Monday, May 15, 2017

How I Deal With Strong Backlight Situation

Lighting is the most important consideration when it comes to making a photograph, after all, a photograph consists of nothing but light and shadow. However, lighting is not ideal in most cases.

The worst that can happen, is a strong backlight, rendering the front subjects in dark shadows, and everything else in the background overexposed and burned out in highlights. This is especially true in street photography, you cannot relocate your subjects (I advice not to do so, but if you must, feel free to practice your own style), you cannot change the available light situations. Yet, some subjects are worth shooting despite the crappy light: interesting character in a portrait, which I have encountered so often.

Therefore, I would like to share how I deal with difficult lighting conditions when I am out doing my street shooting, especially when it comes to strong backlight. Kindly take note that these are my own shooting preferences that fit my personal photography style, they may not work for every one.

1) Expose Your Subject. Ignore The Rest
In uneven, challenging lighting conditions, you must be very clear of what your main subject of the image is. I always emphasized on that particular subject and made sure that the metering on that subject is correctly exposed. I basically tuned the exposure compensation, and worked with the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) live view, or through electronic viewfinder to judge the exposure. I can forgive an overexposed background, as long as my main subject, usually a portrait of a stranger, is in neutral and balanced exposure.

2) In Extreme Backlight, Play With Silhouette Effect
There are times the backlight is so strong that all you get is shadow figure in the foreground, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Creative play of highlight and shadow can bring interesting results. Using the extreme backlight to your advantage, you can purposely throw your main subject into dark shadow, creating a silhouette output which can yield desirable outcomes too. Not everything needs to appear perfectly balanced.

3) Black And White Works Well With Uneven Lighting
Converting an unevenly lit image into black and white can often change the overall presentation of the image altogether. High contrast black and white images work well with images having strong light sources, and the burned highlights and deep shadows added much needed grittiness to the images, especially when it comes to street photography. I am in no way implying that you can salvage a badly exposed image by turning it into black and white, no, if the image is bad, it will be bad regardless the color or monochrome presentation. In some harsh light, black and white can provide an alternative look that could prove more exciting than full color reproduction.

Silhouette Works With Strong Backlight

Black And White Complements Harsh Light And High Contrast Scenarios. 

4) Shoot in RAW and Use Highlight/Shadow Recovery
If you are a RAW shooter, you should know how much details you can actually recover from the burned out highlights, or from the deep shadows during post processing. If you are a JPEG user, when you encounter such extremely difficult lighting, you may want to start to consider the advantages of shooting RAW. I am not asking you to ditch JPEG. In difficult circumstances, RAW can actually save lives, and it would be foolish to ignore the full potential of your camera. Any modern camera these days come with RAW shooting capabilities, which record and store far more information in the image file, that can be pushed and pulled during post processing. Simple sliding of highlight and shadow sliders in post-processing software of your choice can make a huge difference. 

JPEG image, with overblown overexposed background

RAW image, same shot from previous JPEG, but processed, with simple highlight recovery

I acknowledge that there are numerous methods out there, some rather effective to counter backlight, or uneven lighting. Using large reflectors can balance the subject against harsh background. Also, a popular use of fill in flash can also mitigate faces in deep shadows. Alternatively, there is the ever-frowned upon HDR technique, which, honestly, if done correctly and tastefully, can give you some impressive results. 

For some of you newcomers to photography, I sure you found some of the tips here helpful!


  1. Really interesting. My problem is I don't use post production and this affects the quality of my work. Nowadays, everyone is mostly into lightroom for PP needs, but I use only GNU/Linux, so no Lightroom here. Darktable and similar open softwares have very few resources for guides/manuals and learning by doing, alone, can be very frustrating. I understand, though, that post production is a mandatory step in order to improve your work, as it was developing and printing pictures in the good old days. I think there's some laziness to overcome for me here... I always appreciate your blog posts, as they give me some good starting points for rethinking my approach to photography, too. Thank you.

    1. If you can use an Android device, there's a free program called Snapseed that let you work on jpg with basic functions for recovering highlitning/shadows, clarity, contrast, etc... It works quite well and is a middle way between having to pay for a prog and not having a prog at all.

    2. Try downloading GIMP. It's a free download, works with GNU/Linux and does most of what Photoshop does.

    3. I think his point is not the lack of freeware, but the manuals on how to use it. However Darktable does have a manual. You can download it from your repository list. If thats not good enough, literly just search youtube. On youtube you will find videos on how to do everything.
      Darktable, ufraw, gimp, lightzone are all available for linux and free and amazing pieces of software.

  2. Robin, you have nor mentioned adding fill flash to deal with strong backlighting. Would you comment on this?

    1. He did mention fill flash a bit in his second to last paragraph. Most of his examples are related to street photography though where fill flash isn't ideal. In street photography you often want to be somewhat inconspicuous so as not to alert your subject, and thereby affecting their natural expression.

  3. Hi Robin, I was interested in your comment about shooting RAW. I use an Olympus Stylus 1 and have started shooting in RAW and JPEG at the same time with this camera. For the most part I am just using the JPEG images, however I use the RAW images when I didn't get the exposure or white balance correct. The question that I have is what software do you use to do the corrections. I have been using Olympus Viewer for a number of years but have started to experiment with Adobe Camera RAW. I find that I get better and larger images with OV. What is your experience?
    ... Fred

    1. If I may give a suggestion, I have an E-M1 and used many times Olympus Viewer that gives very good results but is quite clunky and slow, so I bought Lightroom and now I use only that... but YMMV...

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  5. Hi Robin - excellent tips there, especially for newbies. I absolutely love # 1: expose for the subject and the heck with the rest ;-)
    The "harsh light B/W example" is perfect use of B/W and proper exposure of the subject - rendering a very powerful shot.
    Talking about powerful: all my best wishes of course with your career move! Knowing you and your amazing talent (just a fact) that was a brilliant move, and I am sure we shall read all about it, and see the fantastic results as well.

    Interesting that you're working with 35mm perspective, as well. I think I know why, but I'll keep my big mouth shut, LOL. All will be revealed in due time, I am sure.

    Keep up the good work, Robin, keep that shutter clicking and producing that amazing signature look of yours. I love it, and so do enormous numbers of others too. Bravo!

  6. Robin, great work.
    However I find your highlight pull from Raw actually takes away from the subject. In the jpeg photo I am drawn to the subject on the left. But in the raw converted one the subject becomes the person in the hallway in the right, as that is where my eye is drawn.
    I actually prefer the jpeg interpretation.

  7. Another excellent article. Glad to see you back focusing on photography itself. While every person has different likes and dislikes, it is important to understand the basics of light and imaging. I love working with Olympus RAW files to to recover details. Like you, I now use Lightroom, but used Aperture when it was supported. There are many other good software imaging programs out there, and can't knock any of them, but Lightroom has been intuitive for me and of course I like its DAM (Digital asset management) aspect for keeping my files organized. Having used many software programs though can't really knock any of the major ones. I do like Lightroom's support for certain plug-ins though that I occasionally find useful. I find photoshop overkill for my purpose and while I have access to it, I maybe use it once or twice a year. Most of all I just love to see you back out and shooting again.

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