Tips & Tutorials

Step by Step: How to Capture Dramatic Portraits Using Backlight from the Window

Backlight originating from a window is recommended for indoor portraits. You can brighten and soften the texture of the resulting photo by creating lighting with a board reflector while applying positive exposure compensation. In the following, I will provide a step-by-step guide that illustrates the different effects. (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.8 STM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8/ 1/80 sec.)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto/ FL: 50mm (equivalent to 35mm in 35mm format)
Accessory items used: tripod and board reflector

 

Step 1: Look for a soft light source

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.8 STM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/125 sec.)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
Accessory items used: tripod

The contrast between the bright and dark areas becomes too sharp when the backlight is too strong. In this example, I made use of backlight on a cloudy day, which is easy to handle and effective for producing a soft texture.

 

Step 2: Brighten the portrait subject with backlight reflected from below

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.8 STM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/125 sec.)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
Accessory items used: tripod and board reflector

 

When backlight is used as it is to capture a shot, it results in a dark foreground as illustrated in Step 1. To avoid this problem, the first step is to reflect the backlight from below using a board reflector without adjusting the exposure value. Reflecting the backlight not only helps to brighten the subject, but adds a soft touch and dimensionality to the skin tone at the same time.

 

Step 3: Brighten the image with positive compensation

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.8 STM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/60 sec.)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
Accessory items used: tripod and board reflector

Next, apply positive exposure compensation to brighten the image. Here, it is important to follow the step of using a board reflector first, followed by adding positive compensation to fine-tune the brightness when light from the reflector alone is not sufficient. Adjust the amount of compensation while checking the image on the camera.

 

Step 4: Adjust the angle to add depth to the composition

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.8 STM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8/ 1/80 sec.)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto/ 50mm (equivalent to 35mm in 35mm format)
Accessory items used: tripod and board reflector

Step 3 illustrated a shot that was taken from right in front of the subject. In Step 4, I adjusted the angle of the position slightly to add a more interesting touch to the composition. Doing so adds depth to the background. Also, I created space to the left of the composition and accentuated it with a telephone set.

 

Be conscious of the balance between light and dark

Backlight from the window is effective for scenes where you want to capture the portrait subject in a soft ambience. However, dealing with backlight can be a challenging task. The examples above were taken on a cloudy day, and backlight is easier to handle compared to that on a clear day when sunlight is strong, which causes the background to turn out bright and appear blown out, making it harder to bring out the texture of the portrait subject’s skin tone.

If you encounter this problem, try to reduce the difference between the bright and dark areas while adding more light to the shadow areas with a board reflector. An alternative way is to fire a weak flash. Yet another method is to position the camera at an angle from above or from the side to eliminate unwanted light. It will not be possible to reproduce the fine texture of the portrait subject in the foreground simply by applying positive exposure compensation. An important consideration during the shoot is to make sure that the dimensionality and texture of the skin tone are noticeable in the image.

 

 

 

Teppei Kohno

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.
http://fantastic-teppy.chips.jp

 

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