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So let's talk about exposing for backlit shots. Now the main reason that the conventional advice is to shoot with the sun to your back and facing your subject, is so that you can get a good exposure on your subject's face. If you're shooting with a consumer camera, smartphone, or on a DSLR or any other camera in auto exposure mode, your camera's going to auto expose for the bright light by stopping down the image and making your subject under exposed. So to get a good exposure on backlit subjects without using any extra lighting tools, we're going to have to do one of several things.
First, you could use manual exposure and open up the iris to expose for your subject. You may find the waveform monitor helpful to tell when you've got your subject at a good level if you can't easily tell by eye in the bright sun. Next, we could use auto exposure, and go in very close so that only our subject fills the frame, then lock in that same setting manually. Third, on many consumer and prosumer camera's, there's a backlighting mode you can turn on in the camera menu. This will compensate for the backlight by exposing everything brighter than normal, so you can still see your subjects face clearly.
And lastly, also in the menu, you can adjust the auto exposure mode so that it overexposes everything, which will cause your background to blow out, but your subject to be normally exposed, since the auto exposure is metering on the overall brightness of the image. It's over exposing most of the image, except the part you care about most, your subject. There are three different styles you can choose when it comes to back lit shots. Because the background is so bright, and the camera side of your subject is so dark, it's often impossible to get a good exposure on both at the same time, without taking some extra steps.
So we have to make a choice. The question you have to consider is, do you want to see the background clearly at a good exposure, or, do you want to see your subject clearly at a good exposure, or, do we want to see both of them at a good exposure? With a little knowledge and a few simple tools, we can do any of the above. So let's look at several different ways we can approach exposing for a back lit shot, depending on the particular look we want to get. Let's start with two of the easiest. If it's important to see the face of the person we're shooting, we can just dial up our iris, or use one of the other methods I just discussed until their face is well exposed.
This will purposefully blow out the bright background, while also creating a complimentary glow of light around subjects and windows, or framed against the sky or similar bright backgrounds. However, if we flip the script and expose for a bright background, it will leave our subject in shadows and create a silhouette. Now early on, many film makers discover that creating a clean black silhouette isn't as easy as they thought. The key to getting a good silhouette is having the proper lighting conditions which is really only two key things.
First, the background should be very bright, so the sky, a white building reflecting the sunlight, the sun itself, a window, a brightly colored wall, will all work well to create silhouettes. The next condition is that the camera side of your subject must be as under exposed and dark as possible. That's why we need a bright background. The more we close down the iris to get a good exposure on the bright background, the dark rust object will become, and the cleaner and more impressive our silhouette will be. And as a side note, it's generally easier to get a silhouette on someone in darker clothing that doesn't reflect light, rather than someone wearing something like a white t-shirt.
Now one simple way to expose for the background of a backlit shot, and get a better exposure on our subjects at the same time, is to use a reflector. The same light coming from behind, forms a nice hair of rim light on our subject on the first pass, then bounces off the reflector to also act as a key light. Because it's the same type of light at the same color temperature, this technique will give you a very natural feel. You can also get a few different variations on the quality of the balance slide on your subject, such as whether it's hard, soft, or warmer, depending on the type of reflector you decide to go with.
Check out my location lighting course on the lynda.com library, for a demo of different types of reflectors and the looks they create. Now the other way to expose for our subjects and the background at the same time is to light our subjects with an artificial light. When we use an artificial light, just like with the other methods, we first expose for the already brightly lit background because that's the one factor we have no control over. Then we simply use an artificial light source to light our subjects at an intensity and color temperature that matches the background.
For exterior shots, this means using a daylight balance light source, or using CTB gel on a tungsten source as this will give you the most natural look. However, if you want your subjects to pop out from the scene a little more, you can light them at an intensity that's a little bit brighter than the background. This is a technique commonly used in broadcast news and other stand ups. You could also light them with a tungsten light, or add a little CTO gel to a daylight, source like HMI or joker light, if you wanted them to have a warm contrast against a day lit background, which would also make them stand out more.
So those are the different strategies for exposing for a backlit shot. Depending on which one you choose, you can get a variety of different looks for the exact same shot.
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