Fixing Backlit Photos in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3
One of the most common digital photography problems is photos where the subject is backlit, so it appears almost as a black silhouette. I think the reason it’s so common is because the human eye adjusts for backlit situations so well, that to our naked eye, everything looks great, but the camera exposes much differently and that shot that looked very balanced when you took it, really looks like what you see below. The Fill Light slider, found in the Basic panel, does the best job of fixing this problem of anything I’ve ever seen, but there is one little thing you need to add.
Here’s an image, taken out in Nevada’s Valley of Fire, and while the rocks in the foreground looked pretty well exposed while I was standing there looking at the scene, of course, the camera didn’t agree—it exposed for just the sky, leaving the rocks and the road below in shadows. Before we fix the backlit problem, increase the Recovery amount to 100% to tame some of the overly bright sky.
To open up the foreground area, just click-and-drag the Fill Light slider to the right. Unfortunately, in most cases you just can’t crank it up to 100, because not only would the photo not looked balanced, but any noise in the image (which is usually the most prevalent in the shadow areas) will get amplified big time, and any noise that was hiding out in the dark shadows won’t be hiding anymore. So, just keep an eye out for noise as you drag. If you do wind up adjusting the Fill Light slider to something as high as around 65 (like I did here), then the photo will probably look kind of washed out (as seen here), but in the next step, we’ll fix that with just one simple move.
The way to get rid of that washed-out look is simply to push a little bit of deep shadows into the image by clicking-and-dragging the Blacks slider to the right just a little bit. In most cases, you’ll be able to move it just one or two ticks (so, you’ll generally move it from its RAW image default setting of 5 to around 6 or 7), but in this case, with such a broad move of the Fill Light slider, I had to drag it all the way to 20 to bring back the saturation and keep the photo from looking washed out. Go ahead and increase the Clarity amount while you’re here. Since this is a landscape photo with lots of well-defined edges, you can crank it up a little higher than usual (I went to 75).
Here, I used Lightroom’s Before/After view (press Y) to show what a big difference this technique (using Fill Light, then bringing back the deep shadows by increasing the Blacks slider) can do for our backlit photos.