Under Expose for Backlighting

Under Expose for Backlighting

Backlighting is one of the most interesting, dynamic and challenging types of lighting that a photographer can work with. A few weeks ago I wrote a post on how I over expose for backlighting, but just one approach doesn’t do this light justice or satisfy my creativity. Today I’m going to share with you how I under expose backlit scenes for dramatic effect.

What is backlighting?

Under Expose for BacklightingFirst off, light coming from behind the subject is what we consider backlighting. It has nothing to do with the direction your subject is facing and everything to do with the relationships between your camera, subject and light source. Light shining right at the camera is very difficult for the camera to meter (measure), but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

How do I under expose?

Every camera is different but the big idea is to set your Exposure Compensation to a negative value. Start at -1 and see what happens. To make the scene darker, move to -2, to make it brighter, try -2/3 or -1/3. Most cameras mark the exposure compensation button with a symbol that looks like this [+/-]. If you are shooting in manual mode, don’t center the needle, rather move the needle to -1.

Under Expose for Backlighting
Here’s a shot of the sun going down over a Malaysian island. The sun is clearly behind the island, meaning that the strong direct light is not shining on the side of the island I can see. My goal is to create a dramatic sunset effect with my subject silhouetted, so I set the exposure compensation to -1, focus carefully on the island, and this is the result.

Under Expose for Backlighting
“Mother with her Dead Son” is a powerful war memorial by German artist Käthe Kollwitz. The scene is lit through an open oculus in the ceiling, allowing light to fall on the back wall, effectively backlighting the statue itself. To capture the mood of this scene accurately, I told my camera to under expose the scene by 1 stop.

Under Expose for Backlighting
The silhouette is the classic example of an underexposed backlit subject. Here I am photographing a group of photographers from one of our Colorado workshops as they photograph a dramatic sunset. By setting my camera to underexpose the scene by 1 stop, I have captured the people as silhouettes and the background as a beautiful sunset.

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