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Molding ambient light – part 2

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For this post I will be talking about how I shoot backlit photos (sun behind the subject). As with everything photography related, there always are tons of ways to do things. My way may not be the best for you, but I consider this article successful if just one person reflects on the information provided and is able to come to some sort of understanding about their photography.

Back lit photos, by default, result in a halo of light around the edges of your subject. Depending on the amount of reflected light hitting the subject’s face, the background may or may not be partially or fully blown out. I’m sure some people are cringing at the thought of parts of their images being blown out, but I find that it’s acceptable for my back lit images, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. Whatever the case, we will cover how to go about controlling the exposure of the background in backlit images in this article.

Here are a few of my back lit images. The first one is of my wife Luciana and daughter Belinda, shot at the beach.

For this image the sun was low in the sky (about an hour or so before sunset) and the sun wasn’t directly behind the subjects, but rather off to the left side of the frame a bit. One of the reasons I chose to have the sun off to one side was because the reflection of the sun in the water was acting as a second light source and causing flare—having the sun off to one side allowed me to reduce the flare from the image. The reflection of the sun in the water was probably the biggest obstacle I had to overcome to get this photo. I had Lu and Belinda sit down and shot from just a bit higher than I normally do in order to keep the water (and the glare from the reflected sun) out of the picture.

This photo (as with most of my photos) was metered for the subjects face and shot at the indicated exposure. As you can see this resulted in the background being “overexposed”, but not blown out. If I would have included any of the sky or the water (which was reflecting the sky) in the image, there would have likely been some areas that were blown out. Also helping to keep the background within the sensors range were the facts that I had them sit down and that there was an expanse of sand in front of the subjects. This brings us to a few key points to consider for back lit shots

  • The reflected light off of the environment in front of the subject (the sky and in this case the sand) is the key light.
  • The reflected light is typically, but not always very soft light.
  • You can adjust the background exposure by controlling the intensity of the key light.

I already discussed and explained the first two points in my previous Molding Ambient Light article, so the only one left to explore is the third point. Luckily, it’s fairly straight forward. Basically, the brighter your key light (remember were metering the models face for a “normal” exposure), the darker your background will be in your image. Nobody has the ability to affect the background exposure, but you have total control of the amount of light hitting your subject. If your background is too bright, simply bring in a reflector or two (I like white to match the softness of reflected ambient light), or move you subject closer to a natural reflector. Some examples of natural reflectors include sand (ever wonder why you see so many successfully back lit images on the beach), light colored buildings, and other large light colored objects that you may find. When searching for natural reflectors, neutral objects are almost always preferential in order to prevent color casts.

Moving on, this is the next image of Kimmy, which was shot on a sand dune at a local park.

This shot, like the previous, was shot in the sand, so I had a nice natural reflector going on for the key light. Unlike the last image, I included quite a bit of the sky in the background, which resulted in a large portion of the background blowing out. As mentioned previously, I don’t mind the blown out areas, and actually think that they can add to the ethereal quality of back lit images.

If I wanted to reduce the amount of the blow out in the background, I would have brought in a couple of white reflectors in order to reduce the exposure indicated by the light meter at her face. Pretty simple, huh?

This next image of Talisa was shot in front of a barn.

For this shot I positioned Talisa in front of a light-colored barn. By varying the distance between Talisa and the barn I could control the background exposure. I positioned her at a distance that prevented her edges from blowing out, but allowed the background to blow all out, for the most part. Once again, the distance all comes down to personal preference, but you need to know that that is the parameter available to you,  in order to control it.

This final image of Briauna was shot in a studio window.

Unlike the previous shots, there was no direct sunlight hitting the subject in this image. The back light was reflected off the sky and building behind Briauna (north facing window), and the key light was a reflection off of the white studio walls of the reflected light off of the building and sky. This was an unplanned shot, but in retrospect, the reflected back light provides a much softer light than using direct sunlight. Just make sure you have a fast lens if you want to do a shot like this, because your shooting with relatively little light.

In closing, I would also like to leave you with a video of Jim Jordan shooting backlit images with natural light, using California Sunbounce products. The video has some awesome shooting in it, but more importantly it’s also one of the most inspirational photography videos that I have seen. I still go back to the video every so often to hear his inspirational words. You can watch the video here.

Robert McCadden

Robert McCadden

Robert McCadden is a fashion and beauty photographer based in Seattle, Washington. http://robertmccadden.tumblr.com/

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