Anne Oliver: A lesson in backlighting

I don’t know about you guys, but when I first started to learn how to use my camera, I was scared of the sun.  Scared.  As in only go out on cloudy days or find very large patches of shade, kind of scared.  But there is a whole world out there that I was missing, silhouettes, sun flare and backlighting.  It took some time, some research and a ton of practice to start getting it right.  I love the sun now, being able to use it to your benefit is powerful, especially for a pro.  I get lots of questions about how I shoot backlit photos, and since y’all know I’m not the best teacher, I thought I’d ask someone to appear on my blog who is!

I am soooo excited today to welcome my first every guest on my blog. Anne Oliver, a Dallas based photographer has graciously agreed to come and talk about backlighting. I’ve been a huge fan of Anne’s work for years and she’s an amazing photographer! Check out her website and you’ll see right away that Anne rocks, look at that first image on her site, wow!  Please welcome her and read on if you’d like to learn about backlighting, something many of us wish to perfect….

Anne Oliver: A lesson in backlighting

Backlighting is, simply put, gorgeous – it gives your images a depth and a glow that is unlike anything else. It can also be a great weapon to have in your bag of tricks in problematic situations – if you find you are stuck somewhere with little or no shade, backlighting is the way to go. Or, even if you’re under a tree but the light is dappled in one direction (don’t even bother shooting with dappled light on a face) you can turn your subject around and use backlighting in the shade. Early morning or late afternoon/evening is easier than midday because the light is softer and lower in the sky. I don’t shoot with a flash, so all of these tips are for natural light only.

– I usually spot meter, regardless of what kind of light I’m shooting in. I walk up to the subject’s face, fill the frame with their cheek and meter. When I back up I take a test shot and often have to dial the exposure down some when I look at the blinking highlights. I don’t worry about the sky being blown or a bright “halo” around my subject – that’s just what you get with natural light backlighting. I DO adjust if the face or important part of the clothes are blinking, or if just too much of the hair is completely blown. But if it’s just a bit around the edges, that’s OK, and is to be expected.

– Since you aren’t using flash, you will NOT be able to get the correct exposure for both the sky AND the subject. The dynamic range of the camera just can’t handle such a huge difference between the very bright sky and the shadowed face. In this instance the face is more important than the sky, so the face is what I pay attention to. I shoot in RAW, so I often go back and layer adjusted exposures – one for the subject and one for the sky (if the sky wasn’t totally blown out). If I have time when I’m shooting I’ll take my shot/shots of the subject and then readjust so the sky is correctly exposed and take a shot or two from the same place so that I can layer that image (sky only) with the image with the subject correctly exposed. (I mask the subject out of the sky image). But I don’t mind the “white sky” effect, so often I just make it part of the artistic composition of the photograph. But it’s good to remember to take those exposed-for-sky shots just in case, especially if there are beautiful clouds or sunset colors you want to include in the final image.

-OK, I meter for the face, but unlike other types of portrait lighting where I really want the skin to be perfectly exposed, when shooting with backlighting I will often let the face be just a tad underexposed. This helps to preserve a few more details around the edge of your subject and in the background. I will bring up the exposure for the face later in Photoshop. You just don’t want a horribly underexposed face, because you will have the same problem with noise that you would on any other type of underexposed shot.

-You can’t shoot with the sun shining straight into your lens. Angle yourself and/or your subject until the sun is coming in at an angle to your lens. Even a slight angle will make a difference. Be careful when you adjust your subject that they haven’t turned their face so that there is sun hitting the side of their faces or their cheeks – you’ll have annoying blown spots that are a pain (or are impossible) to clone out. Play around with the angles, both from side to side and above/below. When you’re practicing, go out with a subject that will stand still for you and look through the viewfinder as you move around. You can see how some angles let in a lot of light, and some let in less light. Here’s where your artistic vision can come in. Some backlit shots with a lot of haze/light shining straight in look great. But you wouldn’t want an entire session of completely hazed-out images.

-Use a lens hood to cut down on some of the light if it’s making your shots too hazy as you look thru the viewfinder. Often, in addition to the lens hood, I’ll use my left hand to shade the top or side of the lens hood. Point your camera towards the light sometime and experiment with your other hand and notice the difference in the haze as you move your hand around.

-Focusing will be more difficult because of all of the light coming more directly into your lens, and the face being in shadow because of the shade created by the subject’s own body. I just keep pushing the shutter halfway the whole time I’m shooting until I feel like it has “grabbed on.” You’ll probably end up with a higher ratio of shots that are OOF than you normally would. Don’t let that worry you – it’s normal.

-If you have someone assisting you, and you’re not taking a really wide-angle shot of your subject that includes lots of the environment around them, you can use a reflector to shine some of that light back on to your subject. Take a minute to look closely at how the light is reflected onto their face – make sure the light isn’t coming from too far below them (which causes the so-called flashlight-under-the-chin “monster lighting”). And the light from a reflector can be very strong, so don’t blind your subject and cause them to squint in agony, LOL. Honestly, when I shoot it’s usually just me and the subject and an 85mm lens (which means I‘m pretty far back), so I rarely bother with a reflector.

-Always, always, always wear a white shirt, and light-colored pants if you can. Depending on how close you are to your sub, the color of your shirt will reflect strongly back onto your subject. I made this mistake early on when I was practicing backlighting and wore a red shirt. There was a horrendous red color cast on the subject’s face, and the catchlights were red – they looked horrible and were very distracting. I couldn’t get rid of the cast no matter what I did and the subject looked possessed because of the red dot in her eyes, LOL.

-You will most likely find your photos look a bit hazy SOOC. The stronger the light shining into your lens, the hazier it will be. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and you can edit it however you want, depending on the effect you desire. I’ve found that post-processing for backlighting takes a lot more contrast to reduce that haze. You’ll need to go a lot stronger with the curves adjustments than you would on an image with different lighting.

-Blondes are harder to shoot than brunettes, because more of the hair gets blown out so fast. If you need to, underexpose the face a bit to preserve more of the highlights in blonde hair. Dark hair gives you more leeway. As I said above, there will be a blown-out sort of “halo” around your subject. But you don’t really want every bit of the hair completely blown.

-If at all possible, position blondes so that the background behind them is dark. That way their hair won’t just disappear in the totally white sky or blown background. Again, brunettes are easier, because they will work with dark backgrounds behind them (the rim lighting effect from the light coming from behind them will provide separation between their hair and the dark background), and they will also work with light backgrounds because it’s easier to keep more detail in their darker hair when you choose your exposure.

Backlighting is so wonderful, and so rewarding to shoot and process. I think you’ll be as hooked as I am once you try it. Have fun!

Thank you Anne for taking the time to appear on my blog and teach us all about backlighting! You rock!

All images and text are © Anne Oliver.