Monday, August 8, 2011

Lens Flare/ Backlit Photo Tutorial

Several people asked if I could explain how to achieve the back-lit/sunflare look from the photos I posted of our tripod mini-session. I'm going to give it my best shot, but to be honest, this is one area of photography that I think instincts trump "rules". Further, every lens produces a different type of flare/sunburst, so my best advice is to spend quite a bit of time playing around with your own equipment.

Other than that, here are my tips:

1. Shoot either just before sunset or just after sunrise.
My preference is to shoot before sunset--I personally find that sunset often tends to give a warmer cast to the photos and sunrise tends to give a cooler effect.

(Shot shortly after sunrise)

(Shot shortly before sunset)

Of course, there's quite a lot that you can do with coloring in post-processing...but when I have the flexibility to do so, I try to shoot at the time of day that will be more likely to give me the coloring that I'm looking for. Also, it's important to remember that the light will bounce off your surroundings--so a field with yellow weeds will give you a warmer image than shooting near a river or green trees. 

2. Position the sun behind your subject. 
This is one area of shooting for back-light that may take some practice. Sometimes, you'll want to shoot with the sun directly behind your subject. Sometimes, you'll want to shoot with the sun behind and to the left or right of your subject. 

(sun almost directly behind subject)

SecondBest (2)
(sun behind and to the right of the subject--produced mostly lens flare rather than the backlit sunburst)

3. Learn your camera settings.
In a lot of ways, shooting photos that are back-lit go against most of what your camera instinctively tries to do. Due to this, many people will tell you that you need to shoot in full manual in order to get proper back-lit photos. It is unquestionably helpful to shoot in manual mode because you'll have a much higher degree of control. HOWEVER, I shot all of our mini-session in P mode for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to) the fact that we don't have a shutter remote, so Justin and I were both hopping up to do a quick re-focus and to hit the shutter button to start the self-timer. You don't have to be a pro to shoot amazing back-lit photos--even if you're still shooting in full auto, you can give this a try. Personally, I find that the most important thing is to have a fundamental knowledge of exposure and light coupled with a basic degree of knowledge about your camera (specifically including the different metering modes and what they do) in order to know how to troubleshoot if you start seeing silhouettes and other such things when you don't want to.

Now, if you are comfortable shooting in manual, one thing that you should know is that a higher f/stop will often produce more of a sunburst and more of the funky lens flair than a lower f/stop. In my experience, you can still get the sunburst at a lower f-stop, but it may not be quite as defined, or you may just have more of a "glow".

SecondBest (11)
F Stop: 10 | Shutter Speed: 1/160 | ISO: 200 | Exposure: +.3

F Stop: 5.6 | Shutter Speed 1/400 | ISO: 200 | Exposure: +.3

See how that first photos (with the higher f/stop) has quite a few more lens flares and the rays of the sunburst itself are a bit more defined? Yep, that's it. But again, remember that each lens will produce a different type of flare, so you may have to play around with shooting your specific lens both at high and low f/stops to see what your lens is capable of.

4. Either manually focus, or use your hand to temporarily block the sun in auto-focus.
In most instances, it is harder to nail your focus when you're shooting these types of photos. To some degree, I say embrace it. But either manually focusing or using your hand to block the sun while using auto-focus is a big help.

5. Shoot in RAW. 
When it comes to shooting back-lit photos, I always, always, ALWAYS recommend shooting in RAW. 

Check out this photo:

But here's what it looked like Straight Out Of The Camera:

Pretty washed out, no? But by shooting in RAW, I can bring back some of the shadows and contrast in post-processing. Here's what my sliders looked like upon opening up the image:

(you can click to enlarge if you want to see specifics)

First, I took up the shadows slider quite a bit, from 5 to 62:


Doing so brought back a lot of detail, but it was then a little too orange for my taste. I tweaked the exposure and temperature tabs just slightly and then bumped the shadows up just a hair more until I ended up with my final image:

Are you convinced to shoot in RAW yet? 

6. Be flexible. 
One of the fun parts of shooting these types of photos is that it's hard to know exactly how they'll turn out. I admit that sometimes I drive myself crazy trying to get that flare in exactly the right place that I imagined. Instead, try to go with the flow and be a little bit flexible--sometimes it's okay if you can't see the whole face, or if you WAY over-exposed. For me, the bottom line is whether or not that photo causes you to go weak in the knees--if it does, it's right, whether or not all the technical aspects are.

Did I miss anything friends?


  1. Awesome tutorial! These are some of my favorite to play with for pictures of Thomas - I just think they add something special to photos that a quick snapshot doesn't.

    I also love using a backlit sunset for silhouette photos!

  2. You rock!!! Thank you SO much for the tutorial. I can't wait to try it out later today!!!

  3. Excellent tutorial, as always.

  4. That picture of you guys kissing, and lizzy watching, and the horse in the background...amazing and perfect! Hope you've got that one in a frame :)
    Thanks for the helpful info!


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