Saturday, November 19, 2016

How to Fix Backlit Photos in Lightroom

Backlit photo - before and after
Here's a common problem. You see an interesting subject but the light is behind the subject. This is called "backlit" for obvious reasons.

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 Lightroom

In 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:

  1. Boost Shadows by about +50
  2. Reduce Highlights by about -90
  3. Increase saturation
  4. Deal with noise
  5. Make final adjustments

Boosting Shadows

In 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
This definitely brings out some detail on the "dark side" of the locomotive, without significantly affecting the brightness of the rest of the photo. Note that the grass in the foreground is a bit brighter too.

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 Highlights

In Lightroom, take the Highlights slider in the Basic panel and slide it down to about -90.
Backlit - reducing the highlights
What we're doing here is reducing the brightness of the sky. As I mentioned above, the sky is often too bright in backlit photos so bringing the highlights down usually reduces the sky's brightness.

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 Saturation

Backlit 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
Now I'm sure you're saying - "hold it, that looks terrible!" That grass looks totally unrealistic.

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
So that looks pretty good. We're almost done.

Dealing With Noise

The 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
You can see how grainy it looks. Also, I haven't sharpened the image yet beyond the default of +25, so we have to do that... but sharpening can often make noise worse, so we have to balance the two.

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 Adjustments

A 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
I hope you'll agree this image is a lot better than the original. It won't win any awards but it is definitely an improvement.

Final Comments

This 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!

Further Reading

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.


DaveM said...

Hi Steve,

Have you ever gotten into the NIK collection of filters?


Canadian Train Geek said...

Hi DaveM, I have installed them but I haven't spent any time with them. I'm a "manual" kind of guy and I resist using filters in Instagram, for example. I like to tweak it myself and then publish. However, I am seeing more and more value in things like presets that are good shortcuts and time-savers.

I really should look at these filters. If I do, I will definitely write about them!

Have you used them?

DaveM said...

Hi Steve,

I've used NIK primarily for some of my aviation photos. I find that their noise reduction is pretty good (allowing you to measure at different areas to reduce noise more effectively.

I found that after I started using them, I was able to start identifying photographs that had been processed with them since there are some effects that are quite distinctive (especially around foliage). It is worth a quick look since it will help you identify how some photographs look the way they do.

BTW - I would warn people who start using them to tread lightly since it can be very easy to go overboard and over process the image.