Editing backlit photography in Lightroom

Header image backlit

Backlit photos are one common issue while taking pictures. Either you wanted to shoot a sunset and then you realized the buildings surrounding the area are too dark or you shot people facing you, but you were as well facing the sun.
Shooting against the sun can be challenging and also one of the most appreciated techniques to learn; however if you don’t want that dramatic look to your scene of having only the backplane and everything nearby black, I will show you how to fix a too dark backlit photo, as well as editing good illuminated backlit photography.

Finding your editing aim – Fixing vs improving

This depends on mostly on the kind of shot you took, as well as the effect you want to give.
Imagine you have a well-lit image that you want to enhance. Then, the procedure will be to apply corrections to the overall image for best image tone and reinforce the work with nice looking plugins, like creating sun rays effects to your subject.

Another thing is if we have, as I mentioned before, a picture where the surrounding elements are too dark, and you didn’t do that on purpose. If that dramatic feel is not appealing to your taste, then we have a problem we need to fix. In that case, we are going to work in a very similar way as we did with underexposed photographs.

Working with dark backlit photographs inside Lightroom


The image speaks for itself. A good looking sky sunset was taken from a hill, but the surrounding area looks pretty dark. You may say I can go and make the overall image look dark, apply some crop and the image will look even more dramatic. That’s is a good creative approach, however since I care about what is going on with the rest of the scene, I want to make things brighter.

First I want to reduce the exposure a little bit, mostly because to preserve the sky conditions. Then I can switch to adjust both Contrast and Shadows.


One thing you may notice when increasing (in this case a great deal) the Shadow slider to positive values is that the image now has a huge amount of noise we have to take care of later on. It is a consequence of the sensor not getting enough light to produce those details, and also shows that these corrections works in a similar way to ISO increase.


Check the adjustments I made now. Decreasing the white values means the sky won’t lose detail coming from light sources, and blacks need to be darker, so it compensates the balance of the image and reinforces the sunset effect.
Just as always, retouch Clarity/Vibrance and Saturation values, with a close eye in saturation, we don’t want the sky to look orange instead of reddish.


Now let’s take a close look at the Histogram. Exposure is ranked at mid values, so we are okay. What are really high is the values of Blacks, even though I like it better this way.
In my opinion, tone correction is now done and we need to fix noise before exporting.


Given the fact this is a JPG, we won’t be able to take too much noise without losing detail, so I am going to stick to this values over the panel as increasing them can lead the image to become too blurry.

Compare the results between both images. We can say Lightroom handles well enough the corrections to be made given the improvements at tools made since Lightroom 4. Older versions of Lightroom had a tool named Fill Light and Restore, used for this kind of purposes. Fill light was a combination of Highlights and Whites, being the actual method much easier to control what is going on inside the image.


Postproduction of backlit images

In this case, I want to enhance the image I shot by improving its lighting conditions and adjusting white balance. If you don’t remember how to apply white balance, please follow this link.


Do the common adjustments to the image you are working with until you feel pleased with the overall result. As for a reference, I worked with this values for this beach/street image.
One problem you may notice if you are adjusting white balance for this kind of scenes is the fact you don’t have any neutral grey for sampling with the Dropper tool. Don’t try to sample with tints with R and G almost equal values, it has to be the three values (R, G, B) almost equal, or it won’t result. So I am applying the WB changes with the sliders.


Gradient filter comes really handy for this kind of work. First select the tool. You notice now you have a set of sliders that differ from the Basic panel. Apply some overall changes, don’t worry, you can update them later in live view.
The key point is the placement: for this kind of shots with a strong light source coming from the left side of it, try a diagonal orientation, focused on grabbing the complete left side and moving towards the center.


Then, apply the values you feel comfortable with. If you have too many white values, start by reducing the exposure as well as the highlights and give more dark shadows. Our aim is to balance the image illumination conditions for a smoother result. Keep in mind it is a live view, and remind to press ‘Done’ when you are satisfied with the adjustments.


And now you can compare the before and after results of applying this modification to our image. If you ask me what I would do next, I’d go for trying some interesting presets as a way of giving a dramatic look to the entire image. Here we have a good collection of preset you can check up. Another approach would be going to Photoshop and create some sun rays coming through that huge tree we have next to the people at the beach.
Whatever change you want to apply, feel free to do so, this is a try and test job.


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