14 Steps That Will Add Dynamic Range to Your Backlit Photos

You can get some of the most interestingly lighted photos by shooting against the light. But you also have to keep in mind that this light will expose every imperfection of your lens. Strong chromatic aberration will appear, details will soften, and reflections will appear due to light bouncing off your lens’s optics. Fortunately, you can tone down all of these defects on a computer.

I’ll use edits to a photo I took of a fountain to illustrate how to improve a picture taken against the light. I chose it because transparent objects like water and glass are ideal for backlit photography.

Here I’ve composed the fountain into a landscape. I exposed to the water. Since the scene is backlit, it has high dynamic contrast, and so the sky has come out light, and the areas with mid- and dark tones are too dark. That’s making the shadows lack detail.

The picture was taken with a camera that has a dynamic range of over 13 EV at ISO 100. Since I shot to RAW, restoring the detail in the sky and the dark areas will be easy. Try following along with me with a photo of your own.

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Editing Backlit Photos, Step by Step

To start improving a backlit photo, first open it in the Develop module of Zoner Photo Studio X.

I’ll be using the following tools and functions for my example edits – the letters in parentheses are shortcut keys:

  • Zoom In (Num +),
  • Straighten Lines (K),
  • Gradient Filter (G),
  • Crop and Rotate (C),
  • Retouching Brush (J).
The original photo.

The original photo.

  1. Zoom in on the picture using Zoom In (Num +). Look closely at the example photo, and you’ll see strong chromatic aberration (purple and green outlines) outlining the dark objects photographed against the sky.
  2. To remove chromatic aberration, turn on the “Chromatic Aberration” option in the Lens group. Note that to make it available, you’ll need to first load the LCP profile for your lens. Read up on how to do that in our article How Lens Profiles Make Your Life Easier.
  3. This picture also suffers from some perspective distortion, and so the lines of the summer mansion are not parallel. I use the Straighten Lines tool (K) to straighten them. I drag in the picture to draw out the lines that should be parallel. I then confirm by clicking Apply.
  4. Even though the picture was taken on a sunny day and the white balance was set to daylight, the photo feels cold overall. So I set White Balance to “Cloudy” to give the picture warmer tones.
  5.  To brighten dark tones and midtones, raise the Exposure slightly. Here I brighten the photo only enough to preserve the detail in the fountain’s water.
  6. To preserve sky details in a photo like this, reduce the Lights value. But don’t overdo this edit. Work it out so that details are visible, but not striking. That would make the photo feel too flat.
  7. Restoring detail in dark areas works similarly—use the Shadows slider. During this edit, keep an eye on the histogram at the top right and only push the slider until the shadows slide into the vertical line on the left of the histogram.
  8. Photos shot against the light always start out suffering from a lack of contrast. So you can take advantage of the classic Contrast slider, or for more advanced work, use the Curves controls. For this sample photo, however, what’s even better than either of these is to use the Dehaze slider. I can go with a fairly high value here, and that’s exactly what I’ll do. That wonderfully restores the detail in the sky.
  9. Use the Gradient Filter (G) for your final darkening of the sky. Here I’ve set Exposure to -1 and lightly colored the filter with a blue shade to emphasize the sky; your work will be similar.
  10. A slight increase to Clarity will also help most photos in general. So naturally that includes backlit photos.
  11. A look at the histogram shows that there’s quite a bit of unused “space” on its right. This means that the photo isn’t using the whole dynamic range that’s available. So it has reduced contrast. Move the White point all the way to the right to spread out the histogram along all of its available “space.” Don’t worry about any minor blowout (overexposed spots) that this causes in the picture’s brightest areas. Here for example the blowout is in the reflections in the water, and so it helps the picture instead of hurting it.
  12. Your basic photo edits are now done, and all that’s left is to fine-tune minor details. For example to adjust the photo’s composition with a crop. Here I’m cropping to remove the person on the right of the picture and move the mansion closer to the edge for a more balanced composition. Use the Crop and Rotate tool (C) for this kind of work.
  13. Now I erase the dog in the right part of the scene and the man on the left out of the picture. I do this using the Retouching Brush (J).
  14. I wrap up—and you should too—by removing colored noise, since drawing out the details in the shadows makes noise more visible.

Shoot to RAW

To get the most out of your backlit photos, it pays to shoot to RAW. This gives you a maximum of image data, thanks to which you can easily restore details in these pictures’ light and dark parts.

An alternative possibility is to take multiple pictures with different exposures and join them on a computer. You’ll especially benefit from this option if you have an older camera with a low dynamic range or if your camera does not enable you to shoot to RAW.

Add dynamic range to your photos too. Download Zoner Photo Studio X, try it free for 30 days, and improve photos shot against the light—and the rest of your photos too.

Last updated 19. October 2017

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Author: Jan Zeman

I’ve been digitally editing pictures since 1996. I started taking pictures in 2006, and since then I’ve gradually been becoming a full-time photographer. In my work, I focus on portrait, architecture, cityscape, and product/advertising photography.

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