Lighting is key. It has an influence on just about everything we do when making an image. Light will affect what time of day we shoot, where we place our subject, our shutter speed, our aperture, how we edit the images, blah blah blah. You get the idea, right? Understanding and controlling light is crucial to the success of your work. Without understanding it, you are doing nothing more than guessing and hoping for the best. This means you aren’t able to create certain looks on the spot and you aren’t able to replicate looks that you’ve shot and loved in the past. Experts aren’t experts because they guess, they are experts because they understand the ins and outs of what they do. Just for the record, I’m not writing this because I consider myself an expert but education happens when we share ideas, so here I am sharing my ideas in the hopes that it some of you will benefit from it and will be able to pass that on to someone else.
If you follow my work at all, it should be pretty clear by now that I am a huge fan of back light. In fact, sometimes if the light just right, this happens on set. I’m not here to say that any particular lighting scenario is better than another as they each are great for certain looks, but back lighting has always been a favorite of mine. In the beginning I found myself drawn to it for the imperfections and the happy accidents caused by the sun hitting the lens and over time I have grown to appreciate it for its ability to be specifically manipulated. I used to think that back lighting was all about sun flares but there is so much more to it. Depending on the lenses used, the time of day, and the personality of the subject, back lighting can give you anything from a flare-filled dynamic lifestyle shot to a hazy and peaceful editorial portrait.
Just like any other lighting scenario, back lighting has it’s quirks and can give you completely different looks depending on how you control it. Below are a few of the different looks that tend utilize the most.
Shooting back lit in soft light tends to deliver a calmer, more intimate image. If you are just looking for that simple soft light, wait until the sun is just below the horizon or hidden by something else (trees, mountains, buildings, etc.) and shoot with your subject completely in the shade. That will give you a soft luminous light that envelops your subject.
Haze is one of the more versatile looks you can use with back lighting as you can manipulate it to bring out a soft summer glow in a lifestyle image, or you can make it a bit stronger for a completely different look that might fit a harder editorial. If you are looking for a soft hazy glow to come across your image, shoot when the sun is still in the sky (not hidden by mountains or under the horizon), and have the sun hidden just outside of the frame. This will allow some of the stray light to sneak into the side of your frame leaving a soft wash of light and color across your frame. If you are looking for a harsher haze with more flares and light artifacts, allow the sun to shine directly into your lens (longer lenses work best for this) and you will find a haze that has a bit more substance to it.
Having streaks of light coming into your frame is a great way to add dynamic energy into your image. To create rays in your frame, your best bet is to shoot with a wider lens which will stretch the light a bit and leave it streaking across the frame. Instead of hiding the sun just outside of the frame or behind something in the frame, allow it to peek in. Whether it is peeking out from behind something in the image, or peeking in from the outside of the frame, make sure that there is a little sliver of direct sunlight hitting your lens. This little sliver is what will create your rays. Also, the more you stop down your aperture, the more defined your rays will become.
DIFFERENT LENS, DIFFERENT LOOK
Something you will learn pretty quickly is that every lens handles the sun differently. Longer focal lengths will handle it differently than wider ones and even two different lenses of the same focal length will give you two different results. This is because the sun flare is a result of the sun shining into the lens and bouncing around the glass inside. Since the glass is different from lens to lens (both in shape,and quality), you will always end up with a unique result. Longer lenses will give you larger washed out artifacts while wider lenses will give you smaller and more dynamic flare. The distance the subject is from your lens and the aperture that the image was shot at will also effect the final image. The reason I am telling you this is so you experiment. Shoot with all of your lenses and change up your settings to see what you prefer. I could go into a lengthy explanation of the differences I’ve found but the best way to learn them is to shoot them for yourself. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit!
EXPOSING BACK LIT IMAGES
One of the more common mistakes that photographers make when starting to shoot into the sun is that they will expose for the sky instead of exposing for their subject. This leaves the subject drastically underexposed and much less of a focal point. The reason that this is such an easy mistake to make is because most of us were taught not to overexpose because you will lose detail in that area of the image. While that is true, The detail that I want to preserve is in my subject, not the sky. I overexpose the sky almost every time that I shoot back lit because the sky isn’t my main concern (sorry, sky). What I typically aim for is the limit right before I overexpose my subject. Make sure you read that correctly, I aim for the limit right BEFORE I overexpose. Even if you are shooting RAW, if you accidentally overexpose, you will not be able to get back blown out details in post because the image data is simply not there. A good way to find that limit is to turn on the highlight alert on your camera. Every camera has a different way to turn it on which can be found online (thank you Google) or in your camera’s manual without much trouble. The highlight alert will tell you where you have lost the details due to overexposure in your image. Every pixel on your image that has lost detail will flash on your LCD screen. If you see flashing pixels on your subject, dial down the exposure to the point right before it starts to flash. This way if you choose to push it father in post, you still can but the details will remain in your image either way.
Another difficulty you may come across when shooting into the sun is acquiring focus. With the sun beating through your lens and into the sensor the camera will have a hard time finding the point of focus. An easy way to battle this is to focus and recompose. I almost always have my center focus point selected and focus on my subject and then recompose the shot to how I want it before firing the shutter. To battle your misfocusing camera, you just need to hide sun, focus, bring the sun back, and fire. It is a pretty simple process that will save you a lot of frustration from waiting for you camera to focus. Hide the sun, focus and then recompose. Bam! Problem solved.
The last thing that I wanted to touch on is editing for back lighting because it can actually be quite a bit different than other lighting situations. In fact, one of the patterns I’ve noticed during my Editing and Consistency sessions is that most of the photographers I mentor think they are shooting their back lit images incorrectly because they come out so washed out. At least half of the photographers who brought it up said that they typically just throw them out because they can never get the “pop” back into them. Since I LOVE back lighting, I wanted to put this out into the world: Don’t get discouraged! Shooting back lit will give you very flat images straight out of the camera. It’s okay. No need to panic. When you edit these, bring up the contrast. If you need more, bring up the blacks slider, or bring down the shadows or mid tones in your tone curve. Obviously the amount of contrast that you need to bring back will vary from image to image depending on how much light was coming into your lens (which is what washes out your image), but you can expect to add a decent amount back in to anything you shoot back lit. The good news, it’s an easy fix!
I feel like anytime I teach, I wrap it up by telling people to experiment. Well here I go again, the best way to learn the ins and outs of back lighting (and anything else) is to experiment with it. Shoot with different lenses, put the sun in different spots in and out of the frame, shoot at different times of day, etc. The more you experiment, the more you will learn what works, what doesn’t, and why. Happy experimenting!