Improving Backlit Photos

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If you’re like me, whenever you are out looking for birds to photograph you tend to look away from the sun, because if you look toward the sun your pictures will be backlit.  A backlit photo washes out much of the detail and the background around the bird usually ends up looking bright white.  Sometimes you can’t resist taking a shot, even if it is backlit.  There are two ways to deal with this during post-processing: silhouetting the subject or using a Mask to create a blue background.  Today I will share one technique on how to silhouette a bird using Lightroom’s Develop Module (other post-processing programs will have similar controls).

Let’s take a look at an image of a Great Blue Heron carrying a fish after it was imported into Lightroom:

As you can see in the above image, the water is dull gray and you can see some of the detail in the bird, but not much.

I recovered some of the detail by increasing the Shadows slider (+78) and decreasing the Contrast slider (-10).  This is the usual way to improve a backlit subject; increase the Shadows (because a backlit subject will be quite dark compared to background) and then play with the Contrast until it looks better (depending on the shot the Contrast may need to be increased or decreased).  Even after making these adjustments it’s still not a very satisfying picture.


Using the same two sliders I was able to silhouette the bird (and fish).  To achieve this I moved the sliders in the opposite directions described in the above picture.  The Shadows slider was decreased (-65) and the Contrast slider was increased (+25).  I also decreased the Highlights slider (-70) to reduce some of the reflective light coming off of the water.

In the end I’m much happier with the last image than either of the first two.  By exacerbating the negative effects of the backlit photo I was actually able to make it look better.   How do you deal with backlit shots?  Reply to this email or enter your comments at the bottom of the blog post.


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That is incredible!