KristeenMaire May 16 2017 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing! Beautiful edit. If you don’t mind me asking what was this image shot with? It looks like it might be some type of wide angle, but I’m not sure.

    • Mickie May 16 2017 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much! It was shot with my 16-28mm at 16mm

  4. Sara Jun 03 2017 at 10:55 pm - Reply

    How do you underexpose your subject and expose for sky or vice versa?

    • Mickie Jun 05 2017 at 11:24 am - Reply

      Hi Sara! I use spot metering and meter for their skin but instead of metering to have great exposure on their skin I meter until it reads as underexposing their skin. It’s a balance of retaining enough of the sky and enough exposure on their skin, it can be tricky, but with a little practice and some editing magic it becomes pretty easy over time 🙂

  5. Nikki Jun 21 2017 at 12:07 am - Reply

    awesome tutorial, thank you so much for sharing! And beautiful work!!!

  6. Jamie Bates Aug 05 2017 at 1:10 pm - Reply

    So fun to watch you do this amazing edit! Thanks for doing this, Mickie!

  7. Koren Schmedith Oct 16 2017 at 4:12 am - Reply

    I loved the tutorial. The way you have added the sky and adjusted the color is amazing.

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