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Shooting into the light

Shooting into the light (also known as contre-jour) is a technique that can get you out of a sticky situation in mid-day sun, as well as being a stylish way to take a portrait. A few people have asked me about how I do it, so here it is.

Why shoot into the light?
Old boxes of film used to include a little sheet of helpful photography tips, and one of those was to always place the sun behind your (the photographer's) shoulder. Of course this makes sure your subject is well lit - but it's not usually the most flattering light. Apart from the few minutes after sunrise and before sunset, having the sun directly on your subject can lead to harsh, contrasty lighting - which isn't usually the best for portraits.

This harsh light can be avoided by moving to the shade - or placing something else between the sun and your subject to diffuse the sunlight, such as a pop-up handheld diffuser. Flash-fill is another option. An alternative is to turn your subject around, so their face is in shadow and you are shooting directly into the sun. Now, the most important feature of your portrait no longer is lit by the bright and contrasty sunlight.

Try placing the sun in different areas of the frame - sometimes it works best outside of the frame altogether, other times it looks better placed in the corner of the frame. Trial and error is the way to go. It can be effective if you get the sun just peeking through from behind your subject. Also try shutting down your aperture a bit (e.g. f8 or f16) - this will give the light source have a star-like quality as it comes into the frame.

Shooting contre-jour does mean that you need to know a few tricks to get the exposure right, because you camera can get confused by this type of lighting.

Camera settings
It's probably unfair to say the camera is confused - the exposure meter within it just keeps on doing what it always does. The important thing to remember is when the camera sets an exposure value (f-stop/shutter speed combination), it tries to make the image an average (18% grey) brightness. It doesn't know which part of the frame is important to you.

If your frame has an evenly lit background of similar brightness to the subject (e.g. when you shoot with the sun over your shoulder) then the camera gets it right off the ball. If you shoot into the sun however, there is a huge difference between the area you want to be the correct exposure (your subject) and the rest of the frame behind, which is vastly brighter. Since the camera doesn't know what's important to you, it averages the exposure out, making your subject way too dark. See the image of Camille below - the sun coming from behind and the bright background has made her face too dark.

Aperture priority, standard metering

Once you know that you are shooting in a situation where this is likely to happen, you can override the camera's automatic exposure settings and make allowances for it. If you shoot on any mode but manual, all this means is setting the exposure compensation on your camera to 1.5-2.0 stops over-exposure (+1.5-2.0). All cameras with manual settings will have an exposure compensation option, and for me, this is the most important function you can learn to use once you get off Auto.

Basically, you are saying to the camera - 'Here's the scene, I know you're going to be confused by the light behind my subject, please add a couple of extra stops of light to allow for this.' Don't forget to change the exposure compensation setting back to 0 afterwards, or all your next photos will be over-exposed!

Aperture priority, +2 stops exposure compensation

When you first see your image, it might look quite washed out with little contrast, but don't worry that's normal and it will be fixed afterwards when you get home :) If you're still worried, shoot a few more with exposures either side - it's always good to have options! The other thing you can do is to use a reflector to bring some light back into your subject's face. This usually means another person and more equipment and I've found that it's not usually necessary if you're shooting raw files - the information you need is usually there for most situations.

When you come to load the image into your computer, you will find that the histogram in your image editing program looks a bit like this:

Basically, it's pushed over to the right, indicating a bright image. The histogram will have 'spiked' on the far right, meaning that you have pure white areas in the image with no information at all (also called 'blown out highlights') - don't worry, that's just the sun or the brightest areas around your subject.

The other thing to note is the big gap at the left of the histogram. This means no areas in your image are black. You can correct this and bring back some contrast by using your software to shift the left edge of the graph closer to the edge of the histogram frame. How it's done depends on your software. In Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw/Photoshop you drag the 'Blacks' slider to the left. In other programs you can use a 'Levels' adjustment and drag the slider at the bottom left in the same direction. This makes the darkest areas of your image a bit darker and brings back contrast, removing some of that 'washed out' look. But don't overdo it, that look is part of the style of contre-jour! Be careful using 'Exposure' or 'Brightness' settings to do this, or you will lose the light in the subject's face.

If the highlights are too bright, then you can use the 'Recovery' and 'Exposure' sliders to bring back some detail.

An alternative approach - silhouette
In the photograph below, I made a different decision when shooting - I knew that the camera would be tricked by the sun and make the subjects dark. This time however I didn't use exposure compensation because I wanted exactly the result I knew the camera would produce - a silhouette in the frame. I wasn't interested in subject detail, just their outline.

Shoot with your camera set to capture raw files if possible - you need as much information as possible for post-production

Shoot on aperture priority, with your standard exposure metering

  • Set exposure compensation to +1.5 or +2.0
  • Bring back the detail in the blacks in post