3 Simple Solutions for Shooting Against the Light in Photography that Work

Shooting against the light has always been a tricky thing in photography: if you choose to set a longer exposure or just to increase the exposure compensation in order to have plenty of light over the near subject, the background will appear burned (overexposed). The other way around, if you choose the right exposure for the background (the usual auto or program mode will do that), then your subject will appear too dark (underexposed).

The solutions I will present depends on the situation in which you will find yourself. Let’s look at them.

Solution 1 – Use Flash Even in a Sunny Day

If you are close enough to your subject, like for instance in portrait photography, using the flash even if it is a very sunny day will fix the problem in a very simple and effective way.
No Flash PortraitWith Flash Portrait

Solution 2 – D-light Function

But what if your subject is too far away (like far buildings) and you can’t or just don’t want to try a different angle with the sun behind you? Or what if it is night and a lamp illuminates the place? Will you be pleased with the overexposed lamp due to the long exposure needed in night conditions? Some new cameras (HP Photosmart R727, R827, R927, Nikon D80, Nikon Coolpix S50 and S50c, S200, S500, P5000, the Nikon L series, ) come with a function called D-Lighting (or adaptive lighting). This function will solve the problem automatically.
Agains the Sun Building

Solution 3 – Photoshop Manipulation

But what if your camera does not have this function? The salvation in this case is a Photoshop manipulation.
When shooting, make several frames with different exposures. In my example (with Canon PowerShot A520), the dark photo was made with: aperture F 3.2, exposure time 0.100 sec; and the light one with: aperture F 3.2, exposure time 0.400 sec. Its much recommended to have a tripod and take the pictures using it because of 2 reasons: a brighter picture may require a longer exposure time (if you don’t want to deal with a lot of noise you will prefer a longer time instead of higher ISO and aperture) so you need to avoid camera shake (no matter how steady your hands are, night condition will always require a tripod), and the second reason: the frames should be taken from the same angle and viewpoint. Unfortunately, at the time I shot the images in this example, I did not have a tripod so the bright image is blured due to camera shake, but I somehow managed to take quite similar frames.
In a Photoshop document, place the 2 frames as different layers in such way that the darker one will be under the lighter one.
Choose the eraser with a size bigger than the lamp (or whatever your overexposed object is), low hardness and low opacity as shown in the figure. This will softly erase the area around the lamp in the lighter frame revealing the darker frame behind in such way that the 2 images will come together graduated, not suddenly. But the inner portion of the lamp from the darker image is not yet fully revealed. Change the eraser option like this: smaller size to fit only the interior of the lamp, full 100% opacity and 100% hardness.
Photoshop Exposure CorrectionPhotoshop Exposure CorrectionPhotoshop Exposure Correction
Once you erase the red marked area, you will notice that even if the pictures come together softly, the colors are not the same. You can adjust the gradient by moving onto the dark image layer, in the menu “Image” -> “Adjustments” select Selective Color. Play around with the “neutrals” until you are satisfied with the color gradient around the lamp. When all this is done, go to the menu “Layer” and select “Merge Visible” (or press Shift + Ctrl+E). This step will merge the 2 images and now, if you are still not satisfied with this result, you can play around with blur tool and healing brush before saving the final image.
Overexposed ImageUnderexposed ImageFinal Image

If you are interested in digital cameras with D-light function check them on Amazon. They are quite amazing and useful.

HP PhotoSmart R727
HP Photosmart R827
HP Photosmart R927
Nikon D80 Kit
Nikon Coolpix with Vibration Reduction Zoom
Nikon Coolpix S50c 7 is Wifi Capable
Nikon Coolpix S200
Nikon Coolpix S500, Vibration Reduction Zoom
Nikon Coolpix P5000, Vibration Reduction Zoom
Nikon Coolpix from 74$

When you go out shooting, be sure to take one of your Izod shirts, my favorite brand.

[tags]D-Lighting, Adaptative Lighting, Photoshop, Exposure Correction, Shooting Against the Light[/tags]

By Laura

I started photography as a hobby in 2005, during college. My passion slowly became a more important part of my life since 2008. Because of using a combination of my photographic knowledge, with those of internet marketing, I like to call myself a "photomarketer".


  1. You’re forgetting one really easy and usefull option, the Fill Light function from the cool guys of Picasa. Works awesome to just touch up your pictures in a jiffy 🙂

  2. Schizo is right, the “Fill Light” feature of Picasa is impressive. I think the best way to do what you suggest is the use take a RAW image file.

    I would then open it into Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw. An example of settings I use on average is about 33% “fill light” (no more than 50%) and then a little on the “recovery” slider.

    Subject still too dark? Try shadows and highlights in the image – adjustments menu in Photoshop. Again, shadow slider at about 33-50% should be fine.

    My main camera is a Nikon D80 and I have played with D-Lighting features but find a combination of the Photoshop and RAW settings above produce better results when shooting against the light.

    Thanks for the tips 🙂

  3. “Fill” light is also available in Lightroom now. As is black compensation

    shooting in RAW and bracketing are really the best solutions I have found — it’s easier to shoot right in the first place than to fix it later.

  4. Solution 4: Combine solution 2 & 3! If you shoot in RAW mode then your RAW converter may a function similar to D-lighting. I use Capture NX from Nikon and it has D-lighting support.

    This is better than solution 2, because you have a much bigger screen to check the results on. And it is better than solution 3, because Capture NX is much cheaper than Photoshop. 🙂

  5. In many cases, (instead of the manual process in option 3) if you have a copy of Photoshop CS2, you can use the File -> Automate -> Merge to HDR feature to combine different exposures quickly, easily and automatically.

  6. @Schizo, thanks for reminding me about Picasa, yes it does a fine job 😀
    Not all cameras support Raw and not all cameras support D-Lighting too
    Capture NX – I don’t have it, but thx guys for pointing that out
    Adobe Lightroom – haven’t tried it yet
    @ Shutterhappy, “It”™s easier to shoot right in the first place than to fix it later” – I totally agree with this point and I may say is a very good one.

  7. Solution #3 looks like a manual version of HDR photography + tonemapping. See the Stuck in Customs HDR tutorial (basically: #1: shoot using auto exposure bracketing, #2: merge the photos into a single HDR, then #3: tonemap the HDR so that correctly-exposed areas are taken from each of the source images).

  8. Hello, you forgot to mention a simple reflector, from a white t-Shirt held in front to a piece of cardboard or really decent fold out reflectors.

    Reflection can make up for weak flashes or better fill.

  9. You could also use HDR Photography as someone else suggested. I’ve shot into direct sunlight and used HDR to bring out all the colour and detail of an archway that would normally be fully silhouetted.

  10. Hehe sunglasses are a totaly different thing: it’s like using filters
    That tutorial about HDR is cool, thx 😀

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