Exposure Solutions: Balance Backlight

Backlight can produce beautiful results for portraiture if you know where to take your meter reading—and, if you call upon a reflector. One nice quality of backlight is the illumination at the edges of your subject’s hair, creating a warm and healthy appearance.

Shoot backlit portraits when the sun is at a low angle in the sky: early morning or late afternoon. When you frame up a backlit portrait, there’s a danger of the light meter being fooled by the excessively bright rim light around the hair, and this can cause a false meter reading. As you can see in the first example, with the camera set on Aperture Priority mode, and my aperture set to ƒ/5.6, the meter produced a shutter speed of 1/500 second, which proved to be okay for the backlight, but the face itself is too dark—about two stops too dark.


Since I’m shooting in RAW mode, I could add two stops of light to the face in postprocessing, but the time spent in Photoshop to make this correction will be about 10 minutes at the least. Why not opt instead to use a reflector?

I’ll call upon a reflector when shooting backlit subjects, and this is particularly true when shooting backlit portraits. A reflector is a circular piece of highly reflective fabric that’s stretched tightly over a collapsible ring. The fabric is made up of either shiny gold, shiny silver or a sheer white material. Their sizes can range from 12 inches in diameter up to three feet.


When the reflector is pointed towards the source of the light, the sun in most cases, it acts likes a dull mirror. It reflects back much of this light onto whatever you now point the reflector towards. In this case, my wife was able to hold the small 22-inch reflector, and with its gold foil side facing the western sky and sun, golden light was now bounced onto her face, filling in the shadows.

With my camera still set to the original exposure of ƒ/5.6 at 1/500 second, I shot an additional exposure, and as you can see, the added fill light from the reflector has now made the exposure for the face correct.

Bryan Peterson is a professional photographer, an instructor and the author of several books, including Bryan Peterson’s Exposure Solutions: The Most Common Photography Problems and How to Solve Them (Amphoto Books). He’s the founder of the online photo school, The Perfect Picture School of Photography, www.ppsop.com.

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