I’ve recently been trying to experiment with sunset portraits but I keep encountering a problem where the sky is lit up exactly how I want it but the subject is under-exposed, with little to no exposure. Is this having to do with metering or will manually exposing the image help? This was shot at f/4 and I’ve heard suggestion on bumping up my exposure compensation meter. enter image description here

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    could you find image that matches what you want to see? I.e. which one of these is your goal? google.com/… May 24, 2018 at 21:15
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    I think it looks really good as is, tbh! I would use a reflector of soft lights on tripods. If you want a cinematic vibe, paper "ball"-type lampshades with soft lighting are great - you can use 1, 5, 10... depends on your budget May 24, 2018 at 23:17
  • Could you explain why you don't want to use flash?
    – Philip Kendall
    May 25, 2018 at 5:38
  • I have no photographic knowledge, and I want to be polite as much as possible, but I have to ask this: do you think the boob is to clear? Is this a problem?
    – Ooker
    May 25, 2018 at 6:48
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    @Ooker - in some cultures, the silhouette of the female form may, indeed, be offensive. That being said, there are other cultures where it is not, and in photography/art in general, the human form is the subject of many a study. Given that this is an artistic photography website, most will lean towards a silhouette being inoffensive - especially as there is no underlying nudity in the shot. So, no, this shot is not a problem.
    – OnBreak.
    May 25, 2018 at 19:27

5 Answers 5


That's a nice silhouette!

You're running into the same problem that anyone runs into when photographing a very backlit subject: a lot of light is coming from the background and creating a drastic difference in ideal exposure between the background and foreground.

Given this, you can handle the situation a number of different ways:

Change the Exposure to Equalize - This is the most ideal in a pinch, but least ideal overall. In your example, you would open up ~2 stops to get the sky on the edge of blowing out. This will create a very underexposed person - but it's better than nothing. You'll need to do quite a bit of post pro work with the RAW file, potentially even exporting a file made ideal for the background and a file made ideal for the subject - and then mask them together. Because the subject will be very underexposed - you can count on a good deal of noise to deal with as well.

Take Two Shots - If you can, take a shot with proper exposure for the background and one for the subject and then merge them together in your post-pro editor of choice. The benefit here is that you will have two great files to start with - so how exactly they map together is really up to you - and overall image quality can remain quite good. Auto-Exposure Bracketing and multi-shot can be used together to string the shots back to back.

Get a Reflector - Shine some light back on your subject! A single reflector can do wonders and it might just be all you need.

Add some flash - On camera flash is nobody's favorite - so if you can, move the flash off camera and into a better location for your lighting.

On exposure compensation...Backlit subjects are some of the hardest for the meter to get right. In these cases, I'd highly recommend shooting in manual so that you can meter the background, meter the foreground, and then use your judgement to pick the best exposure for whichever method you intend to use from the above.

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    One "issue" that occurs with additional light and back-lit subjects: Things tend to look uncanny/photoshopped pretty fast.
    – flolilo
    May 24, 2018 at 21:07
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    If I were to go with the off camera flash would it be ok to use my Speedlite with diffuser? My Speedlite comes with two diffusers, a white one and a orange one I’m assuming that the orange would be intended for outdoors? May 24, 2018 at 21:23
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    Some EOS cameras with built in flashes have an optical wireless controller in the pop up flash. There is no built in radio flash controller for any of Canon's EOS bodies. The "integrated transmitter" in the marketing fluff is a reference to the pop up flash as an optical master flash. For some reason, it seems to always be included in the specs of EOS bodies that don't even have a built in flash. For more, please see: this answer to Firing a Canon Speedlite 430 EX III-RT in manual wirelessly
    – Michael C
    May 25, 2018 at 19:14
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    @hobbs - I disagree. The color temp of sunset light is a tad warmer than normal - so if using a flash, adding a warming gel will help keep the added light in line with ambient color temps. It's also a bit easier in post to correct small differences in warmth among subject/bg than large differences in color temp between the two.
    – OnBreak.
    May 26, 2018 at 18:38

Changing the exposure compensation or using manual exposure can brighten your subject, but it will also make the sky brighter. Too bright to see the effect of the sunset.

You can't change the laws of physics or the physical properties of light. Sunset means darkness and you must provide more light for your foreground subject. This is even more critical because your subject is being back-lit. You might try using a large reflector, but the real solution is artificial light from a flash unit or constant light source.

Another possible solution is High Dynamic Range photography where you take multiple photos with different exposure and combine them with software to make the poorly lit subject brighter. Some cameras now have built-in software to do this automatically.

  • What you describe as "High Dynamic Range" just creates a HDR image but with the same problem (dark subject). What is actually needed here is called "Tone Mapping" or "Dynamic Range Compression", and it can be done even from a single image just fine, if the raw file is available and the noise level is sufficiently low. These 2 things are different; they just frequently come together in some software which aims to make everything "in 2 clicks". But for scenes like this, it's probable that a well exposed shot in raw has enough DR to begin with, and it just needs some kind of DR compression. May 27, 2018 at 17:15
  • Why would the subject still be dark in an HDR image? Isn't that the whole point to take multiple images in which the darks and lights are properly exposed and combining them so the entire image is exposed properly? I can take an HDR shot of this scene with my DSLR or cell phone and get it properly exposed, assuming that there is enough light to get a decent exposure on the person (can't really tell from the picture).
    – Robin
    May 28, 2018 at 20:41
  • I agree with you Robin. HDR could easily lighten the subject while keeping the sunset at the desired exposure. I am not sure why Sarge says it won't work. May 29, 2018 at 2:10
  • @Robin what you describe in the comment is not just a process of making a HDR image, it's a process of making a HDR image followed by applying DR compression. When you reduce the differences between light&dark, you are reducing dynamic range. HDR is only about capturing enough data for all lightness levels (that's not necessarily immediately visible without further processing but it's there). Your software uses misleading terms and that's the cause of confusion. May 29, 2018 at 4:54
  • @MikeSowsun sure "it" can, but the process that actually makes the subject lighter while keeping the sunset is not the process of creating a HDR image, it's a different thing. Unfortunately, as I said, many software uses misleading names for this. May 29, 2018 at 4:57

In short, you can not get both the subject and the sky equally exposed without a flash. Camera sensors do not have that much dynamic range.

If you get that sky at f/4 you have to use a flash in order to illuminate your subject f/4 at the given distance.

In case you still do not want to use a flash you should get a reflector, reflecting sunlight to your subject. But since reflectors do not reflect 1:1 the received light, you will either have to expose for your subject and get an overexposed sky, or expose for the sky and get a slightly underexposed subject. Any of this meaning that you will have to do some post-pro work to get the image you want.

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    Many modern camera sensors may actually have enough dynamic range to capture both the subject and the sky with adequate S/N ratio, but it's not only about the sensor DR: we have to compress that DR if we want it to be easily visible to a human on a typical computer screen with a typical brightness. And for some scenes it's necessary to reduce the dynamic range right there in the scene (using a reflector, or sometimes a CPL filter may help with the sky, etc.). May 27, 2018 at 15:14

You ask how to do this without a flash, but this is absolutely a situation where you should use flash — at least, if you don't want the silhouette effect you have here.

You could create a composite shot with multiple exposures, but that's somewhat difficult with non-static subjects and hard to get looking right anyway. In some situations, a reflector can be used to create fill light, but that generally works best when you're in shade but there is still lots of natural light. That's not the case in a sunset like this.

Many people are nervous about this because we're used to "flash = bad" due to the awful effect of direct, on-camera flashes (and those terrible things on our phones). But it doesn't have to be like that. These days, off-camera radio-triggered flashes are cheap (you can have a whole system for the cost of a decent lens).

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    Hi mattdm, normally this is a comment I make on answers of new users, so maybe I'm missing something, but: what does your answer add wrt Corey's answer? It seems to be the same, but less elaborate and helpful. May 25, 2018 at 6:53
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    @SaaruLindestøkke Corey's answer is good (and I've upvoted it), but it basically has "you could use a flash, after all" as a last afterthought. I wanted to directly challenge the premise of the question.
    – mattdm
    May 25, 2018 at 13:48
  • Anyway, I've edited to elaborate.
    – mattdm
    May 25, 2018 at 16:59

In this case, the difference is not really huge, and if you have the shot in raw, it should be possible to bring up the shadows in postprocessing while not making it look unnatural.
To some extent, it's even possible to do this with the JPEG file you provided here: for this example I used darktable (2 instances of "shadows&highlights" with different settings, and "global tonemap" with a parametric mask). JPEG and quantization artifacts in the shadows become too obvious pretty fast, but if you have the raw file, you can push them even further.

The benefit of using only 1 shot is that you won't have to deal with subject movements (or any movements). It might be extremely hard to correctly merge a pair of photos even if they look similar enough at a first glance.

This method also can be combined with using a reflector.



Here are the exact darktable conversion settings (.xmp) which I used to create this image: jFMHL.jpg.xmp

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    To my eyes, it seems that this is as good as it gets with this shot: Details can be seen, but they don't disturb the scene. Well done!
    – flolilo
    May 27, 2018 at 10:20

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