Photography Backlighting

3 Photographic Techniques For Creating Beautiful Direct Sunlight Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of the most challenging lighting environments a photographer will face is creating portraits in direct sunlight. This light source has a strong specular quality that produces harsh shadows and strong highlights. The contrast range is often greater than your camera can capture and the portrait is anything but flattering. There are, however, several techniques that allow you to modify the sun’s light to create beautiful portraits with softly diffused, directional light.

Don’t settle for bad lighting—modify it.

The most commonly used, and easiest solution, is to shoot your portrait early or late in the day. Sunlight is softer at those times with a rich, warm color temperature and a definite direction—perfect for portraits. Early and late sunlight creates drama in a portrait that adds an extra layer of emotion to any image.

Sidelight with photographic reflector

Late in the day sidelight with a warm photographic reflector

For many years National Geographic Magazine has used this technique to set their photography apart from other publications.

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

The second technique is used while side lighting your subject during the day, but modifying the light with a diffusion panel. Diffusion panels come in a wide range of sizes, from big “silks” large enough to light a car to small, folding models that can be carried in a camera bag all the time. I myself carry a diffusion panel and a reflector on my camera bag, each of which is 8 inches across when folded and opens to 23 inches wide.  They essentially weigh nothing.

Diffusion panels are placed between the sun and your model and the larger the panel, the softer the light.

I have also found that the closer to the subject I place the diffuser, the softer the light becomes. Diffused light tends to fill in shadows and wrap around a subject, creating smoother looking skin. A bonus in portraiture!

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

A reflector or flash fill can also be used to control the contrast of direct sunlight, but I personally prefer the look created by a large reflector. By moving the reflector, I can easily shape the light on my subject and create a strong three-dimensional feel in the image.

Heavy backlight with a reflector

Heavy backlight with a photographic reflector to help fill in the shadows

The final technique is one of my favorites—back lighting. Often when I photograph portraits in bright sunlight, I position my subject so that the sun is behind them and I expose for the shadow side of their face.

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

This approach has several advantages when shooting in direct sunlight.

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

The first is contrast control. The shadow side of your model, as well as everything else in your image, is the same exposure. Backlighting also produces a bit of a bright halo around your subject, helping to separate them from the background. Your subject can also keep their eyes wide open. There is no squinting when your model has their back to the sun. Lastly, as you adjust your exposure for the model’s shaded side, the background becomes brighter relative to the subject. This gives your image a bit of a high key feel, especially with a shallow depth of field.

Admittedly, avoiding lens flare and dialing in the proper exposure is a little trickier than front lighting. You can find an earlier post on that subject at

With just these 3 techniques, you can create beautiful, striking portraits out in direct sunlight. Mastering some simple equipment and positioning your model properly can lead to startling results. Control the light and then connect with your model. A portrait is, after all, a partnership between you and your subject. Have fun. That will always show in the final portrait.


Wildflower bloom on Figueroa Mountain

Photographing The Beautiful Flower Show On Figueroa Mountain

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

If you are a photographer, you can’t help but know that this has been a big year for wildflowers in SoCal. Superblooms like the California poppy explosion down near Lake Elsinore drew such big crowds that the nearest freeway exit had to be closed. Anza-Borrego Dessert State Park was also overrun with tourists.

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

We are fortunate to have our own flower bomb going off on nearby Figueroa Mountain—without the huge crowds.

As you climb up Figueroa Mountain Road, starting just across the highway from Los Olivos, whole hillsides in the distance appear orange and purple from blooming fields of California poppies and lupine. Hillsides are covered in soft green grasses and the oaks are just leafing out with pale green foliage.

Owl's Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Owl’s Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Nestled among the grasses are all kinds of exotic blossoms, from shooting stars and chocolate lilies to patches of owl’s clover. These are all “belly Flowers’, meaning you are going to have to lay on your belly to view or photograph them properly.

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

If you want a really intimate image of wildflowers, try a little trick I learned from one of my students.

Preset your camera exposure, set your wide angle lens to autofocus and place your camera on the ground beneath some flowers, shooting up toward the blue sky. Don’t try to look through the viewfinder. Just keep shooting as you move the camera around. It’s a lot of fun and I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the unusual bugs-eye-view of your patch of flowers.

Using a camera to capture both the grandeur of these massive blooms and the intimate delicacy of each flower is a challenge, but it can be done using a simple tool—backlighting. Light passing through a translucent flower petal will always be more saturated than light reflecting off the same surface and has the added advantage of highlighting all the tiny hairs, pistils and stamens that make flowers such exotic creatures.

Goldfield blooms

Sometimes a little lens flair is useful in creating a sense of tangible sunlight

Although it is a simple technique, backlighting does have a couple tricky aspects. First, make sure to check your histogram for exposure. Many cameras tend to underexpose backlit situations. You are essentially exposing for the shadow side of your subject and if you are using manual exposure, overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop. Second, avoid flair by checking the front lens element to make sure no direct sunlight is hitting the glass. If necessary, use something to shade the lens, like the brim of a hat or a gray card. Flair tends to lower contrast and hide details and nobody wants a blob of off-colored light in the middle of their image. See our previous post “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting” 

California poppy photographed from a low level

California poppy photographed from a low level

A few things to keep in mind when you go. Take water, snacks and warm clothes. Go with a full gas tank and drive slowly. Some of the roads up there can be challenging, as can some of our fellow drivers. If you are a photographer, try to take some kind of macro lens. Many of the most unique blossoms are hidden away in the grass and rocks and it will take some “belly time” to find them.

Wildflowers on the Mountain have a short season, so don’t take too long to get up there. It’s quite a show and you don’t want to miss it. After all, who knows when it will rain again?

 

 


cheese fondue lit with window light

Window Light, An Amazingly Elegant Photography Light Source

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Have you ever wished you could invent the perfect lighting system, one that generally gave you diffused light but could be adjusted to be more specular? A lighting system that provided directional, horizontal lighting that avoided the raccoon eyes of overcast days. A continuous source so you can see the results before you shoot and powerful enough to light an entire room and its contents. Oh, and let’s throw in cheap to buy and very light to carry. Perfect, right?

Alebrije in window light

A gold reflector bounces window light into the near side of a carved Mexican alebrije to control contrast and create a warm highlight.

We all have that lighting system available, of course. I use window lighting for a wide range of photographic subjects, but I have noticed in my classes that many students seem to ignore it. It’s a seemingly easy light source to use, but as in so many things in photography, mastering window light is quite another matter.

Cafe lit with window light

If windows are part of your composition, break them up as much as possible and don’t allow your camera to underexpose the interior, even though the light source is in the frame.

First, let’s define exactly what we are talking about here. Window light is any source of daylight that is horizontally directional and mostly diffused. This diffused daylight is often cool in temperature and does not have to pass through a real window. It would certainly be awkward carrying a window around all day. A large overhang of some sort outdoors will produce the same quality and direction of light as long as there is no direct sunlight intruding into our scene.

Window light also requires that we actually see how the light is impacting our subject, not how we expect it to look. This is one of the big hurdles in learning to be a photographer—actually seeing what is right in front of us.

pizza lit with window light

Pizza was photographed twenty feet from the window light source to emphasize the pizza texture with edgier light and balance the food exposure with the interior exposure.

This will lead to the realization that window light will change depending on where in a lit room we place our subject. Is there more than one window? Are there also artificial lights involved or will the paint color on the walls bias our color balance through bounce light. Do we want flat, even lighting or side lighting that creates dimension and brings up texture. Close to a window, the light is very soft and diffused. It becomes harsher, or more specular, as we move our subject farther from the light source. Do we have reflectors to modify contrast and shape the light? It’s getting a bit more complicated, isn’t it?

restaurant interior photographed with window light

A restaurant interior was photographed at a point where window light and the warm, incandescent light over the table and painting balanced perfectly.

When I first enter a window-lit room or an outdoor arcade with arches open to the ambient light, I sit for a few minutes and study people as they walk through the space. There is always a “sweet spot”, a location within the environment that gives me the perfect direction, the right amount of softness and perfect balance of light on my subject and my background.

Try it, but keep your eyes open. This is a subtle light source but a very powerful one as well. And you have got to love a light source that you don’t have to carry! I know I do.


Focus stacked portrait of a lobster fisherman

Control A Photograph’s Depth Of Field With Simple Focus Stacking

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

The commercial fisherman was having a tough time holding up the struggling lobster. It was constantly trying to grab him with the sharp points at the end of each leg. In order to avoid being clawed by the large lobster, the fisherman was holding it out in front of him and that was a real problem for the image I had pre-visualized.

I was photographing a portrait of a commercial lobster fisherman at the Fisherman’s Market in Santa Barbara for a book on local cuisine. It was a foggy morning and I wanted to shoot using a shallow depth of field so that the commercial fishing boats and pier behind my subjects were softly out of focus. In order to separate my subjects even more from the background, I had lit my subjects with a warm, diffused flash.

Everything fell into place—except the lobster. With an aperture setting of f5.6, either the fisherman’s face would be sharp or the lobster would be sharp. If I wanted a soft background, I couldn’t stop down the aperture further and seemed to be stuck with only one of my two subjects being sharply focused.

I used a solution called focus stacking. Making sure that I had frames where the focus on the fisherman’s face was sharp and others where the lobster is sharp, I didn’t change exposure or composition. I merely shifted the focus slightly. This had to be done quickly so that the lobster and fisherman were in pretty much the same position, or in register, in matching images.

Back at my computer, I layered the two shots in Photoshop with the sharp fisherman on top. Setting up a mask on that top layer, I painted out the soft lobster with black, letting the sharp lobster below show through. Flattening the two layers gave me a sharply focused lobster in front of a sharply focused fisherman, all with a soft background created by a shallow depth of field at an f5.6 aperture setting.

Focus stacked photo of bass fishermen on a lake.

Focus stacked photo of bass fishermen on a lake.

Although focus stacking is usually used in macro work, where an extended depth of field is impossible with a single frame, I have found it extremely useful for controlling depth of field in a number of situations where I wanted either shallow depth of field or greater depth of field.

The image of the bass fishermen on Lake Cachuma is an example of layering two images, one focused on the fishermen and one focused on the mountainous background, to give me an image with great depth. Sure, I could have stopped down my lens for greater depth of field, but I had managed to forget my tripod that morning and shooting a 300mm lens hand-held required a wide-open aperture for a fast shutter speed and sharp subjects. Sometimes focus stacking helps me correct rather foolish mistakes. I must have missed my coffee that morning.

All types of focus stacking software can be found with a quick search on-line and some photographers stack multiple frames of the same subject to achieve startling depth and detail in a single image. It’s also a tool that can be applied in subtle ways using simple layering in Photoshop. Experiment with it and see if it doesn’t help in controlling depth of field and producing images that are impossible to capture in a single frame. Remember–mastering post-production tools will expand the photographic possibilities exponentially. As in the days of black and white negatives, digital image capture is only half the journey to a final image. Post-production is the other half. Have fun.


laelia orchid

The Challenge Of Creating Visual Impact In A Photo Essay

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of my favorite assignments, no matter the subject, is a photo essay. I love immersing myself in a subject and drilling down into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies. My curiosity and my love of photography intertwine in a joyous dance that is new to me every single time.

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

A photo essay is essentially a story told with minimal words and, hopefully, lots of photographs.

The trick is creating a diverse range of images that are all necessary to fully explain a subject or location. Whether it is a long-form essay, like a coffee table book, or a short-form essay, like a two page magazine article, the steps are the same—research, organize, shoot and edit.

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

Let’s use an essay I photographed recently on orchid collectors for Seasons Magazine as an example. I dabble in gardening and like most people, find orchids both beautiful and exotic, so it was a subject that I found fascinating. Santa Barbara is known for its commercial orchid greenhouses and the city also holds an International Orchid Show each year. The magazine asked that I tie those into the piece as well.

collector tends a cymbidium orchid

orchid collector tends a special cymbidium orchid

Research was going to be critical. Finding contacts at the greenhouses and orchid clubs, collectors that were willing to be photographed on location, schedules for orchid competitions and sales and sources for various types of orchids in full bloom had to be compiled.

prize winning cymbidium orchid

prize winning cymbidium orchid

For such a simple subject, this was going to be a complex project.

In addition to contacts and permissions, research helped me put together a shoot list. This list is critical to making sure that coverage is as diverse, and thorough, as possible. And compiling a shoot list is not a static process as changes and additions are continuously made to the list as images are reviewed.

collector views images of micro orchids

collector views images of micro orchids on a Scanning Electron Microscope

While making appointments was stressful, shooting was a great experience. That is not to say that I could just go out and create beauty shots of orchids all day. Let’s face it, that would quickly put my audience asleep. The flowers are addictive, however, and I had to force myself to cover related subjects.

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

Growing and hybridizing orchids has a laboratory phase. Some collectors specialize in miniature orchids, so small that the individual flowers are hard to see without a magnifier. I found a collector that paints orchids. Subjects just popped up as I explored the unique world of orchid collectors.

orchid seedling are checked

orchid seedling are checked in a commercial greenhouse

Post-production also came into play as I created studio portraits of blooms against a white background in the greenhouses. Editing was on ongoing process and accurate captions were critical for the article’s text.

collector paints orchids

collector paints orchids using the Chinese brush painting technique

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

Although this sounds like a lot of work—well, it was. The magazine did a great job laying out the images, however, making it all worthwhile. Try it yourself. Pick a topic and spend a month or two researching and photographing a narrow subject or location. You’ll be amazed how it forces you to be a more thoughtful and sensitive photographer and how much fun it can be. Then find a publisher. Think big!

If you are already shooting photo essays and have a favorite subject, share it with the group in the Comments Section. Thanks.


colorful building details

Have Fun Searching For Colorful Photographic Details

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

The colonial towns of Mexico are some of my favorite locations for photographing details. Early and late in the day, I’m often working on capturing the iconic buildings and sites of a town, but during the middle of the day the harsh sunlight is very strong and, like the locals, I try to avoid it. That doesn’t mean I have to stop shooting, however.

colorful windows details

colorful windows details, Oaxaca, Mexico

Many buildings have unique architectural details, while shops and galleries often display their wares outside in the shade. It’s all a bit like a photographic scavenger hunt.
Sometimes the image is perfect just the way I find it and sometimes I have to move things around for a better composition. Maybe a potted plant is in the wrong location or some carved animals need to be grouped together. I always ask permission first before I touch anything and have rarely been turned down.

carved wooden animal folk art

still life of carved wooden animal folk art, Oaxaca, Mexico

For me, these intimate photographic details often say more about the culture of an area than more general shots and they always add a spot of strong color during a drab part of the day.

cactus fence detail

cactus fence detail, Mitla Archeological Zone, Mexico

Sometimes in can be as simple as stumbling on a fence made of living cactus, sometimes it’s a detail of a popular form of folk art.

detail of black pottery

detail of black pottery, San Bartolo Coyotepec, Mexico

Colorful images can be easy to produce at the beginning and end of the day, when warm light is prevalent, but creating fascinating photographs during the rest of the day is definitely more challenging.

hotel archway details

hotel archway details, Oaxaca, Mexico

How many of us like to collect doorways and windows? They represent an entrance into another culture and I photograph them any time I find one that is unique.

old door detail

old door detail, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Developing your ability to find hidden color among the details not only broadens your coverage of a subject, it also fun and helps you see what others miss. And seeing the world with greater clarity is, after all, one of the main reasons we all love creating photographs.

 


Backlit California poppies in bloom

The 2 Big Hurdles To Creating Amazing Backlit Photographs

In our last post, “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting”, we discussed how backlighting helps control contrast in a scene, creates beautiful rim lighting effects, enhances color of translucent subjects and helps models relax in front of the camera by eliminating the need to squint into the sun. In this post, we’ll go over some of the pitfalls of backlighting and how to work around them.

fisherman rim lit with backlighting

A fisherman on the beach is rim lit with backlighting

Camera metering is the first issue, and it can be a bit tricky. Placing the sun behind your subject can fool your camera into thinking there is more light on your main subject than there really is and causing it to underexpose. It’s all that light flooding around the sides of your subject. The trick is to either move closer to your foreground subject or zoom in so that no backlight shines on the front element of your lens. Fill the frame with your subject, blocking out direct sunlight, and take a meter reading. Move back to your original position, recompose and shoot using the same exposure. Your camera will probably be shouting at you that you are overexposing, but just ignore that. This technique guarantees that the shadow side of your subject is properly exposed.

Metering is much trickier when photographing backlit translucent subjects. In the case of wildflower petals, fall leaves or colorful sailboat spinnakers, you must override your meter and overexpose the subject. Don’t hesitate to open up, or overexpose, one to two stops to correct for the backlighting. It all depends on how translucent your subject is. Watch your histogram and push the highlights right to the edge of clipping.

desert flowers lit with backlighting

brittlebush flowers and cholla cactus are lit with backlighting

The second hurdle is to block direct sunlight from hitting the front element of your lens during exposure. Sun bouncing around inside your lens creates flair, a kind of fog that degrades contrast, color and detail in an image. It can also appear as spots of light, depending on the aperture setting for that exposure. Generally you want to avoid flair, but there are times when the effects of flair can be used to create a type of hazy atmosphere—a warm summer day kind of feel.

Lens flair adds atmosphere

Lens flair adds atmosphere at an afternoon Farmers Market

The easiest way to avoid flair is to place your subject directly in front of the light source. Blocking or diffusing the light reduces the intensity and cuts out flair. A subject can also be positioned so that the sun is in a quarter backlit position, either to the right or left behind your subject. In this case, the lens shade that comes with a lens will often do the job of blocking direct sunlight, keeping an image flair-free. When shooting landscapes with my camera mounted on a tripod, a hat or a gray card often does a great job of shading my lens.

One of my first lenses was an ancient Kodak Ektar, mounted on a 4×5 camera, that exploded with flair any time the sun was positioned even slightly in front of the camera. Modern lenses have coated elements that eliminate a lot of flair, but not that Ektar. It was a curse, but I quickly got expert at shading my lens during exposure. The beauty of backlit images quickly made up for the hassle of working with that lens.

Controlling contrast, adding golden rim light and increasing color saturation all guarantee that your backlit photographs will be the most dramatic images of the day. Give it a try, but watch that flair!


Backlit portrait of parade participants

The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting

Contrast in a photograph is a pain! Well, it’s good up to a point—until it isn’t. Even modern cameras can only handle so much contrast until either shadows block up or bright areas blow out, or clip. Images with high contrast appear harsh, uninviting. It’s generally not a pleasant look and if you are trying to create a complimentary portrait, it’s a disaster.

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey

There is a simple solution, however, and it doesn’t require diffusion panels, reflectors or piles of photographic lighting equipment.

Simply move your camera position until the primary light source, usually the sun, is behind your subject. Simple. Why is this so effective? With your subject backlit, you will be photographing the shadow side of everything in your frame, whether it’s a person, a building or a tree, and the shadow side of everything will generally be the exact same exposure.

This lighting pattern solves a lot of contrast problems and produces some stunning effects.

First, of course, most everything in the frame is lit at the same level, whether it is two feet from the camera or two miles from the camera. Meter reading can be tricky, but if your main subject is properly exposed, so is everything else.

Backlit Portrait of Yoga Instructor

Backlit portrait of a woman practicing yoga on a grassy hillside

Second, many subjects will have a beautiful, warm rim light, separating them from the background. This is especially important when the background is busy.

Backlit sailboats racing

Backlit sailboats racing in San Francisco Bay

Third, increased color saturation. Light passing through translucent wildflower petals or sailboat spinnakers produces brighter colors than light reflecting off those same subjects.

And lastly, when your model is facing away from the direct rays of the sun, they are much less apt to be squinting into the lens. Getting strong light off a person’s face makes it much easier to achieve those comfortable, revealing expressions we all strive for. The poor photographer will be looking into the sun and squinting furiously, but who cares? It’s worth the benefits. Right?

Next week we’ll cover some of the issues involved in shooting with backlighting.

Text and Photos by Chuck Place


Capture Easy Color For Powerful Photographic Images

fruit is sold in the mercado in Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico

A student recently asked me how I consistently produce images with so much color. I have been working as a professional photographer for over twenty-five years and do many things automatically. I had to think about the question for a few minutes before I could explain it properly.

The short answer, of course, is that I look for color everywhere I travel.
For me, color is an integral part of the travel experience. A vendor’s stall of colorful fruit in a Mexican mercado at sunrise or the rainbow hues of Native American regalia at a powwow draw me like a magnet.  Throw in an occasional sunset and you have the photographer’s “easy” color.

Most travel photographers look for the right light, rather than just colorful subjects. Color tends to be emphasized in certain situations and we capitalize on that. The first and last hour of the day is definitely the most popular time to shoot for many professionals, from nature and travel shooters to architectural photographers. That warm light streaming through your image sets a mood that is hard to beat.

Sienna, Italy

I was standing there, panting, at the top of a bell tower in Sienna, Italy. I had dragged my gear up what seemed like, at least, a thousand stairs, but I knew the image I was about to make would be worth the effort. The sun was on the verge of setting and delicate pink light was sweeping across the ochre-colored town below me, long shadows giving the buildings volume. I merely had to crop tightly with my 80-200 mm zoom lens to capture the intricate mosaic of a beautifully lit Italian hill town.

This opportunity was not an accident or plain old good luck. I had planned this image before I had even left home. I try to plan my shooting schedule so that, for each location, I have at least one main subject to cover each sunrise and sunset. My research even tells me what direction each main building faces, so I know what time of day will give me the best results.

Creating images during the “Magic Hours” of sunrise and sunset can certainly give a photographer great color, but rather than capturing just another sunrise/sunset, use that warm light to create atmosphere as it washes over a new location or subject. Break the “sunset habit” and turn your back on the sun. You may find the color just as saturated and the subjects considerably more interesting.