The Phoblographer’s Introduction to Better Backlit Portraits Using Natural Light

Pro Tip: We recommend that you communicate with the person that you're photographing first to get insight as to what they want. Some headshots are more corporate oriented while others are for comp cards, actor profiles, and dating websites.

Pro Tip: We recommend that you communicate with the person that you’re photographing first to get insight as to what they want. Some headshots are more corporate oriented while others are for comp cards, actor profiles, and dating websites.

All the technical mavens that have nothing more to do than critique other folks’ photos and not go out creating great work themselves will tell you not to backlight an image. But we’re going to tell you something different–backlight as much as you want. But in the end, create a captivating photo. And though even we may tell you that it’s best to create your own light (and in many situations it really is) we don’t believe in limiting yourself just because you might not have a flash. So to create a better portrait in natural light, you can either wait for the golden/blue hour and give yourself maybe around 15 minutes or so of shooting time or you can go shooting at any time of the day–just as long as you can make the light do what you want it to.

And for that, backlighting is a very viable option.

It’s About Spot Metering

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A7r review photos brooklyn bridge reddit walk (13 of 14)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 4.5

For starters, you should know this: backlighing an image has to do a lot with metering. Most folks leave their cameras in standard metering modes and shoot to their heart’s content–and that’s fine. But to get the most out of a backlit image you’ll need to spot meter.

After you’ve set your camera to manual mode, try this:

– set your camera to spot metering

– choose a focusing point

– focus on the subject and take a light reading

– move the point over the sunlight, take a light reading

– move back over to your subject, and focus again

– figure out a good midway point in between the sunlight and the face that you’re looking to exposure fully

or

– just expose for the subject

Using standard metering won’t let you achieve this unless you choose to overexpose by a stop or two. The reason for this is because of the contrast in the image. The sun’s rays are very bright and if someone’s face isn’t towards the sun, then they’re not receiving the full effects of the light–which in this case is also your main source of illumination in the portrait.

Knowing the Dynamic Range Capabilities of Your Camera’s Sensor

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A7r and Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4 lens sample images (10 of 10)ISO 1001-1250 sec at f - 1.4

DL Cade, Editor in Chief of Petapixel

Another part of backlighting an image effectively is knowing the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor. To refresh, the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor is the difference between how much information it can retain in the highlights and the shadows. Some cameras tend to do better with highlights than they do with shadows and vice versa.

So why does the dynamic range matter? Well, for the post-production stage you might want to bring back some of the highlight details to give the image a bit more of a punch. But it also dictates how much you may overexpose or underexpose an image. Surely, metering is metering is metering, but no matter what exposure you’re at the camera will only be able to save so much of the extra info in the highlights or the shadows.

Apply this information to your best educated guess of metering the image before you even snap the shutter.

Paying Attention to The Color of the Lighting

Chris Gampat portraits from the photo walk (3 of 8)ISO 1001-320 sec at f - 3.5

There are various factors that will affect how the final image will come out and one of the big ones is the color of the lighting. Depending on when you’re shooting the image, the light could be warm, blue, white due to diffused clouds, etc.

Manually setting the white balance can help to a degree and usually auto white balancing can do a good job (though not the absolute best at all) but when you get to the post-production stage and then want to tweak the tint and color balance, it could end up being a tad problematic. At this point you’ll need to get into the adjustment of the color channels.

And if you’ve made it this far in this section, then we both know that you don’t want to do that…

Warm, golden light can do a lot to highlight skin tones. But in general, if it is too direct then it can be too golden and not look flattering at all. In that case, it’s best to wait for a cloud to move in front of the sun to give it a bit of a diffused effect similar to how a softbox works.

If you choose to shoot during the middle of the day, then you usually won’t have this problem. The sun is usually a shade of white or the light can be a bit more bluish in hue–hence why daylight is said to be very cool light. If you shoot at this time, you’ll probably want to warm the image up a bit later on.

Compositional Techniques

Yes, there are the rule of thirds and the golden spiral, but believe it or not lots of folk love centering their subjects–especially once you get tot he medium format and large format stages. And when you choose to backlight an image, just try to make sure that you either place the sun either on the edge or directly behind the subject. If you choose the latter, you’ll give them a halo effect with lots of hair light. If it’s on the side or edge, then it’ll often create a more pleasing image. Placing the sun directly next to your subject can result in a bit too much contrast that can leak out onto their faces.

Post-Production

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 24-70mm f2.8 VC II review photos of Matt's portrait session (2 of 4)

When you finally reach the post-production phase, you’ll really just need to adjust the shadows, maybe the contrast a bit and a slight tweak of the exposure. Then you can go work on specific color saturation channels to give the image more or less pop.

Not finding that this is all you need to do? Well, this is why we talked about knowing the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor. More or less, if you own an interchangeable lens camera with a sensor made in the past three or four years (and even going back to the past six if you own a full frame camera) then you won’t have any issues with dynamic range when it comes to editing a backlit portrait.

This is now the point where you can go in and make the necessary adjustments and as you make the adjustments you can keep it all in mind for the next time that you go shooting. Find that the image is too dark? Maybe overexpose a tiny bit more next time around.

Now, you can go as crazy as you want with applications of gradients and whatever else you’d like, but this is just a way to start out with shooting backlit portraits and now have to limit yourself to just shooting during the golden hours if you don’t own a flash or know how to use one. But we still recommend that you learn more about flashes and other lighting instruments first. And to start, you can try working with reflectors.

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