How To Edit/Fix Backlit Photos

Every photographer has been faced with the task of photographing subjects in front of beautiful sunrises or sunsets. Ideally, you'd have a light, but if you don't or the subject is too large to light, you're going to have to fix the image in post. 

I have no problem shooting in JPEG, but heavily backlit shots are going to require that you shoot in a raw file format. New cameras have the ability to capture incredible dynamic range, and the raw file format will be able to retain the most data needed to recover the deepest shadows.

It's much easier to brighten shadows in post than it is to darken highlights. In most cases, if your camera is telling you that a portion of your image is pure white (either with the histogram or with zebra stripes), that portion of the image will be completely white and unrecoverable. For this reason, it's important to expose with your highlights in mind and only overexpose what you are willing to lose completely. 

In the case of my image, I had a beautiful sunset behind my subjects, and I allowed only a small portion of the brightest part of the sky to blow out completely. This means that my final image was incredibly underexposed, but thanks to the power of my Sony a7S III, it was still salvageable. 

The simple editing techniques in the video above could be done in Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other raw processor, but I used ACDSee's new software, Gemstone Photo Editor 12, which happens to be totally free. 

As someone who has two decades of experience shooting beach portraits, I was actually quite surprised by the results, because I've never shot like this. I've always brought an assistant to each shoot with a light and worked to get a perfect shot in camera. Editing the shot rather than lighting it in person gives it a much softer, natural feeling. The results were so good, I may start leaving my lighting gear at home for these types of shoots. 

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3 Comments

Twum Hene's picture

Interesting......but only for Windows....:(.

Derek Johnson's picture

Even without lighting gear you could have exposed the image better. Also don't see any benefit to shooting in JPG since memory is so cheap these days. Not trying to bash this post, just think you're neglecting to emphasize some key foundations to photography that some beginners on this site could benefit from.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

Looks like I'm downloading the beta.