Sunday, September 20, 2009

Embracing the backlight, or how I lost my fear of blown out backgrounds

Study in backlight 1

I admit I've suffered from OCD when it comes to avoiding the bane of digital photography -- blowouts. Areas of pure white in an otherwise nicely exposed photo slap me in the face and force me to look -- and once I do, I can see nothing else in the photo. Nowhere is the blown out highlight more evident than the backlit photograph. I would either A) try to avoid situations where the light was behind my subject or B) become faniatical about checking the highlight mode of my LCD display. I'd dial down the exposure until every last black blinkie disappeared, then hoped that I could recover the remains of the shadows later in post processing.

I'm a whole lot better now. It all started while photographing guests arriving at a wedding a couple of weeks ago. I stood on a covered walkway, bouncing a flash off the white "ceiling" to throw some light on my subjects. One couple stopped in a pool of sunlight and I fired. The result was one of those "I think I'm on to something" moments. The couple were lit perfectly by the flash in front of them. Behind them, the background glowed. Their shadows were thrown forward. The effect was cool. From that point on, I waited for arriving guests to reach the pool of sunlight before I clicked the shutter.

Study in backlight 4

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I'm shooting some street photos at a fall festival. I'm walking up the street into the morning sun and people are coming at me. I remember the "ain't it cool" photos I shot a couple of weeks earlier. I set my exposure value to +2 to compensate for metering into the sun, set a manual focus to about 5 feet in front of me, selected an aperture of f/8 for moderate depth of field and fired away whenever I saw someone who looked interesting in front of me.

Study in backlight 2

Study in backlight 3

The effect is graphic -- everything in shadow looks normal. Everything else is transformed to almost pure white. Shadows reach out from the subjects toward the camera. Complex scenes are simplified.

Study in backlight 5

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

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