I took a picture once in a beautiful location with an awesome background, and a cool location to get the shot. The problem is, the location of the subject had substantially less light then the background, giving a silhouette effect. Without using an external flash, and on a low budget, what could I do to improve this picture?

Specifically, I shooting with a DSLR, outdoors. The DSLR has a small pop-up flash. The nearest good light source was maybe 5-10 feet away.

Thanks guys!

How do I avoid a dark subject when there's bright sunlight from windows?

by Franci

I recently shot some photos at a friend's wedding. The location was lovely with lots of light — sometimes too much. The sunlight from the windows and skylights seemed to overpower the shot and the subject/people were very dark. What are some ways to avoid this without using fancy equipment? (I'm just starting out, I'm not a wedding photographer or anything!)

Here is one example I took — and this is after I've lightened it somewhat with Picasa:


I'm using a Nikon D5000 with a standard 18-55mm lens.

  • I think the other question I linked probably covers what you need to know to get started and should help you out. If it doesn't, please let us know either here, in that question, or in new followup questions.
    – mattdm
    Nov 7, 2011 at 2:39
  • 3
    In any case, welcome to Stack Exchange, and +1 for taking the time to write a clear subject, a well-phrased question that's both concise and contains useful background (including a link to a sample), and choosing correct and helpful tags.
    – mattdm
    Nov 7, 2011 at 2:39
  • See also photo.stackexchange.com/questions/16997/…
    – mattdm
    Nov 9, 2011 at 4:37
  • With that camera ( I use a d5100) I would have used a different lens... say the 70 to 200.. pulled in tighter.. you don't need the light in the upper right corner or the air con in the ceiling. and as suggested, another light source on the subject, and as someone suggested, spot metering. This one is a common problem.....Saw a pic a photog did of a model I had shot with....she was in the shade, lake and sky in background which over powered her... she must have thought it was good..... I would have trashed it..t was a great example of how NOT to take a picture. So all a matter of taste... and e
    – user10971
    Aug 5, 2012 at 20:19

12 Answers 12


Metering from the background as rfusca suggests may not give you the results you desire - the background will likely be very overexposed spoiling the beautiful location.

One solution to that problem is to shoot two exposures and merge them. One exposure is optimal for your subject and one optimal for the background. If your subject remains relatively still merging them is not too difficult and there is a wide variety of software available to do this. Google "HDR" if unsure! One problem with this method is that if the background is significantly brighter than the subject then the shot exposed for the subject may have lens flare or other defects due to the strong backlight.

However it's better to do it in one go if you can so I would say if you have no external flash then use the internal one! It may produce harsher shadows due to the position. The best way to avoid this is to diffuse (spread out) the light, using a sheet of paper, white t-shirt, whatever is at hand.

edit: che's suggestion of a reflector is a good option for the case when the sun is in the wrong direction, it's worth noting that it wont work if you're in a large shadow area, you need a line of sight to the sun.

  • That's why I voted for both;-) Dec 17, 2010 at 16:22
  • You may also want to dial down the flash brightness, so that it just fills things in a little, which will make the strange lighting angle less noticeable. I've also done such random tricks as placing a small piece of paper (or a business card, or similar) in front of the flash to direct it up, and then another sheet of paper (or even an open book) to direct it back towards the subject. Example (no background recorded, but hopefully you see the quality of the light being improved): flickr.com/photos/lindes/2675890360 -- me taking it: flickr.com/photos/amanky/2679455564
    – lindes
    Dec 17, 2010 at 22:38

What you encountered is the dynamic-range limit of your camera. All cameras and films have a limit to the dynamic-range they capture and scenes where the contrast is too high will always cause exactly this kind of problem.

For cases with moving subjects, like a wedding, they are two avenues to diminish the issue:

  • Reframe so that your subject is surrounded by darker areas. Basically choosing a composition where the contrast of the scene is within the dynamic range of your camera.
  • Brighten the subject by adding light to it. The most common way is to use flash, although when not handled properly it can give very unnatural results. Practice is key and try to use off-camera flash over on-camera. Reflectors are another possibility but you usually need an assistant to hold them in place while you shoot.
  • 2
    You can also use exposure compensation to expose for the subject, but that could cause the highlights to be completely blown-out.
    – gerbob
    Nov 7, 2011 at 4:08
  • 3
    You can also use spot metering to expose for the subject only, as opposed to taking a reading from the whole scene. Nov 7, 2011 at 11:41

I have two suggestions:

The first, and easiest suggestions is to use fill flash. Flash isn't just for outdoor photos and can work very well to bring out some detail, particularly if the background is brighter than the subject.

As Itai mentioned though, flash can lead to some unnatural results, so it's not always the best option, particularly if you don't want any fancy equipment.

Another technique you could try is exposure locking (also known as AE lock) - provided your camera supports it.

An easy way to do this is pick an object or surface that has an average brightness, zoom right into it and press the AE lock button, then zoom out to recompose your shot before taking the photo. Your camera manual is likely to have instructions on how the button works for your camera, but if all else fails, the Internet certainly will.

Note that it can be difficult to guess a middle brightness so it's worth trying out a few targets beforehand and testing the result in the LCD screen.

Also note that because of the limited dynamic range of cameras, it's likely the brighter parts of the background will be blown out. This isn't always a bad thing though as the subject of your shot shouldn't be affected.

  • Exposure Lock is most useful when you do spot or center weighted average metering. Less effective with Evaluative metering.
    – ysap
    Nov 9, 2011 at 0:43
  • @ysap - Yes, very true - something I forgot to mention.
    – Damovisa
    Nov 9, 2011 at 10:28

You can light the subject without a flash by using a board reflector. There's a guide about it at about.com, but basically it's about sticking a white (or silver or gold) surface to the path of the light and reflecting it to light your subject. If the conditions are favorable, you can replace external flash with umbrella or softbox with a reflector.


It looks to me like you were exposing properly if you wanted the windows and the room to be the main subject, where as in this case you probably wanted the bride or person walking down the isle to be the subject. The scene has too wide of a range of light and dark areas for you to properly expose for all of them at the same time in its current state. You do have a few options.

Expose differently

You can bump up your exposure to properly expose for your most important subject - the bride or processional. This will over expose some of the background, and likely blow out some of the highlights in and from the windows. But you have to keep in mind that you want to properly expose for your most important subject and let the rest of the image suffer if necessary. You can achieve this by adding exposure compensation by dialing up +1 or +2 EV for example, and continue to evaluate the scene and set the exposure the same otherwise.

Add lighting

Another option would be to introduce additional lighting. I would warn against this, as it does not sound like you are the main(paid) photographer, and you want to be careful not to interfere with their lighting. If you were just using a point and shoot with a pop up flash, I wouldn't worry much about flashing a few shots, but if you are adding wireless units, reflectors, etc, then you easily could be scene as rude or intrusive to the professionals work.

Upgrade camera body

Finally, as another poster suggested, the reason behind all of this is a cameras limited dynamic range. This is something we all have to work with, because it does come in to play quite often. You can get somewhat better dynamic range with higher end DSLR bodies, but I wouldn't jump on just spending more money to overcome this obsticle. It sounds like you are already shooting in RAW, which can help you bring out the over exposed highlights. One technique that may help is to underexpose slightly, and bring back those details with the RAW post processing.

  • The Expose Differently should mention 2 more methods - shoot Manual and/or use spot metering with AE lock.
    – ysap
    Nov 9, 2011 at 0:45
  • I have never found a use for AE lock, but I know others do, good tips! :)
    – dpollitt
    Nov 9, 2011 at 1:04

Try spot metering on your subject, it sounds like your camera decided to meter largely for the background. This can happen using something like matrix metering - which is a common setup. You should spot meter, lock the exposure settings, and recompose. If you're shooting fully manual, try decreasing your shutter speed or increasing your ISO.

If your background is just insanely brighter, this could blowout your brackground too much but its worth a shot.

Only other option I would see is to change the lighting somehow. Either bring more light somehow or shoot at a different time of day when the sun may illuminate your subject more.


Some Ideas

You could...

  • use spot or centre-weighted metering.
  • use exposure compensation to increase exposure. Start by trying 1 stop.
  • use the pop-up flash. This is a situation where it might be just enough to lift the subject a little.
  • move the subject (if that's possible) to a darker background
  • wait until a time of day when similar light is falling on the subject and background

You may have to look in your camera's manual for precise instructions on how to do some of these.


One option not mentioned by anyone is high speed sync if your camera supports it (you didn't mention brand) with the popup. This allows for a faster shutter speed to avoid overexposing the background while still filling in the subject with light. Basically, the flash is fired multiple times, at very low power, as the shutter curtain moves across the focal plane.


Frankly, your photo already looks pretty good to me — it just needs a bit more brightening. Assuming that you shot it in RAW mode with low ISO, you should be able to brighten it up considerably more without getting visible noise or artifacts.

I'm not sure how good Picasa's RAW handling is, so you might want to try proper RAW photo processing software instead. If your camera didn't come with any, UFRaw is always free. One thing any decent RAW decoder should let you do is adjust the exposure curves; there's a bit of a learning curve (pun not intended) involved, but with some practice, you can use it to selective bring out just the parts of the dynamic range you want to focus on while keeping the highlights from burning out.


You basically want to balance your key light with your ambient light.

Your ambient light would be a very bright sun filling your background.

Your key light could be a number of things. A very powerful, controllable, and off-camera external flash and would be best. Barring that: the pop-up flash on your camera would work, though it may not provide you with the power you need. A reflector (as che mentioned) would also help, though (as Matt Grum mentioned) you're dependent on the angle of the sun.

Once you have enough key light on your subject, you can then reduce overall exposure to tame your overly bright background. Exposure compensation and spot metering will do the trick in automatic mode. In manual mode, boost your shutter speed. You may also want/need to close your aperture, but an open aperture gives you a shallow depth of field and a blurry background -- which you may want to take advantage of. If you want open aperture and you can't increase your shutter speed any more (due to flash sync), an ND filter will help a lot to reduce the overall brightness.


There really is nothing wrong with using an external flash and, as a matter of fact, adds a very nice "catch light" into the eyes of the subject. Meter for the background, set your flash to 1/2 or 1/4 power (less if you are close to the subject). Your background will be exposed properly and the flash will light the subject.


You are dealing with a wedding where you aren't the main photographer (if I understand correctly), so bustling about with reflectors and flashes isn't always appropriate and you can't stop the action. So this can be a difficult type of shoot.

This is subjective, but sometimes blowing out windows / light sources can be a way to express the feeling that the location is full of light as well as focus attention on the subject. Soft billows of light in wedding photography is a cliche, perhaps, but some folks like it.

I pulled your sample into Photoshop and lightened it up two different ways (see image), on the left trying more to balance the background and foreground (as with a fill flash or HDR) and on the right trying to approximate the effect of an exposure that would allow more light on the sensor. There issues visible from making big edits on a small image, of course.

Example of different light levels

To me the more blown out version is more dramatic with "lots of light". Obviously the woman's tan needs fixing, but with the right starting exposure it should be there already or at least fixable.

In this situation, I'd have either gone manual exposure with spot metering and exposed for the carpet (with a few test shots before everything starts to confirm exposure) or dialed in some exposure compensation (again with some test shots beforehand).

And, if you had a lens with a wider aperture you could have blurred out the background a bit more, which would have increased the "billows of soft light" look.

Full disclosure -- I'm an old dude who normally shoots without flash anyway (unless I can't get the job done in natural light) and I'm used to blowing out highlights since I started in the Dark(room) Ages. So this might not fit your style of photography at all.

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