Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Lighting Opportunity You Shouldn't Miss

The spot above shows one of my favorite kinds of photo opportunities.  It allows me to get dramatic lighting effortlessly.  Hit the jump for a few samples.

I love backlighting because it emphasizes the subjects and allows them to stand out from the background.  The kind of backlighting I like best for this purpose is one where the light is not directly behind the subject, but is instead above and behind the subject (sometimes called separation light or shoulder light).

To get that kind of light with flash normally requires using at least a tall light stand, if not a boom stand (so that the light stand won't be visible in the shot), so it's not often that I have the chance to shoot with it.
One of the few occasions when I was able to add separation light to a casual portrait.
(Funny how fat I was back then.  Thank goodness for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu!)
Fortunately, sometimes nature does the work for us.  When the sun is at a sufficiently low angle (not directly overhead), I often position the subject to use the sun as backlight.

The effect is most noticeable when there is a dark background, which makes the separation light prominent.  That's why I like areas like the spot at the beginning of the story.  It is a backlit area next to a shaded area.  As a further bonus, the dark background tends to reduce the dynamic range of the scene (compared to a backlit shot without a shade).  Finally, if the backlit area is a light-toned surface such as concrete, it can reflect light into the subject, adding a bit of fill.  In short, instant studio-style lighting, without any effort at all.

On this particular morning, it was a "costume day" at our kids' school, and my wife asked me to take a shot of the kids.  I looked out at the backyard, saw the shaded and backlit area and did an internal fist pump. :)  I chose to use the Fuji S5 and Sigma 50-150.

To position the subject, I have the subject in the shaded area, facing away from the light, close to the sunlit portion so that they're casting a shadow.  The part of the subject that is casting a shadow will be the part that has a separation light.  It could be the whole subject, or just the head, or anywhere in between.  (BTW the light doesn't have to be behind the subject.  It can be at an angle for effect.)  And here's what that light did for my shot:

When the subject has hair with volume (e.g. frizzy or curly hair), or is wearing something translucent, then the effect is even better.

One challenge with backlit shots like this is that a camera may be fooled into underexposure.  The correct exposure will depend on your camera and your intent.  Some cameras will seriously underexpose backlit shots, while others will do fine.  In this case, I was using the Fuji S5, which has a tendency to underexpose.  With that tendency in mind, I set the exposure compensation at +1.3EV but when I processed the shot, I found that I had to add another +0.85EV.

Something else to watch out for with a strong backlight is flare.  Flare can reduce the contrast of the image, making it look washed-out.  Depending on your lens, you may also see ghosting.  To minimize these issues, use a lens hood (or use your hand to shade your lens) and if you have a choice, consider using a longer focal length.  Alternatively, instead of avoiding flare, you can allow flare into the shot for effect.

Using Midday Sunlight
Turnabout is Fair Play
Fill Flash: Summer Pool Party

Happy Labor Day and have a great weekend!
(BTW, did you notice anything different about the post-processing of these shots?  That will be something I will discuss soon.)