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Handling Natural Light: Glittering Pebbles on Sunset Beach

Shooting in backlight is tricky, especially with the sun in the frame. You will most likely need to post-process the shot if you don’t want significant shadows, but “fix it in post” is not the solution for everything! Michiko Kumai shares how knowing what you need to get right in-camera can lead to more impressive results in this seemingly-ordinary everyday scene with extraordinary details. (Reported by: Michiko Kumai, Digital Camera Magazine)

Pebbles on beach at sunset in backlight

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 16mm/ Manual exposure (f/18, 1/15 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto


The story behind the shot

At the beach one evening, I was drawn to the seashells and pebbles that glittered in the setting sun, and the waves that reflected the sunlight whenever they retreated into the sea. To capture all of them in frame, I set my tripod at a low position.

Timing the shot for the moment that the waves receded made the lighting look more impactful.

Backlit conditions with the sun in the frame, like this one, usually lead to strong contrasts. You will have to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows in-camera, and then restoring the other in post-processing. Analysing the scene and deciding what to do when post-processing the RAW image gave me a better idea of what to do during the shoot for best results.


Analysing the lighting and exposure

Diagram showing lighting angle

Lighting direction: Backlight, shining directly on the seashore.
(A) Seashells and glass pebbles that shine in the sun
(B) The seashore

It was just before sunset, and the sun was very low on the horizon. The seashells and glass pebbles either reflected light or glowed with translucence (depending on their properties) due to the angle of the sunlight. That lighting angle also cast shadows on the seashells, enhancing their dimensionality.

Reading the histogram to decide what to do in post-processing

Histogram showing high contrast image

The histogram shows the huge amount of contrast in this shot, from the shadowy foreground of the seashore (B) to the bright pebbles and seashells (A), and finally, to the highlights in the sun and the light reflecting off the sea on the far right.


My shooting decisions

In post-processing

The sky and beach need different adjustments. I decided that I would use the graduated filter tool in my post-processing software to do the following:

1. Reduce the highlights in the sky
This would bring out the colours of the setting sun. It also meant that I needed to shoot to retain as much of the details in the sky as possible.

2. Brighten up the seashore
Since I would be exposing for the sky, the seashore would become too dark straight out of camera. That can be easily fixed by post-processing the RAW image.

3. Make the shiny objects on the beach stand out
These shiny objects were what attracted me to take the shot in the first place. It was important that they stand out. This can be achieved by increasing the contrast in the seashore. I just needed to make sure that they were captured sharp and in-focus.

During the shoot

1. Manual exposure to avoid blown highlights

When shooting in backlight with the sun in the frame, the highlights in the sun and the parts of the sky around it will most likely be blown out.

It’s impossible to avoid blown highlights in the sun, but I wanted to retain as much detail in the sky around it as possible. Thus, I used manual exposure (M) mode to underexpose the shot and reduce the blown highlights, making it easier to recover details later.

Also see:
Understanding Dynamic Range: How to Avoid Unnecessary Blown Highlights

2. f/18 to deep focus (and get a nice sunstar at the same time)

I wanted everything, including the seashells in front, to be sharp and in-focus, which made deep focusing necessary.

With an aperture that narrow and the sun in the frame, I was going to get a sunstar (also known as starburst) anyway, so I might as well narrow the aperture even further to get it to look the way that I wanted. The f-number that did the job was f/18.


For more tips and tutorials on shooting in backlight, see:
Reflections: A Steam Train Rides Off into the Dramatic Sunset
What Kind of Scenes Should I Use AE Lock For?
Built-in Flash Techniques #4: How to Shoot Portraits Against the Sunset

Learn more about how other photographers captured masterpieces in natural light in:
Handling Natural Light: A High Key Portrait with Patterned Shadows
Handling Natural Light: Telephoto Macro Flowers in the Evening Light
Handling Natural Light: Adding Impact to an Environmental Portrait


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Michiko Kumai

Michiko Kumai

A resident of Akita Prefecture, Michiko Kumai preserves the beautiful scenery and unforgettable everyday moments of Tohoku in her images.