exposure metering for a backlit subject

exposure metering for a backlit subject, using the histogram  (model – Olena)

When our subject is backlit, we have a number of options:

  • expose for the background, and then either:
    — go for a (semi) silhouette,
    — add light to your subject to balance their exposure with that of the background.
  • expose carefully for our subject, and let the background blow out. This is the “ambient-light-only” option.
  • anything somewhere inbetween those two choices, where *we* decide how we want to balance the exposure between our subject and background.

Exposing for our subject, very often gives us this kind of ethereal look as the strong light from the background causes internal lens flare.

Exposure metering using the camera’s histogram, is a fairly simple way of working. But you have to meter just for your subject, and not have any part of the background show. The super-bright background will just influence your meter and cause under-exposure. When you meter off a white tone, then you have to accordingly adjust your camera’s meter reading. This article on using the histogram to determine exposure explains it in more detail.

The screen capture there of the histogram as it appeared in Photoshop, shows what we’re trying to do with the brightest relevant tone (ie, white) of your subject – we’re pushing it to the edge of the histogram.

This gives us a baseline correct exposure. But we’ll still have to adjust the image in post-processing:

The image can look washed out on your camera’s preview. Actually, it will look washed out on your camera. We therefore need to increase the contrast and add more punch to the image. The two controls I adjust first, would be the Blacks slider, and the Contrast slider. From there I would adjust the rest, according to taste. The Whites slider is also pulled down to control how much of the image is washed out.

All of the changes to these settings, will make the image appear darker. So it might be necessary to pull the Exposure slider up a bit.

And there’s the basic RAW file, with various adjustments. The photograph (as a JPG), was then sweetened a bit further in Photoshop.

Even though I had to adjust the Exposure of the RAW file, getting to a good basic in-camera exposure for the strongly backlit image, was the best starting point.


photo gear (and equivalents) used in this photo session


related articles

8 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    Hi Neil!
    In your Gear used, you mention a speedlight. But don’t mention useing it in your write-up?
    Wouldn’t a light meter been quicker than useing the Histogram? I only ask because I always carry my light meter with me.

  2. 2 says

    Oops .. you’re correct. No flash with this photo.

    I often start writing an article with only a rough idea, and then meander to a different result. And the flash gear mentioned there was a left-over from where I originally thought the article would go.

  3. 5 says

    A light-meter would’ve made the process easier. There’s something else to learn though in using a different method than just holding a light-meter up, for now we have to consider the actual tones of our subject, and place the brightest relevant tone accordingly.

    Neil vN

  4. 6vikta says

    Solid lesson, showing other methods as most don’t really need a meter. Despite not using or having a meter I know our eyes and experience with bracketing works best in most situations. Looking at light fall off and what we have in mind. Kind of like shooting in “M” mode truely selecting the exposure, depth of field and freeze factor to your subject not what the camera metering tells you is correct. In your example we are controling the exposure and our creativity, not a meter telling us what is correct and that is always best.

  5. 7Yisehaq says

    Hi Neil,
    A good lesson. One question, can you explain your exif. Why do you need such a high ISO and wide ap and slow shutter? Wasn’t the back light strong enough? Will these method work if the back light was very strong such as direct sun light?

  6. 8 says

    In this, and the related articles linked at the bottom, the idea is accentuated that you’d normally expose for your subject. In this specific case, the light levels there was really low. We were relying on the light from some other window.

    With that, the bright light in the background has no real bearing on what is happening here. If I had used additional lighting (whether off-camera flash or video light) to give more light on her, I could’ve used meter reading for the background to affect the overall exposure. (I hope this makes sense.) But here, there was only the existing light, and we had to expose correctly for our model.

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