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I was taking pictures of my kids outdoors and they were often backlit as they ran around. Since I wanted to isolate them from the background, I was shooting from distance (close to 200mm focal length on 35mm), which was out of the flash range for fill. I didn't have anyone helping me who could have held a reflector to generate fill either. Recovery of the raw files in LR was possible to some degree, but it was a laborious, time-consuming process and the result only semi-satisfactory. I feel like I should have blown the background, rather than tried to protect it, and exposed for my subject.

How do you make the best of a situation like this, when fill-flash is not possible and there is nobody around to hold a reflector? Just out of luck?

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    Exposing a strongly backlit subject correctly without a fill is pretty much assured to blow out the background. – John Cavan Oct 26 '13 at 18:19
  • Like this rising sun behind the subject. Blow out the sun and still no light on her face :( – Esa Paulasto Oct 26 '13 at 20:30
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Blow the background, and pull down highlights in LR afterwards. Normally you'd want to add a reflector to reflect the back light back on the subject, or use a fill a flash. Without those, you should just blow the background and save it later, if possible, but its probably not important if you can, compared to exposing the subjects decently.

Here's an example I just noticed where I shot an evening shot against the light. It is by no means not a good photo, I just needed to shoot how the baby was sitting in the wrap. But the principle of sacrificing the background to ensure good exposure of the subject is there. And shooting raw, it can often be recovered just fine in post, where you can see the metal poles on the light source, and the wall texture and door frames.

Blown background

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Assuming you're not in a low light situation - more of a sunny late afternoon than a sunset behind you scenario - I would switch to manual, expose for something that's being back lit and isn't running around like crazy kids. :) You can use spot exposure to make sure you've got that down.

If you don't want to go manual, you can use your exposure lock to do the same thing, but in a way that's easier to switch back to auto in case the kids run around to the other side and are suddenly front lit.

  • You haven't really told me what I expose for. So, are you saying that I should use spot metering and expose for the subject, at the risk of blowing the backlight? – Anon Oct 26 '13 at 15:55
  • yes. Sorry for the confusion. – Jody Oct 28 '13 at 18:33
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Two options, use manual mode or exposure compensation to make the shot slow enough to expose while blowing the background (but depending on the severity, this may bleed in to the foreground as well) or use an HDR mode and take a photo that has the background not blown and the subject under-exposed followed immediately by an exposure that has the subject properly exposed and the background blown.

This is basically what your highlight recovery approach ended up doing as long as the entire dynamic range fits within the range of the sensor. The HDR approach extends the dynamic range so that it can capture both, but it still will often take some tweaking to get just right.

It's really best to have a fill flash in those kinds of situations, otherwise you are dealing with work arounds and they pretty much always have downsides and require more work.

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    Longer exposures and HDR are hard to pull off with active children... – John Cavan Oct 26 '13 at 20:25
  • @JohnCavan - It does probably mean HDR is out unless you have a very fast camera, but longer exposures don't have to be much longer. On a bright day, the background is probably going to make it somewhere in the thousandths where as you could still do a shot somewhere in the mid to high hundredths to get enough light with the background blown. That's going to cause problems with light bleeding though. My point was those are the only two options and neither of them is particularly great. A fill flash is the real solution. – AJ Henderson Oct 27 '13 at 3:31
  • The problem is, as he notes, the subject distance is out of range for the flash and the kids are running around. – John Cavan Oct 27 '13 at 10:31
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The intensity of the back lighting is going to matter a great deal as to how badly you blow out the information but, basically, you need to meter the subject and not the surroundings. So spot metering is your best bet getting the kids correctly exposed. Given your choices of exposing to the background or the subject, I'd probably choose the subject given the importance. :) You might also look to adjust your position to make use of other objects (such as trees) and flare to help make the backlight a more creative element of the picture.

Now, depending on how badly the background is blown out, you may be able to recover some decent detail there. Firstly, you need to shoot raw (which it appears you are doing) and then look at doing some highlight recovery using the basic Lightroom sliders. For that, you have the 4 under the "Basic" tab and with some small adjustments may get you in a very good spot. Under the "Tone Curve" you can further tweak the images for the highlights and lights. If your lighting is basically consistent for a large sequence of images in this respect, you can make the adjustments a preset and do minor adjustments from that. I find that once you get into a rhythm, it moves along pretty snappy.

Worst case, and most tedious, is you can do single-image HDR. There are plugins and presets that can help speed that up.

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