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Blown-out backgrounds seems like one of the more common issues amateur photographers deal with, and probably one of the things I struggle with most. Metering modes seem more of a compromise between background vs foreground.

Take this as an example:

enter image description here

Am I right to consider the only solutions here are taking two photos and merging them? Or waiting for darker background?

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2  
"Am I right to consider the only solutions here are taking two photos and merging them?" Nope! You, as the photographer, have complete control over your scene. You don't have to wait for anything...just make it happen! :) Move yourself, move the subject, move the background, move em all if that's what it takes. Never forget that its about the subject, but the surroundings matter just as much. I've provided a detailed answer below. –  jrista Jun 27 '13 at 4:01
    
I also experienced this on my super amateur phase. I always tried forcing this shot instead of simply asking my subject to move to another spot or use a flash/reflector. –  ides Jun 27 '13 at 11:05
    
I'd also recommend simply changing the scene. Get that light source out of the direct view yet do benefit from the indirect light. –  Ferdy Jul 2 '13 at 21:40

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

First - when you take a picture of a large dynamic range scene, not just portraits, and your camera cannot cover this dynamic range you'll either get overexposure of the bright parts or underexposed of the dark parts.

There are some ways to workaround this:

  1. Shoot the portrait on a different background.
  2. Shoot HDR: I don't like this method for portraits, mostly because the processed image rarely seems natural, but it depends on your processing.
  3. Shoot RAW: this way you'll get much more details and a larger dynamic range.
  4. Use another light source like flash or reflector: this way you can achieve more natural light and reduce the dynamic range of the scene.

I prefer 1 or 4, depending on the location and/or the available equipment.

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I would say the easiest solution would be to change the nature of the scene. Portraiture can be all about spur of the moment shots, but even if you want that kind of aesthetic, I think one can still achieve it without losing sight of the other aspects that make for a great photo.

When making portraits, you should always be aware of what surrounds your subject. In the sample you posted, the background has a few problems:

  1. Obviously, the scene's dynamic range is huge thanks to a dimly lit interior contrasted against a bright sky out the window.
  2. The background doesn't bring any intriguing quality to the photo, compliment the subject in any great way, or offer any kind of consistency (its split down the middle, one half darker and one half very bright)
  3. It leaves an odd shape sticking out of the subjects head (a ceiling fan I believe, but an odd protrusion from the head nevertheless).

I am assuming you are shooting "from the hip", without a tripod, or any explicit ability to use multiple flash to control your lighting, etc. When taking a portrait, try to angle yourself, the subject, and the background relative to each other that it will produce a pleasing result. Try to make the subject's face more evenly lit (in your sample, one side is fairly deeply shaded, the other side is fairly lightly shaded, resulting in a fairly broad range of contrast across his face), or at least, shaded with light that differs by only a few stops, rather than ten stops (unless a high contrast portrait is what your after.) Either put the subject all in artificial light, or all in natural light, but avoid blending the two as that will push dynamic range to or beyond the limits of your camera, resulting in things like blown sky or even blown skin highlights. If shooting outside, or lighting your subject with brighter natural light, try to take your shots when they are illuminated more directly (but not necessarily head on) to improve exposure, and still keep some appropriate shading to bring out their profile.

Try to find a pleasing backdrop. Even if it is going to be blurry, it still matters...its a complimentary factor of the scene. Avoid allowing any background elements to "protrude" from your subject, especially their head. Poles, trees, ceiling fans, anything else that might produce an odd interaction...shift yourself relative to the subject such that they don't interact. Boke can be a huge factor in portraiture in general, especially if there are OOF point highlights that can be nicely arranged around your subject...so keep an eye out for that kind of thing, and use it in your scene.

All of this may sound like a lot, but once you practice it for a while, noticing these "alternative" factors in your portraits will become second nature, and putting them all to good use will become a natural thing, requiring very little thought.

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1  
Indeed. This picture is a good example of why Joe McNally will use eleventy-seven speedlights to make the scene look "unlit". The "easy" way out here (if that view of the environment was actually important) would probably be to use a black double net scrim along the railing; it's slightly less effort than lighting (but requires more crew). But that's for a portrait, which is by definition a different undertaking from a casual snap. There's nothing wrong with snaps; don't be afraid of taking them or claiming them, but don't expect them to turn out like planned shoots either. –  user2719 Jun 27 '13 at 2:41

For this particular situation, here are two techniques you could try.

  1. (The post-production/photoshop option) Open up two instances of the image. The first with the normal exposure and the second with the exposure set to +1. I have found the quickest way to do this is through Adobe Camera Raw. Place the overexposed image on top of the normal exposure, create a mask on the overexposed layer, and fill it with black (this will "hide" the layer). Next, use a soft white brush (with an opacity set to about 40%) and brush back in the parts you want the overexposed areas to appear (the left side of the image. Tweak with the layer's opacity until it suits your needs.

  2. If your budget allows for it, a GND (graduated neutral density) filter is perfect for a situation like this. You could easily underexpose the right side of the by a stop if you had one attached to the lens. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graduated_neutral_density_filter

  3. From an artistic standpoint, if your photographer moved about 5 feet to their right, they would have been able to use light coming through the window to light the subject. (Window light is almost always flattering on faces :) It looks like there is about a 1.5-2 stop difference between the background and the ambient light inside the room. Positioning the camera to make the best use of available light is a great tool to use!

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Basically, the idea is to expose for the highlights (the sky in your example) and fill in the shadow area (your subject) with another source of light when taking the picture. This can often be done, albeit a little harshly, with built in flash, if so equipped (not all have this) but that's a last resort kind of thing because the light is really not flattering.

So, ideally, the fill light is off the camera. This can be done in a couple of ways...

  1. Use one or more speedlights or strobes and trigger then either through optical means or via radio triggers. This allows you to place the lights in a position to balance the bright background and provide more flattering results.

  2. In the absence of flashes that can be moved off camera, a reflector can be placed or held to fill in. It doesn't have to be fancy, it can even be white paper or some other reflective surface. I've used tinfoil in a pinch. Obviously, a designed for purpose reflector is ideal, but not essential.

I should note, using a reflector isn't necessarily a second choice, it can often be the best choice because they don't require power to work...

Finally, shoot raw. You have a lot more flexibility in image recovery when you have the data that raw offers.

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if this is the out of camera JPEG, I do think that if you shot it in raw, you could pull down the highlight to recover the sky. I've done this shooting indoor where the garden outside the window was all white, and it turned green grass/blue sky when I pulled down the highlights.

Another thing is the composition. it is not good to have him split like this with the outside on one side of the face and the interior on the other. rotate yourself around him to have only the interior or only only the outside , or split the scene away from him.

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