Back-lit photography can be extraordinary but can also be very challenging. For a while now, I’ve really struggled when subjects are directly lit from behind. It poses the problem that the detail can be lost in the front of the subject. When it comes to bikes, that can mean that the rider’s face can’t be seen in the shot.
The seemingly simple answer would be to use a camera which shoots incredibly in low light situations and pump the ISO up too. The problem with that would be over-exposing the sky. With landscapes, you can shoot multiple exposures and combine them in post to get both shadow detail and highlight detail. With a single frame, it’s more difficult than that. Bikes don’t sit still long enough to capture two frames which are identical and then combine them. Well, they don’t if you’re riding them properly anyway.
What I’ve taken to instead is exposing for the highlights. What that means is that the rider might be slightly underexposed. Usually, it means that in the back of the camera it looks like a silhouette and you can’t really see anything on the front of the rider. It just seems dark.
Here is the same photo to illustrate the point. The one on the left is the ‘straight out of camera’. It’s dark and the detail, specifically closest to camera side of the rider, is dark. Now, cranking up the ISO, lowering the shutter, or increasing the aperture would have blown out the sky turning it white out. I didn’t want that either. The only thing to do was to take the image into Lightroom and play with the settings; specifically the shadows, highlights and blacks.
The resulting image is one where there’s a little compromise – some dark shadows on the camera side of the rider but also a sky with some highlight detail. It’s, of course, not ideal (as any compromise has its flaws) but does make for an image that I’m happy with. It’s about the best way of doing it that I know about at the minute… without using lighting at least.
There’s also the option of adding in radial filters which will let you artificially light an area of the photo after it’s taken (bonus points if you can spot the placement in the second photo above). Alternatively, move the subject slightly and shoot with a slight angle to the light so that it comes ever so slightly across the subject and starts to wrap around. Again, just like a Blue Peter episode, here’s one I shot earlier. It should cast a little highlight across the side of the rider to paint them out against the background.
And then, of course, the rest is personal preference. A bit of a crop. And I like to throw a LUT over the image and make it my style.
Coincidentally, you can edit your photos using some of my styles by grabbing my LUT pack here.
Photographs by me, of Rich.