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Photo Assignment: Backlit Portraits is an interactive video course in which participating photographers can view and discuss each other's work. Professional photographer Derrick Story shows how to make onsite adjustments in a portrait shoot where backlighting is predominant. He teaches how to work with reflectors to bounce light into the areas that need it, and he explains how to use spot metering to control the exposure for the subject's face. At the end of the course, Derrick describes how to upload photos to Flickr for review and comment.
Backlit Portrait Photo Assignment Flickr Discussion Group
So, before we head out into the field and actually take some shots, I want to define our challenge here. I want to explain a little bit about backlit portraiture and how to do it and how to overcome the strong light coming in from the side or from behind. You can see that right here. We can see that in this shot right here. Look at how the hair is lit up. It's just glowing. This is what's so exciting about backlighting is that you can get that hair and the lines along the shoulder and the hips and so forth have this nice edge, this nice line that separates your subject from the background.
Another thing that I like about this type of work is that you can shoot it during times of day when you normally wouldn't be out shooting portraiture. This is really important for event photographers and wedding photographers as they often don't have a choice when they have to do the portraits, the group shots, the couple shots and things like that. No matter what the light is, they have to figure out a way to get a good shot using this technique during this time of day, this time of day that you normally would not be caught dead outside with your camera, can really turn a negative into a positive.
It can really help you come away with a fantastic looking portrait. Now, the reason why a lot of people shy away from backlighting is because of this, right here that we're seeing. That you do get the nice highlights on the hair. You do have this bright background, but the face, the skin tones go a little dark. They are little underexposed and if you are not careful and if you don't take measures to improve that, that can happen. Now look at this next shot right here.
Same shot taken, basically right after the other shot and all I did in this case was turn on the Fill-Flash. The difference between the two-- here I can put them side by side right here. Let's just click on this. Look at the difference between the two. So, you will see that the background is basically the same. The hair is basically the same. We still have that nice lighting on the shoulder to separate our model from the background. But now we have a nice skin tone also. All we had to do was turn on the Fill- Flash for that. Now, that's just one of the techniques that we have.
Another thing that you can do is change your metering pattern. By default, our meters are usually in Evaluative-Metering. What that means is that the camera is reading all of the scenes and then deciding what's the best exposure. It can be fooled in backlighting because this area is so bright. That's a lot of time what causes this underexposure here. The camera is trying to pull this really bright background and these bright tones in the hair into line with the rest of the shot, thereby underexposing the area that we really care about, which is the face and the eyes.
If you switch to Spot-Metering mode and you tell the camera, only meter in this area right here. Spot-Metering only measures a small area of the frame. You put that small area of the frame right where you want it on the face. It measures that and then everything else goes its own way. Now, you'll see that this background of course goes a lot brighter because the camera had to change the exposure for the face. So that is one of the things that can happen with Spot-Metering is that everything else goes really bright.
Now that will vary from condition to condition, so you never know, but you want to be aware of that effect and you want to have that technique in your back pocket, because for some conditions it might be just right. Now, let me show you another technique. This is fun. You can use the ground as a reflector to bounce light up into the model. In this case here I am using a walkway and there's light reflecting off that and it's reflecting up to the model. Now a lot of times what you'll have to do is the model can't be standing up totally erect for this to work, because the light won't bounce that far.
So, for instance here, you'll see that I have changed the position, but that's all I did. There is no reflector. There is no fill light coming from the flash. I am not using Spot-Metering mode. I basically am just using the reflection of the ground here. I am still in regular Evaluative-Metering mode. Everything just sort of worked and I still get the advantages of backlighting, with this nice rim light on the hair here. So this is really terrific. So that's another way to go.
Now let me show you another example of that. Here I am using the grass actually as a reflector. Now the model is down on the grass because it doesn't reflect as much as let's say a lighter walkway, but it still reflects. The thing that you have to look out for when you are using a colored surface for fill light is that it will influence the white balance. Now this is where I have corrected the white balance. Here's what happens if I am in Auto White Balance mode. See how it influences? The skin tones are not nearly as nice as this shot right here.
That's because the light that's bouncing off the grass here is colored. It's not a white light. It is not a pure light at all. It is a colored light. So, if you are going to use a colored surface for you fill light, make sure that you go to your White Balance setting on your camera. I prefer custom wight balance and almost all DSORs have custom white balance effects, almost all compacts have that. Basically all you do is have a sheet of white paper. You hold it up where the model's face is going to be and you have the camera read the light bouncing off that white sheet of paper and than it sets a white balance setting for the lighting that you have right there. It works really well.
And if you haven't tried it, I encourage you to do so. So this is what happens when you have custom white balance. This is what happens if you leave it in auto. You can get some strange things happening on the skin tone. So be aware of that if you are using a colored surface for your fill light. So, now before we go outside, I just want to reiterate that yes, it can be challenging to shoot portraits in these lighting conditions. But just using the few simple techniques and I am going to show you all of them.
I am going to show you all of the techniques that you think are really easy to use and effective. You can end up with very powerful portraits in some of the harshest lightning conditions. It's very exiting, so let's go out into the field and let's actually do a shoot and see what happens.
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