The most important thing to remember about backlighting is that the human eye can see and register a very much greater brightness range than the camera can easily or convincingly record; that a scene which is enormously attractive to the eye may therefore be difficult or even impossible to photograph. Fortunately, there are several tricks to make it easier, and these are the subject of this module.

First of all, what is backlighting? Well, any light that comes from behind the subject, fairly obviously. But a great deal depends on the angle at which it strikes the subject; on how directional it is; and on how much other light there is around.

The most extreme form of backlighting is when the light source is directly behind the subject. If it is a hard, directional light source coming straight into the lens, there is a very considerable risk of flare, whether the coloured polygons that are familiar from Hollywood movies or (often more insidious) an overall flattening of contrast known as 'veiling' flare. We shall return to flare later in the module.



Using the subject to cover up the light source, thereby shortening the brightness range, is an old trick with backlit subjects. This image, on Kodachrome 64 using a Nikon F and 90-180 Vivitar zoom, is quite heavily manipulated in Photoshop, as described later in the module.

At the other extreme, light that is coming from only just behind the subject -- which is, in effect, very nearly side-light -- is also a form of backlighting; and, of course, strong side-lighting can be every bit as visually attractive as backlighting, and to some extent it is a matter of opinion (and also of subject matter) what you classify as side-lighting and what you classify as backlighting.

lighting contrast

The next important point is lighting contrast. The maximum possible contrast is a silhouette, where the subject has no internal detail at all but is merely a dark shape against a light background. This is comparatively rare in photography -- there is usually at least a little light on the subject -- but it can be emphasized by under-exposure. As you get more and more light on the subject, and the lighting contrast falls, the backlighting becomes less and less dramatic but (usually) easier to photograph. This is where some degree of over-exposure can often help: a very bright background and a fairly bright principal subject will suit some pictures much better than a silhouette or semi-silhouette image. Sooner or later, of course, you lose all the drama of the backlighting.


Boy in tree, south India

We were touring south India on a motorcycle and had stopped for a drink of fresh coconut milk when Frances saw this boy in the shade-tree. She deliberately under-exposed (on Kodachrome 64) in order to reduce both the boy and the tree to silhouettes. She did this via a reduced aperture, rather than a higher shutter speed, for maximum depth of field: important, given that she was using her old 90/2.5 Vivitar Series 1 macro lens.

brightness ranges

There is no fixed limit to the brightness range that can be captured photographically: too much depends on the film or digital sensor, the processing (chemical or electronic) and the flare (see below) of the camera-plus-lens combination. A commonly accepted figure for the maximum range that can be recorded on transparencies or viadigital capture is a range of five stops or 32:1. In other words, anything that is more than 32x brighter than the darkest area with texture will 'blow' to a featureless white, or to put it the other way around, anything that is less than 1/32 as bright as the lightest area with texture will 'block up' to a featureless black. With black and white film, most people reckon on about 7 to 8 stops or 128:1 to 256:1. None of these figures takes account of post-capture processing, a subject to which we shall return later.

There is also the point that in many pictures there is nothing wrong with either blocked (black) shadows or blown (white) highlights, though you can usually get away with larger areas of dead black than of clear white.


Kaffeinon, Rhodes Old Town


The overall brightness range here is quite large, including lights that have 'blown' to a featureless white and shadows that have 'blocked' to a featureless black, but the majority of the subject lies within an acceptable brightness range; it looks the way we remember scenes like this. Apart from adjusting the colour balance (Roger shot this on Ferrania 640T) there is no other post-production work. We tried dodging the faces of the couple looking at the camera but it looked so unnatural we cancelled it. Of course, 640T was a very low-contrast film, ideally suited to this sort of subject. Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux.

mixed lighting

Many backlit shots are not, in fact, only backlit. The main subject, or part of it, may be backlit, but other areas of the picture are lit differently. Sometimes, the secret of successful backlit shots is that much of the shot is lit with rather less contrast than the main subject, where the extremes of contrast occupy a sufficiently small part of the picture area that they are dramatic without being overpowering.

Checkers players, Pecs, Hungary

This was the third in a series of pictures; the other two are below. It well illustrates why we don't like flash: it's just downright rude, as well as being obtrusive. Roger shot on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX in his Leica MP with 35/1.4 Summilux. The top left hand corner has been burned in slightly, as has the sunlit portion of the boy's arm and the brightly sunlit end of the table, while the faces have both been dodged slightly. All manipulations were performed in Adobe Photoshop using the 'Dodge' and 'Burn' tools.

The picture on the left was the first in the series, but the boy's hand is distracting and his face is nothing like as well defined as it is in the shot on the right, which Roger thought was going to be the best picture of the series until he scanned all three and blew them up; the picture above then supplanted the one on the right. The bright rim on the boy's face is much more obvious in a larger 'print' or screen image, and is more effective against the dark background than in the other picture.

fill flash

A technique often advocated for reducing excessive lighting contrast is fill flash -- brightening too-dark subjects with on-camera flash -- and many photographers, especially wedding photographers, use this technique very successfully. We almost never use it ourselves, for several reasons. First, we have a constitutional aversion to advertising our presence by firing a flash, so we find it completely inappropriate for reportage and similar photography. Secondly, our favourite cameras don't have built-in flash, and we don't like carrying supplementary flashguns. Third, and this is as much an admission of personal failure as anything, we find that we often don't like the results it gives us, even when we use a camera that has automated fill-flash. Once you have tried it yourself, and been less than happy with the results, it can sensitize you to unsuccessful fill-flash in the work of other photographers, and less and less of it may look convincing to you.


To return to flare, the familiar multicoloured (and multi-sized) polygons are reflections of the lens diaphragm itself in the elements of the lens, while veiling flare is simply the result of non-image-forming light bouncing about between the lens elements (and in the lens body, and in the camera body) and ending up in a diffuse manner on the film.

In fact, both polygonal and veiling flare can also be generated by light sources that are just outside the field of view: this is one of the major purposes of lens shades. Veiling flare can also be generated by broad, diffuse sources such as white skies or brightly lit white backgrounds, so lens shades can still be very important even under such lighting conditions.


Chapel, Monolithos, Rhodes

There's not much flare in this picture, which Roger took with the 35/1.4 Summilux on his Leica M4-P, and a modern aspheric 35mm lens would probably have even less: that's an advantage of rangefinder lenses in general, and top-flight rangefinder lenses in particular. But it is there, and it is distracting, even though he removed the filter that normally sits in front of the lens, and made sure that the lens was completely dust-free.

Would it however be better to have the kind of bright, obvious flare you would get from a zoom? Or would it be a good idea to remove the brightest point of light (below the window and to the left) in Adobe Photoshop? Could a zoom have held the distant headland as well? You can always torment yourself about how things could have been better, but the important thing is just to get the picture.

Some lenses are very much more prone to flare than others. The factors leading to the worst flare are:


Numerous glasses or groups, e.g. in a zoom lens.


Uncoated lenses, or lenses with primitive coatings.


Dirty lenses (which can include internal dirt, on old lenses)


Poor light baffling in the lens or camera body.


Inefficient or non-existent lens shades


Filters, especially uncoated, dirty or scratched filters


Over-exposure. You might expect exposure to march in step with density (of negatives) but it does not usually work that way: flare almost always builds faster than image density.

Boat on the Ganges, dawn.

There is no diaphragm-reflection flare here; this is too well controlled in the 90/2.5 Vivitar Series 1 Macro that Frances used for this picture. On the other hand, the effect of veiling flare on detail in the boat can be seen in the two different exposures, which are 1 stop apart. Which do you want: drama or detail?

On the other hand, flare is not always the photographer's enemy: used constructively, it can reduce the overall brightness range of the subject and fit it better into what the camera can capture; and this is where flare blends into equipment choice, exposure and post processing.

flare and image contrast

A perfect lens and camera, with no flare, would project an image with exactly the same brightness range as the subject brightness range. In other words, if the subject brightness range were 1:128, the image brightness range would also be 1:128. This would be a flare factor of 1. Fairly obviously, flare factors below 1 are impossible as this would imply an image with a greater brightness range than the subject.

In practice, the only camera/lens combination that gets close to this flare factor -- and it can get surprisingly close -- is a well-blacked, well-baffled, clean, usually new large format camera (the bellows help a great deal), and then only when equipped with a new, clean, multi-coated lens with as few glasses as possible, preferably a triplet or Tessar-type.

At the other extreme, many box cameras (and even some digital cameras) have flare factors as high as 4. This means that a subject brightness range of 128:1 is compressed to an image brightness range of just 32:1. The brightest highlights are unaffected by the flare, but the deepest shadows are 'filled' by non-image-forming light to the point where they are only 1/32 as bright as the highlights.

With most small hand cameras, digital or film, a flare factor of around 2 might be likelier: lower for a high-quality camera with a good prime lens, maybe higher for a cheaper camera with a cheap zoom. Choosing a flary camera/lens system will make it easier to tame long brightness ranges, but if you overdo it you may lose the very drama you were trying to capture. You may also find that the brightest highlights have a sort of 'halo' around them, partly as a result of lens flare but partly as a a result of halation and irradiation in the film (if you use film). Halation and irradiation are both covered in the glossary.

soft focus lenses

Almost by definition, soft focus lenses add flare: the softer the focus, the greater the flare. This is something we have only begun to explore, not least because the best soft-focus lens we own is a 90/4 Dreamagon, and we particularly like to use it with the Nikon D70 at which point it becomes the equivalent of a 135mm lens: a bit limiting for many applications. Even so, if you can find the right subject (and get far enough away from it, with this lens) then soft focus and backlighting can be a powerful combination.

Bicycle in the back yard

This is one of the first pictures Roger took when we got the Nikon D70, using the 90/4 Dreamagon. The sunlit steps at the left of the picture are indeed 'blown', but it doesn't seem to matter, given the dreamy nature of the shot.

adding flare to other lenses

An unexpected option is Tiffen's Ultra Contrast series of filters (strictly screens, but everyone calls them filters), which despite their name reduce contrast rather than adding it. They were originally designed for Hollywood use, and indeed won a technical Oscar, but they are also usable with still photography. They are more useful for digital photography than for slides; after all, with a digital camera you cannot choose a high-contrast or low-contrast sensor, whereas you can easily choose high-contrast or low-contrast films. They have a slight effect on definition and sharpness, but very much less than you might expect.

choosing equipment and materials

The most fundamental choice, nowadays, is between film and digital. It makes sense to begin with film, as this is what we use most and also what allows the maximum control. To be sure, a film camera is pretty similar to a digital camera, but even then, there are often significant differences; and there is at least as much difference between the three usual film media (colour negative, black and white negative and slide) as there is between film and digital.

Pirogue, sunrise, Mahabalipuram

The most fundamental truth, of course, is that you use the camera you have with you: preferably, the one you like to use most. In Roger's case this normally means a Leica, in those days an M4-P, today an MP, fitted with a 35/1.4 Summilux. This was shot on Fuji RFP ISO 50, Roger's favourite slide film of all time. Even in the original there is next to no detail in the shadows, but how much does this matter?

film and digital cameras

Cameras using silver halide capture (first paper, then plates, then film) have been in production for over 160 years. They vary enormously in format: to choose extremes only from reasonably popular cameras, they range from the 8x11mm of the Minox to 11x14 inches (280x256mm) and beyond in big bellows cameras. What is more, many cameras dating back 100 years and more remain usable today.

But format has more influence on exposure and image quality than most people might think, especially if you shoot negative film. As already noted, large format cameras may well have less flare than smaller cameras, and it is common practice to give larger formats more exposure than smaller ones. Then there are large format users who actually seek out uncoated lenses because they prefer the tonality.


The penalties for more exposure are reduced sharpness and (with conventional black and white emulsions) coarser grain. With 35mm or smaller, these can be significant; with roll-film, a modest amount of over-exposure will be undetectable; and with large formats, quite a lot of over-exposure is unlikely to do any detectable harm unless flare rises to excessive levels, which as we have seen is a possible consequence of over-generous exposure.


Fishermen, Mahabalipuram


Moments before sunrise, the light was misty and yellow. With transparency film, you are much more constrained with exposure than you are with negatives, but lens flare levels are still very important. Roger shot this on Kodachrome 64 using a Nikon F and 200/3 Vivitar Series 1. Contrast has been increased slightly via the 'selective color' option in Adobe Photoshop, adding black to the blacks. This darkened both the beach and the boat.


Not only are digital cameras physically small, which is often conducive to increased flare: they are also more likely to be used with zoom lenses, again leading to yet more flare.

colour negative

Colour negative films (and also chromogenic black and white films such as Ilford XP2) can record a very long brightness range. Even if exposure is generous, in order to give good shadow detail, the highlights are very unlikely to block up to a featureless black (in the negative -- white in the print, of course). This is true even if the image brightness range is 9 stops (500:1) or more.

On the other hand, very long brightness ranges cannot be held 'straight' in a print. It is difficult, in fact, to hold convincing colours across a range much greater than about 32:1. Outside this range, colours in the shadow area first go dark and muddy, then black, while colours in the brighter areas first desaturate and then 'blow' to a featureless white.

Even so, if you want the maximum possible scope for post processing, and want to shoot colour, a contrasty camera/lens combination plus colour negative film is probably your best bet. It also gives much wider exposure latitude than either slides or digital (see below).

black and white negative

Like colour negatives and chromogenics, conventional black and white films can hold an enormous tonal range even when processed to 'normal' contrast. There is however an additional option, much more easily available in monochrome negative than with colour negative or slides, which is cutting processing time, as noted below under 'post capture'.

Rainy night, Da Li, China

The way the coolie's face is concealed by the umbrella lends a surreal air to this picture. It would have been possible to hold more detail in the wet road and brightly lit shops, via softer paper and dodging and burning -- the information was certainly there on the Delta 3200 negative, shot with a 35/1.4 Summilux on a Leica M4-P -- but it is disputable whether this would have conveyed the mood any better, or even as well. Merely because you can do something, it doesn't mean that you should. (Roger)

As well as contrast reduction at this stage or (via 'soft' printing papers) at the printing stage, there is much more scope for dodging and burning with black and white, because, of course, there is usually no detectable colour shift. To make life still easier, a black and white print can accommodate detail and texture across a brightness range of 100:1 (6 2/3 stops), or close to it, and can have a total brightness range (featureless white to featureless black) of 200:1 (7 2/3 stops) or close to it.

On the other hand, merely being able to hold texture and detail in both very bright highlights and very dark shadows is no guarantee of a good picture: good composition, and in particular the skillful juxtaposition of light and dark, is at least equally important. What is rarely successful is a picture with large areas of muddy mid-tones, regardless of how the highlights and shadows may sparkle.

colour slide

Some slide (transparency) films are contrastier than others, but even the low-contrast versions have very little exposure latitude: the only safe option in many cases is bracketing (free module, also touched upon below). On the other hand, they can have a certain sparkle that we find harder to achieve with negative films. Once you have your image, the only easy way to modify it is via scanning and computer manipulation. Even so, this is our preferred route, and the one used for all but one of the backlit colour shots in this module.

Sunrise, Chengde

All right, this is a reasonably easy shot, with a limited contrast range and oblique lighting -- barely backlighting at all -- but the trick lies in metering. Roger used an incident light meter (Gossen), holding it with the dome pointing straight towards the camera: a classic example of an 'equivalent' light reading. Then he bracketed +/-1 stop. After all, why go to China and risk missing the picture? This was actually the metered exposure, and the other two would probably have been usable too, but a through-lens reading recommended a stop less than the dark bracket on the incident light reading. There is of course a paid module on transparency exposure. Leica MP, 75/2 Summicron, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

digital sensors

Used in the standard JPEG mode, digital sensors have even less exposure latitude than colour slide films; if you want to capture a longer brightness range, you have to shoot in RAW mode. Unfortunately, and inevitably, RAW files are subject to exactly the same limitations as colour negatives when it comes to brightness range compression or dodging and burning. We also find that the screen on the back of the D70 (and even the exposure histogram) can be more than usually misleading when dealing with strong backlighting. The former may be specific to the camera, and the latter a result of our own ignorance, but we mention it for what it is worth.

Chapel cross, Moncontour

For this shot, Roger used the Dreamagon and D70 as described above. Like the Chengde shot, this poses quite a metering problem. The image on the LCD screen on the back of the camera was completely misleading, and the exposure histogram wasn't that helpful either, though we have now grown more experienced at reading these. What he did, therefore, was guess the exposure; check that it looked half-believable on the screen; then bracket +/- 2 stops in 1/2 stop rests. One of the great advantages of digital photography is that it costs literally nothing to bracket: you just pick the image that works best on the computer screen when you get home. Digital imaging is also ideal for soft focus, because most digital cameras aren't too good at recording ultra-fine detail anyway, thanks to the low-pass filters which are incorporated in order to avoid Moire patterns with regular subjects.


Exposure can be very critical with backlighting, though if you are only dealing with small areas of rimlighting or backlighting, exposure may be less of a problem: if the brightly lit part is 'blown' or burned out, it may not matter. Also, if the subject has an inherently low brightness range, quite a range of exposures may be acceptable -- the more so if you have the option of post production work.


A good example of a subject where metering isn't especially difficult, and exposure isn't very critical -- especially if you have access to post-capture processing. Frances shot this with (yet again) the 90/4 Dreamagon on the Nikon D70. Because the D70 doesn't allow metering with manual lenses, Frances spot-metered the transilluminated petals and the centre of the sunflower, then chose the maximum exposure that would accommodate both without 'blowing' the highlights. This of course gave the sunniest possible effect.

Obviously, a great deal depends on your metering technique. A counsel of perfection is to spot meter the highlights and shadows, then set your exposure accordingly, preferably using the I.R.E. scale. In practice, even if you have a spot meter with you, there may not be time to do this or you may not wish to attract attention to yourself by doing so.

If you blindly accept a through-lens meter reading of a subject with a bright background, you are likely to find the principal subject grievously underexposed as a result of the meter's being unduly influenced by the background. Indeed, the simplest backlight compensation feature of which we are aware is on the old Nikon EM: a button which, when pressed, gives two stops extra exposure. This is indeed a good starting point, though if you have full manual control you may find that slightly less extra exposure -- a stop and a half, or even a stop -- gives you better results in many cases, especially with slide films.

If on the other hand the backlit areas are small, you may find that the principal subject is perfectly exposed and the backlit areas are 'blown'. As noted above, this may not matter. If it does, you usually need to cut exposure by around half a stop.

Pavilion, Chengde

This really was interesting. The sun was already out of sight behind the hill, but had not set: you can see that there is a tiny bit of gold among the blue. There was barely enough light to meter, so Roger bracketed between the camera meter recommendation (using his MP with Frances's 28/1.9 Vivitar Ultron) and an incident light reading from his Gossen. None of the shots (on Kodak EBX 100) was as dark as he expected; this, from half a dozen different shots taken at many seconds each as the sun fell lower, was our favourite.

In other words, exposure comes down to experience (modifying exposure as noted above) and, if there is time and if you are not absolutely sure that your experience is sufficient to give you the right exposure, bracketing. If you have already made the kind of exposure corrections suggested, then a bracket of +/-1 stop or (if your camera/lens can do it) +/- 2/3 stop should be sufficient in many cases. Some people advocate +/- 1/2 stop brackets but except in very tricky lighting (when we might bracket in 1/2 stop rests from +2 to -2 stops, a total of 9 exposures) we rarely find that 1/2 stop is as useful as 1 stop. Bracketing is of course a free module.

Bust, Hungary

Every now and then, with the right subject, it is worth shooting a set of three brackets, one at your best guess, one at a stop under, and one at a stop over, just to see how good your best guess is. Arguably the best exposure here might have been 1/3 stop lighter than the middle exposure (Roger's best guess, based on an incident light reading) but it would be hard to say without actually trying it: the hair is already starting to 'blow' with the middle exposure, and with the lightest exposure there is almost no impact from the backlighting. Leica MP, 35/1.4 Summilux, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

double shooting

An interesting possibility, which we have occasionally seen used but have not fully explored ourselves, is to put the camera on a really solid tripod and then shoot two exposures, around two stops apart, one favouring the highlights and the other favouring the shadows; the two are then combined electronically.

The practical difficulties are obvious enough: the camera mustn't move, the subject mustn't move, and the lighting mustn't change. This greatly reduces the number of occasions when the technique is practicable -- and in the studio, for still lifes, where it is most practicable, there is no need for it because you can control the relative brightness of the lights anyway.

Altar, Thari, Rhodes

This struck us as an obvious candidate for 'double shooting' but when we went back to the original series of bracketed shots we found that Roger hadn't used a tripod. Besides, even if he had, the sunbeam might well have moved in the time he took to make 9 brackets, in 1/2 stop rests, from 2 under to 2 over his best guess -- the more so as he had to stop to change films. And to cap it all, even the lightest and darkest shots were not completely unusable.

This one, from near the middle of the series, was only fractionally preferable to the ones on either side: all, we suspect, would have captured the mood better than a composite shot. Roger used his Leica M4-P with a 35/1.4 Summilux, shooting initially on Fuji RFP ISO 50 and then on Kodachrome 64. It was near the end of the trip and we simply ran out of RFP, the last of our stocks.

post capture

We have already covered this to some extent, but it is worth recapitulating what you can and can't do. There are surprisingly many options. Some are applicable only to black and white; some only to colour; and some to both, though the ones that are applicable to both normally offer more scope in black and white than in colour.

sacrificing shadow or highlight detail

This is the default option, and always the easiest. Before considering brightness range compression or dodging and burning, ask yourself if you really need to use these techniques. If you decide that you do, ask yourself first, how far you need to go, and second, how far you dare go.

Railway viaduct, Manchester

Clear proof that black and white film (this is Ilford 44x66mm HP5 Plus) can capture a very long brightness range with considerable subtlety. Roger used his Gossen Spotmaster spot meter to take a reading from the underside of the viaduct, thereby ensuring adequate shadow detail should it be needed, then Frances printed it with a small amount of burning in the sky areas and a modest amount of dodging in the shadows. She could have retained more detail in the underside of the viaduct but decided not to. As noted elsewhere in this module (and indeed elsewhere on this site), there is often an aesthetic gap between what you can do, and what you should do. Alpa 12 WA, 38/4.5 Biogon.

brightness range compression (colour)

There are three ways to do this, but the third is incomparably the most important nowadays. The first two apply in the wet darkroom and the third is electronic, though it is equally applicable to digitally captured and to scanned film originals.

The first is reducing the development time of the film (first development time, with transparencies). This reduces the contrast ('gamma') of the film, so a given subject brightness range results in a shorter negative density range; or, to put it the other way around, a given negative density range (the range that can be accommodated on a 'straight' print without dodging or burning) can accommodate a greater subject brightness range.

Reducing development time also necessitates giving extra exposure. This is more successful with transparencies (E-6 and compatible processes) than with colour negatives (C-41 and compatible processes) and may well have more effect on film speed than on contrast, because all manufacturers strive to reduce the effect of over- and under-development on contrast. Also, you will need to do the processing yourself, or to use a professional lab, as few amateur labs will understand what you mean or even know that it is possible.

The second approach is printing on a softer grade of (wet-process) paper. Again, this has a lower contrast than the normal paper, so a greater range of negative densities -- more in the shadows, more in the highlights, or both -- can be accommodated without dodging or burning.

The third involves changing the gamma of the image electronically. Different programs offer different ways of doing this, whether at the scanning stage (with negatives) or with an existing electronic file. It is also possible to vary the curve shape (via 'Curves' in Adobe Photoshop, for example) so that the highlight and shadow areas show more texture at the expense of the mid-tones, which are inevitably compressed.

With all three approaches, the image rapidly starts to look flat and dull, which imposes a limit on how far you dare do it. Compressing the brightness range is an invaluable tool, but easy to overdo.

Lijiang, China

Frances shot this on Konica Centuria ISO 200 negative film, using her Voigtlander Bessa-R2 and 50/2.5 Color-Skopar lens. It is derived from no. III below, with colours adjusted in Adobe Photoshop using Color Balance and whites darkened using 'Selective Color'.

Left to right:

I -- Straight scan (Konica Minolta Image Scan Elite 5400 II

II -- Lightened using 'Levels' in Adobe Photoshop

III -- Foreground burned in slightly using Dodge/Burn

brightness range compression (black and white)

All three of the methods available for colour are also available in black and white, but the first two offer far more scope than in colour. There are also fourth and fifth methods: compensating developers and printing-out papers.

Mah-jongg players, Lijiang

This picture is not strongly backlit, but it is backlit; look at the hair highlights and the shadows of the tiles. Generous exposure and studious avoidance of over-development are invaluable if you want to capture a broad tonal range like this, without losing too much contrast in the shadowed figures or 'blowing' the brighter areas, resulting in too great a need for intricate dodging or burning or both. Roger shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus using his Leica M4P and 35/1.4 Summilux.

Cutting development time again allows the film to capture a much longer subject brightness range in the same negative density range. Immense subject brightness ranges, perhaps as much as 1,000,000:1 (20 stops) can be recorded, though by that time the results will be hopelessly muddy. Certainly, though, 1000:1 (10 stops) is easy enough.

Changing paper grade is again vastly more flexible. Whereas it is rare to find colour papers in anything other than 'soft', 'normal' and 'hard' (or 'vigorous'), and not always even all three, black and white papers are available in everything from 00 (extra soft) to 5 (very hard), and contrast can be still further controlled via choice of developer: some give a full grade more contrast than others.

Electronic manipulation in monochrome is similar to colour, though it is more often possible to take the additional step of varying the curve shape.

This is also what you do with the fourth option. A compensating developer is a dilute developer used with minimal agitation. The idea is that it rapidly exhausts in the highlights (where there is the most silver to develop) while continuing to work in the shadows, thereby compressing the density range of the negative. Inevitably there is some compression of the mid-tones; how much this matters will depend on both the subject matter and your personal preferences. See also the (paid) module on negative development.

The fifth option, printing out paper, is highly specialized. An image that prints out on exposure to light (without development) is inherently self-masking: as the silver in the upper part of the emulsion darkens, it masks the silver below it, so darkening in the shadows slows. Darkening in the highlights, meanwhile, proceeds apace. As a result, a wide range of negative contrasts can be accommodated with superb tonality. The only real concern is getting enough contrast: the best negs for most printing-out processes would need very soft grades of developing-out paper to get a good negative, and a negative that is suitable for projection printing will often be disappointingly flat if contact printed on POP or any other printing-out process.

selective colour manipulation

A technique we have found particularly useful with backlit shots is selective manipulation of contrast and saturation in colour, using Adobe Photoshop.

The daffodil shot, right, affords an excellent example. It was taken with a rather flat zoom lens (Vivitar Series 1 90-180 Flat Field Macro) on Kodachrome 64, no longer regarded as a particularly saturated film.

Using Image > Adjust > Hue and Saturation, we first selectively increased the saturation of the blue, and decreased its lightness, then selectively increased the saturation of the yellow and increased its brightness. This gave brighter colours and more contrast. We may have overdone it for some tastes, but even so, the revised picture is quite a bit more attractive than the original.

The other Photoshop control that can be used for similar effects is Image > Adjust > Selective Color, where once again individual colors can be adjusted: the three additive and three subtractive primaries, plus whites, neutrals and blacks.


This image was heavily manipulated, as described on the left.

dodging and burning

Dodging and burning are both means of localized exposure control: analogous operations are available in all computer manipulation programs. Burning or burning in means giving extra exposure in order to get detail in areas that would otherwise be featureless white, while dodging means reducing exposure in order to get detail in areas that would otherwise be featureless black.

In black and white, it is often possible to dodge or burn (or both) to quite a remarkable degree, and still have a convincing-looking print at the end of it. The main difficulty often lies in going far enough, because you know how the picture 'really' looked and it starts to look strange to you. This is the time to enlist someone else's opinion. Don't show them the original print, or any intermediate steps. Just show them the final one and ask if they can spot anything wrong with it.

In colour, an excess of dodging and burning rapidly leads to unconvincing colour shifts: it rather comes back to the point made above that it is difficult to hold convincing colours across a range of much more than 32:1 (5 stops).

Fake Potala, Chengde

At Chengde, ancient Summer Palace of the Manchu court, there's a copy of Lhasa's Potala. It's rather nasty, though, because it was originally built as a tribute to Buddhism but today it is used as a way of showing how primitive Tibet was before it was 'liberated' by the Chinese. These sedan chairs are subtly used to hint how the 'serfs' were 'exploited'.

Roger used his Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux to shoot on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 and then 'burned in' the bright area on the right via 'Selective Colour' as noted above: first, adding 100% black to the whites to darken them, then adjusting the colour balance (still in the whites) to ameliorate the bluish cast that remained.

the bottom line

Trying to shoot backlit pictures for their own sake is rarely a good idea: there are just so many other, easier ways to get good photographs. On the other hand, if you have no choice or if something really strikes you as dramatically backlit, the techniques listed above should help you to get the picture you want. And there are always a few pictures that simply cry out for backlighting.


Les fleurs du mal

There's a slightly macabre story behind this picture. In 2000, Frances was in hospital for an operation for breast cancer, and Roger brought her a bunch of rosebuds. They never fully bloomed, nor really lost their colour; they just dried out. Eventually we burned them, but before we did, Roger took this picture using the Dreamagon and Nikon F, shooting on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX. The name is a pun, of course: 'mal' can mean 'sickness' or 'evil'. Somehow these dead but undying flowers seemed to symbolize both -- which was why we burned them. They are barely recognizable as flowers: the one on the lower right is perhaps clearest. It is unusual in that it is one of the few still-lifes that Roger envisioned as only backlit; shades of Orpheus. Ah, well, one should never read too much Baudelaire.




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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks