Monday, June 18, 2012

Someone Needs to Move the Sun - about your subject being backlit

Okay, I'm interrupting the fun shots of zombies to illustrate a photography point.

You may have heard about a subject being 'backlit' and how bad it is without knowing what it is.  Basically it means that the only source of light in the shot is behind whatever it is you're taking a picture of.

Most of the time when I'm shooting, I'm stuck with whatever it is being where it wants to be and it not caring much if that means I'm shooting directly into the sun.  Butterflies won't move to the flowers on the other side of the path for you just because it would mean keeping the sun behind you.  Birds won't come down out of the tree so that you don't have to aim up into the bright summer sky.

People, on the other hand, will typically be gracious enough to let you stage the shot better.

To wit, these two crossdressing zombies...

The first shot I got of them:

Let me show you the set up for this shot.  (And at the same time show you why I'm a photographer, not a sketch artist! :)

 Okay, the big gray blob on the left is The Bean.  I was standing almost under it, the Zombies were facing it, the sun was right behind them.

Look where the rays of the sun hit.  They hit me, they hit The Bean and they hit the BACK of the Zombies' heads.  This makes the whole shot turn dark because the subject of the photo is actually blocking the light from getting to the lens.

So I asked the zombies to move.  We basically switched places - the Zombies in front of The Bean, and me with my back to the light source (sun).  Now I have this configuration:

Look where the light is now.  Hitting the Zombie on the face and in the scope of my lens.

Which gives me this shot:

Pretty amazing difference, isn't it?

So, the short version is, don't shoot with the brightest spot of light BEHIND the subject when you can avoid it.  Don't stand people indoors in front of windows.  Or if you do, shoot from the side if you can.

But you don't always have a choice about where your subject is and where the light source is.  In those cases you have a few options.

1.) Try a fill flash.  Even most point and shoots give you the option of forcing the camera to use the flash even when the internal sensor says the room is bright enough.  This will throw light onto the front of your subject to fight the shadows.

2.) Some cameras have a setting called "Spot Metering" and/or "Partial Metering".  In these settings you line up a particular focus point with the subject you're shooting and the camera will read that item as the part of the frame to try to keep the light as true to the real conditions as possible.  This often has the consequence of overexposing and washing out the background.  The camera basically says, "We need to keep *this* part as bright as we can, but everything has to be relative, so we'll brighten the heck out of the bright area back there."  I occasionally do this on purpose when I'm shooting products for my Etsy, because I *want* the background to be bright white and washed out while my product is the right colors.

Partial metering weighs a lot more of the frame than spot metering.  Partial metering is typically what's used in backlit portraits where you want the whole face to be accounted for.  Spot metering works well when you really want one small area to be well-defined.

So that's my quick and dirty lesson on backlighting and why it's typically bad.  I mean, sure, some people do it for effect.  A creepy silhouette or mood piece can benefit from backlighting.  But most of us want the light on our subject.

Speaking of my Etsy... looking for some fun soap?  Recycled crayons?  Lotion bars?  Some of my photos?


  1. They're actually quite scary, hahaha!!! Theres some great tips in this entry about photography, thanks!

    -Carlos Hernandez

    1. Thanks! If you click on the tag that says "What does this button do?" it'll take you to all the posts where I talk about getting a better shot. :)

      Glad it helped you!