Make the Best of Difficult Lighting

A backlit scene--one in which the main light source is behind the subject so you're shooting into the light--is to photography what a 7/10 split is to bowling, or parallel parking on a steep hill is to driving a car.

The problem is that direct lighting in the back of your scene confuses your camera into closing down the aperture or shooting with a faster shutter speed, leading to an underexposed subject. But just because it's a little tricky to shoot with backlighting, that doesn't mean you can't get great results anyway.

This week, let's take a classic backlit photo and punch it up in Adobe Photoshop Elements. If you use a different photo editing program, you can get the same results; you'll just need to adapt the steps to your program.

Isolate the Problem

Here's a photo in which I photographed someone in front of a brightly lit window. All that ambient light has "stopped down" the camera's aperture, and underexposed the subject.

The solution? We're going to selectively improve the underexposed part of the photo. That way, we can brighten the subject's face without further increasing the brightness in other parts of the photo (which already look okay).

The easiest method? Do some dodging.

Dodging is an old darkroom term that refers to lightening part of a photo by reducing the amount of time you expose a print to light. You may have heard of its companion, burning, which darkens a print by subjecting it to more light. Old-fashioned dodging and burning are selective processes that you apply to certain parts of your photo--and it's no different now in digital photography.

Let's get started: Choose the Dodge tool, which you can find second from the bottom of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. It shares the same cubby with the Sponge and Burn tools.

Click on the underexposed part of the photo. You can "dab" it by clicking several times, or you can click and drag the tool around the screen to lighten a larger area. Also, you can tweak the tool's settings in the toolbar at the top of the screen. Depending upon the resolution of the photo and the size of the underexposed region, you might want to modify the size of the Dodge tool.

Here is what my original photo looks like after a little dodging in Photoshop Elements.

Layer It

As always, if you think you're overdoing it, feel free to use the Undo command to go back to a previous state. And rather than dodging the original photo, I highly recommend working in a layer on top of the original photo. To do that, duplicate the layer before you get started by choosing Layer, Duplicate Layer and clicking OK. Now you can modify the top layer and use the opacity control (in the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen) to fine-tune the effect. The original photo is still there underneath, preserved in case you need it.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Night Launch," by Russ Fortson, Houston, Texas

Russ writes: "I took this shot of the launch of STS-123 with my Pentax K20D and a Pentax 50-135 zoom lens. I had set the lens around 50mm to get part of the crowd into the shot. I think they give it more of an 'event' feel, versus the typical journalistic shot of a shuttle launch. It also shows how much the sky lights up even though I was over 4 miles away!"

This Week's Runner-Up: "Door Knob," by Bob Rowlands, Hollister, California

Bob says that he captured this door knob in Bodie, California, a ghost town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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