Use Back Light


Back lighting is when the main illumination is behind the subject. That implies you are pointing the camera towards the illumination, usually the sun. You cannot actually have the sun in the picture. That would damage your eyesight, and, even worse, potentially ruin an otherwise good photograph.  If that can be avoided, backlighting can produce dramatic images that can evoke a strong sense of presence. The picture can be better than being there in one sense, looking towards the sun in real life involves annoying glare. Glare is precisely the problem the photographer faces.

Block the Sun

The first alternative is to get in the shade of a convenient tree or building. Using a tree often requires careful positioning so the camera is in the shadow, but so long as you are aware of that it is not a major problem. Asking some one to hold up a blocking object is a violation of the quickshot principle. You have to work quickly on your own.

One approach is to frame the image so that the sun is above or to the side of the picture area.  This sometimes works well enough, but the camera lens is curved and bright light out of the frame sneaks in and bounces around. The picture loses contrast and the shadows wimp out to gray, rather than staying crisply black.  A lens shade helps, but only if the sun is substantially off to the side. Besides, pocket cameras to not adapt well to lens shades. If you can get one, then the camera wouldn't fit in your pocket.

 The solution is to use your hand  to block the sun. If you are careful your hand won't be in the picture. The sun is not in the picture, so there is no necessity for your hand to be in the image. Arms are typically attached to the side of the body, so that's not usually a problem easily. You do have to be careful if you are reaching across the image space, say to use your left hand to block the sun that is little to the right. Pocket cameras are simple enough that it is fairly easy to shoot using either hand. Use the hand away from the sun to hold the camera.

The trick is to know when you are covering the sun. You have to be looking through the viewfinder or at the view screen  to frame the image and to make sure your blocking hand is not in the image. That means you cannot watch the shadow of your hand on the front of the camera at the same time. Instead, watch the shadows in the viewscreen, and when they turn from gray to black you have blocked the sun. The effect is easy to see. The procedure is straightforward if the camera is a through-the-lens type or you are using the LCD display on the back of the camera. Some pocket cameras have separate optical viewfinders. That is useful when the sun washes out the viewscreen. But in backlight the viewscreen won't be washed out so it is best to use the viewscreen instead of the viewfinder. The sun can be blocked with respect to the viewfinder, but still shining into the the lens.

An Example with Histograms

For the sequence that follows, I pointed a camera with a wide angle lens into the sun. I took a straight picture without using my hand to block the sun and then attempted to restore the dark shadows using Photoshop. Alternatively I used the block-the-sun-with your-hand trick. Blocking the sun works much better. The pictures were taken at the Point Lobos California State Marine Reserve, "The Greatest Meeting of Land and Water in the World" and prime turf for both great photographers and aspiring great photographers.

Here is the raw photo taken towards the sun:

Straight into the sun

Not a good photograph. The histogram shows that the shadows are washed out, just as it appears.

Applying auto levels helps quite a bit, but notice the green dot, top center, and the faint rainbows in the shadows. Those oddities derive from the sunlight bouncing around in the glass of the lens. It is worse with a wide angle lens because the lens has more glass and the wide angle lets in more light:

autolevels applied

I moved my hand to block the sun while observing the shadow areas in the center of the image. The shadows went dark when the shadow of my hand was on the lens. Note the improvement in the histogram. The shadows are darker and the rainbow artifacts are gone:

hand-blocked sun

Applying auto levels makes a small further improvement.

blocked sun, levels tweaked

The image obeys the "keep the frame full of stuff" principle. Boring sky is minimized, there is a long foreground to enhance the feeling of depth, and the dandy guard rails add to the visual flow. (Without those guard rails, you wouldn't know it was supposed to be a path.)  The colors are warmer in the bad version (above), and maybe it would improve the good image to tweak the colors a little. One trick is to put a very light yellow gradient in the sky. The sun really is yellow, but overexposure of the sky loses that.

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