Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Backlighting

A recent comment on my sports shooter post asked why so many of my pictures are back-lit by late afternoon sun. So I thought I would explain why and how I shoot backlit photos.

The Why?
Look around you. Contemporary lifestyle photography makes use of backlighting extensively. It creates a warm and soft feel to a photo that coveys wellbeing and naturalness, and that’s something that a lot of people want to associate their brand with these days. Take a look at photos used in advertising or the latest stock photo additions to Getty and Corbis, and you’ll see this look popping up all over the place.

The How?

OK, we’re going to shoot a lot of pictures. The key to making backlighting generate that lovely soft glow is to keep the sun either in the frame or just outside it. So here we go:

1. Wait for the light. The sun is one hell of a strong light source, so you need to wait for it to drop close to the horizon. All that haze on the horizon is your friend, and as the sun drops down the contrast will drop towards something that your camera has a chance of handling. Not only that, but with the sun low down you get more natural framing options for your subject while still keeping the sun in, or just out, of the frame.


2. Switch your camera to manual. If you shoot on Aperture Priority, your exposures will vary wildly depending on exactly where the sun ends up in the frame.

3. Get your exposure right. This is where digital offers such an advantage over film. Choose the aperture you need for whatever depth of field you require. Then shoot a bunch of frames at different shutter speeds until you get the exposure you want. It can be hard to judge highlights from the picture on the back, so be sure to be looking at the histogram. It’s OK if the sun blows out – it’s going to be so much brighter than anything else. Don’t believe that you have to hold ALL the highlights in the image, or else the shadows will be so dark you’ll either lose them completely or create too much noise when you have to lift them in Photoshop. You’re looking for a nice glow or lens flare, but nothing too nuclear.

4. Use fill light to control the contrast. Shooting into the sun can mean that your shadows have gone to black by the time you’ve controlled the exposure in the sky. Fill flash usually causes you to lose that natural look, so you’re best off getting an assistant or two to bounce fill light back into the scene using white reflectors. Plus the recycle time on a reflector is hard to beat.

5. Get your model to go through their actions – see my ‘Looking natural’ post. Find a framing that catches your model as they pass across the sun, or where the glow falls on them in a particular way. Stick the camera on motor drive and just repeat and repeat until you get a natural looking moment with the glow or flare that you’re looking for. Chimp that screen on the back to be sure you caught the moment. In fact, I find it hard to tell whether I got the shot using the back screen sometimes, so I usually keep going until I think I’ve got 2 keepers. By the time I check them on the computer I’ll usually find that one of them has some flaws that I didn’t spot at the time. 6. You now need to get the look you want in Lightroom. Usually this just means controlling the highlights and pumping a bit of light into the shadows, and you’re done.

As it happens, the nice guys over at PhotoShelter published a guide to stock photography a couple of weeks ago, and one of the pages was all about creating backlit lifestyle images. Start reading half way down. Then get out there and shoot.

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