One of the most frequent questions in my available light portraiture class is about how to fix the problem of the person being too dark when the light is behind them in photos.
In this article I will cover three ways that you can overcome this problem including:
- How to adjust the exposure to brighten it so the subject is correctly exposed
- Adding more light on the subject
- Choosing a different angle or point of view
#1 ADJUST THE EXPOSURE FOR THE SUBJECT
The problem with a backlit subject (this applies for any subject where the light is behind it, not just people) is that it fools the meter in your camera into thinking there is lots of light. Therefore, it sets the exposure accordingly and what you usually end up with is the background looking reasonable well exposed and a dark, or pitch black subject, something like this:
For more information on how your camera meter works, please read: Why is my snow grey?
The first method to start to attempt to fix the issue of the subject being dark and under exposed is to change the exposure – telling the camera to over expose, in effect. Follow these steps:
- Change your camera metering mode to “spot metering”. This means the camera only reads a very small area of the image (usually about 3 degrees).
- Make sure that your focus and metering dot is on the subject and not the background, and that you are using a single focus dot only.
- Set your exposure compensation to increase the exposure, so towards the plus side. How much will depend on the contrast of the scene and how bright the background is. Start with about +2 and adjust up or down until you get a good exposure on the person’s face. This will make the background really bright, and likely blown out with no detail, like the image below.
If you are happy with that result, you can stop there. But if you want more detail in the background keep reading for more options.
#2 ADD MORE LIGHT ON THE SUBJECT
Next option is to add more light on the subject. This can be accomplished by using a reflector (but that usually isn’t enough light) or adding flash. If you only have the small flash on your camera you can use that, but it will result in a flat looking portrait, like the person has been cut out of the background.
Instead I recommend using an external flash or speedlight, and ideally getting it off of the camera for a better pattern of light. In the image below my flash is on a stand, being bounced into an umbrella to soften the quality of the light. I have used an incident hand-held light meter to measure the flash output, but you can do a test shot and view it on the camera as well.
In this case I set my exposure to f/5.6 at 1/160th to match the exposure on the background on the first image. The flash was set to fire with enough power to correctly expose the subject at f/5.6. This is the result:
One thing to note here is that the subject is entirely being lit by the flash and the shadow is quite dark. To lighten the shadow a white reflector opposite the flash would do the trick. But we have one more option for fixing the backlighting situation.
#3 MOVE! CHANGE YOUR ANGLE OF VIEW – GET A DIFFERENT BACKGROUND
This last option is the one that I choose most often, and that is to not shoot in this type of lighting situation at all. I will find another option where the subject and the background are both equally lit, ideally out of the direct sunlight. So honestly when people ask how I shoot in this situation – I don’t!
There are almost always other options. In this example my model, (the lovely Oksana) has her back to the window in my classroom and I am facing her. By simply asking her to move into the room and shooting with the light from the windows coming from the side, instead of behind her – this much more pleasing result is achieved.
We rent our classroom space in an actual working convent, hence the cross in the background.
This portrait was taken without any extra light added, no reflectors, no flash, nothing! Notice how much simpler this is, and how much nicer the finished image is as well.
So the short answer to “how to fix backlighting” is – to find better light! My advice is to make your life easier and instead of trying to correct bad lighting, find a place where the light is better. But if you have no other option, use these tips to help!
Have you run into this type of situation before? How did you handle it?
Have these tips given you some ammunition on how to deal with it next time, perhaps things you haven’t considered?
Please share your comments and questions in the comment area below.