Make the best of difficult lighting

How can you correct lighting in a backlit scene?

A backlit scene — one in which the main light source is behind the subject so you're shooting into the light — is to photography what a 7/10 split is to bowling, or parallel parking on a steep hill is to driving a car.

The problem is that direct lighting in the back of your scene confuses your camera into closing down the aperture or shooting with a faster shutter speed, leading to an underexposed subject. But just because it's a little tricky to shoot with backlighting, that doesn't mean you can't get great results anyway.

This week, let's take a classic backlit photo and punch it up in Adobe Photoshop Elements. If you use a different photo editing program, you can get the same results; you'll just need to adapt the steps to your program.

Isolate the problem

Before

Here's a photo in which I photographed someone in front of a brightly lit window. All that ambient light has "stopped down" the camera's aperture, and underexposed the subject.

The solution? We're going to selectively improve the underexposed part of the photo. That way, we can brighten the subject's face without further increasing the brightness in other parts of the photo (which already look okay).

The easiest method? Do some dodging.

Dodging is an old darkroom term that refers to lightening part of a photo by reducing the amount of time you expose a print to light. You may have heard of its companion, burning, which darkens a print by subjecting it to more light. Old-fashioned dodging and burning are selective processes that you apply to certain parts of your photo — and it's no different now in digital photography.

Let's get started: Choose the Dodge tool, which you can find second from the bottom of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. It shares the same cubby with the Sponge and Burn tools.

Click on the underexposed part of the photo. You can "dab" it by clicking several times, or you can click and drag the tool around the screen to lighten a larger area. Also, you can tweak the tool's settings in the toolbar at the top of the screen. Depending upon the resolution of the photo and the size of the underexposed region, you might want to modify the size of the Dodge tool.

After

Here is what my original photo looks like after a little dodging in Photoshop Elements.

Layer it

As always, if you think you're overdoing it, feel free to use the Undo command to go back to a previous state. And rather than dodging the original photo, I highly recommend working in a layer on top of the original photo. To do that, duplicate the layer before you get started by choosing Layer, Duplicate Layer and clicking OK. Now you can modify the top layer and use the opacity control (in the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen) to fine-tune the effect. The original photo is still there underneath, preserved in case you need it.

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