|Backlit photo - before and after|
Maybe you can't move to a spot with better light, or the subject is a train that's moving and you have to get the shot now. You take the photo anyway and you end up with something like this:
Can we make this better?
To quote Bob the Builder, "Yes We Can!"
The quick version of what we're going to do in Adobe Lightroom is:
- Boost shadows
- Reduce highlights
- Increase saturation
- Deal with noise
Let's get to it.
What Does "Backlit" Mean?Let's define what "backlit" means. It's defined as "illuminated from behind" meaning that the light source is farther away from the photographer than the subject is, and the light source is in the same direction as the subject.
It could mean that the light is directly "in line" with the subject, silhouetting the subject; or it might not be in line and simply causes deep shadows like the photo above.
Why is Backlighting Bad?First off, it isn't always bad. In portrait photography you often want backlighting - often combined with a little flash.
However, in landscape or railfan photography, backlighting is usually undesired. Why?
The main reason why backlighting is bad are the deep shadows it causes, which obscure details. A secondary problem is the sky, which is often too bright or pure white from the camera trying to expose for the subject and "blowing out" the sky.
How To Fix Backlighting in LightroomIn Adobe Lightroom, there are two main things you can do to fix backlit photos - boost the shadows and reduce the highlights.
If you use other editing programs, the process is likely similar, but I'll go through the process with Lightroom.
The basic steps are the following:
- Boost Shadows by about +50
- Reduce Highlights by about -90
- Increase saturation
- Deal with noise
- Make final adjustments
Boosting ShadowsIn Lightroom, open the image in the Develop module and go to the Basic panel. Try boosting the Shadows to +50 and see how it looks.
|Backlit - boosting the shadows|
Boosting the shadows is a lot easier if you shoot in RAW format with your camera, if you can. RAW format files have a lot more information in them than a JPG file does.
Now we reduce the highlights.
Reducing HighlightsIn Lightroom, take the Highlights slider in the Basic panel and slide it down to about -90.
|Backlit - reducing the highlights|
If the sky was totally blown out (pure white) then this won't do a lot but it will help. For blown-out skies, you may need to add a graduated filter in Lightroom and reduce the brightness of the sky further. You may also have to reduce the saturation in that filter because totally blown out skies often have an unwanted colour cast to them.
Increasing SaturationBacklit photos often look washed out, so they benefit from a little colour saturation.
In Lightroom you have two sliders that directly affect how much colour is in the photo: saturation and vibrance. They both affect the intensity of colour in the image but vibrance is a little more subtle than saturation is. This article explains the difference well. Think of vibrance as a gentle way to boost colour where it's needed while saturation is a colour fire hose. A little of the saturation slider goes a long way... but sometimes you have to go wild with it.
|Backlit - adding saturation|
I agree. Let's fix it with a graduated filter. I dragged it up from just below the horizon to overlap the bottom of the locomotive and horizon a bit, then reduced the saturation in the filter to -40 to partially compensate for the saturation added above. I didn't fully compensate because I wanted a bit more colour in the grass than the original.
|Backlit - fixing the grass with a graduated filter|
Dealing With NoiseThe problem with boosting shadows in images is that you also boost the digital noise. In film days we'd call this "grain" but with digital images it is noise. Basically, digital cameras record some information for dark areas but not a lot. If you increase the exposure in mostly black areas, this lack of information shows up as noise or pixelated, blocky details. Have a look at the image below, shown at 2:1 size.
|Noise in boosted image|
One very important slider in Lightroom that deals with sharpening is the "Masking" slider. I never knew about this slider when I first started using Lightroom and I wish I had!
If you have the Masking slider at zero, basically you are applying sharpening to the entire image. Often you don't want or need to do that. In our working image we'd like to sharpen the edges of the locomotive and the details on it, but we don't want to sharpen the sky and we probably don't want to sharpen the grass very much. The Masking slider allows us to decide what parts of the image we should sharpen. I'll write more about that sometime but for now this article gives a good overview of sharpening in Lightroom.
Here's the same closeup after aggressively sharpening at 111 (masking 57) with luminance noise reduction of 44.
|After sharpening and noise adjustment|
Final AdjustmentsA few final adjustments will finish the job. I decided the image could use these adjustments:
- White balance adjustment - temp +350, tint +2 (I thought the original was a bit blue)
- Brightness +0.36
- Clarity +10
- Post-Crop Vignetting -12
Here's the final image.
|After final edits|
Final CommentsThis might seem like a lot of work, but one of the great things about Adobe Lightroom is that you can put these into a preset and apply them - bang - all in one shot. I've developed a "backlit" preset to do all this in a few seconds, and then I do whatever minor tweaks I feel are necessary to finish the photo. This takes editing time down from 10 minutes to 1 minute. I hope to package these presets up soon and offer them as a download, but for now you can make your own preset with the settings below, or experiment with other presets like the 101 Lightroom Presets Pack from Digital Photography School.
These are the edits I made to this image:
- Shadows +50
- Highlights -90
- Saturation +71
- Graduated filter with exposure -40
- Edge masking 68
- Sharpening 111
- Luminance Smoothing 44
- Exposure +0.36
- Clarity +10
- Post-Crop Vignette -12
- White Balance adjustment
Thanks for reading along!
- 5 Reasons Why You Need Adobe Lightroom
- Editing a Night Photo in Lightroom
- Recommended Camera Settings for Railfans
- A Lightroom Editing Example
Disclosure: This post contains one or more links that are affiliate links, for which I may earn a commission if you follow the link and purchase something from the site that they link to.