How I Do My Pew Pew Pew

Canon 5D2 + 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2, 1/400, ISO 100

So, over the years I’ve had people ask me how I rock my backlit, warm, airy style. I’m finally deciding to take the time to do a little write up on the way I do things. I’ll go ahead and include camera settings because I know people will ask. Also, fair warning – I tend to be long winded, so… sucks to be you.

Note: this is more of a style guide than a tutorial. I am, by no means, holding your hand through anything, so you’ll need to kind of already know what you’re doing.

First, though, I’m going to point  y’all to Ben Sasso’s write up of shooting backlit here. He’s an amazing photographer and way more articulate than I am. It’s a good read and it’ll definitely give you more insight into shooting backlit and how it affects your photos straight out of camera. It also breaks down the kinds of back light into a few categories, which might help you learn how to look for it. I’m going to assume that you’ve read this and won’t really be covering that stuff here.

Second, some general philosophy on how I shoot: Lighting above all else. If you’ve ever seen me shoot, you’ll notice that I’m most likely using the first few minutes to just chat with the model as I’m looking around the location trying to find dat light. If you’re not spending any or enough time finding the best light at whatever location you end up, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Spend the time and find the better light. Don’t even take a shot until you’ve figured out where the better light is and have a picture in your head of how it’s going to look. Constantly be on the lookout for something better because as the sun moves, new possibilities will pop up.

Another part of my shooting philosophy: Go out and shoot. Being a keyboard photographer is great until you have to actually produce something and you can’t because you don’t actually have any experience. The biggest benefit of digital photography is that you can get your first 10,000 crappy shots out of the way really quickly. You just gotta go out there and do it and suck and suck and suck until you don’t. I’ve recently been trying to experiment with a few things and have been failing miserably, but ya know what? It happens. Go do it till it doesn’t suck

Dat Light & Exposure

I’m going to give it a try, but I don’t know if I can teach y’all how to seek/find awesome light. I think it’s something you’ll just have to go out there and try to find on your own and see if it works. It’s most likely not going to happen overnight, so just keep practicing.

The first thing to mention is timing. You need the sun to be ~45 degrees or less from the horizon. You do not want the sun overhead. So we’re talking either stopping at ~3 hours after sunrise or starting at ~3 hours before sunset. The actually timing will depend on your location. Are there lots of tall trees/buildings? That will block a lot of light. Is it a completely flat location? Then you have nothing to block the sun at all and that might not be fun. Do the mountains make the sun disappear 30 minutes before actual sunset? Etc

The best way to show ya is probably examples, so here’s some straight out of camera shots.  I’ll try to talk over my reasoning. This will also show you what my exposures out the camera look like. I shoot to the right (overexpose like 2/3 a stop metering for skin only if you’re going off Canon meters).

5D2 + 135L f/2 1/160 ISO 100

The main thing I keep in mind is that I want the model’s face to be free of any splotchy light. When I backlight, I make sure that 100% of the model’s face is in shadow/evenly lit.  Everything else is second to that.  Here, I put the setting sun behind the model to camera  left and moved the camera around until I got a level of haze that I was okay with. The acceptable level will depend on your desired end product and the limits of your gear. You’ll just have to experiment.

Exposure wise, this is a very typical straight out of camera shot for me. I know everyone and their mom teaches you to underexpose in digital. And they have a valid point. And you definitely can do that and just edit it brighter. But this is a write up about about what I do, so there it is. I meter for the skin and probably over expose by 2/3 a stop. And I really don’t care about the rest. If it’s all blown to hell, then *shrug* I roll with it.

Straight out of camera histogram:

5D2 + 135L f/2 1/160 ISO 200

So I picked this as an example because it’s kind of on the limit of how much sunlight I’d actually let hit the model’s face. I know in the above example I said to keep the model’s face evenly lit… but eh. Rules are made to be broken. This just barely works for me, so I roll with it. See below for the edited version.

Straight out of camera histogram:


5D2 + 135L f/2.5 1/500 ISO 400

I picked this example because it’s riding the edge of my acceptable amount of haze/flare. If I got any more sun into this, I don’t think I’d be able to end up with an acceptable (to me) edited shot. Again, that’s going to be something you find from experimenting/experience.

Also, I’m using trees/branches to block a lot of the flare that would otherwise be screwing everything up since I’m shooting lower and upwards a little bit. I do this a lot. Using stuff to block the direct light from the sun. An easy way to do this is to see where shadows are being cast and then moving around in that space to fine tune just how much sun you’re getting straight into the lens

Straight out of camera histogram:


Okay, I’m not going to too crazy in depth with this, but I’ll give you a rundown and some visuals

  1. Lightroom:
    1. WB + tint: Go towards something neutral. You’ll add color toning later.
    2. Tone sliders: My usual thing is a little +exposure, a lot of – highlights, little bit – shadows, moderate + whites, little – blacks. Season to taste I guess. It’ll depend on your shot
  2. Photoshop:
    1. Skin: I’m not going to go into this really. Youtube stuff if you want skin retouching tutorials. But I mostly use patch tool to get rid of the big obvious blemishes at the start then frequency separation. Very soft handed on this though.
    2. Selective color: This is where I usually do some split toning. I’ll pump the highlights with yellow. This makes it look less completely blown out/overexposed and warms everything up. Then I’ll usually add a very small amount of blue to the shadows. Note: this is a very subtle change and you might not really see it unless you look hard for it. It’s most noticable on her skin.
    3. Secret sauce: I add a radial color gradient to warm everything up.
      1. Select an orange and a yellow and do a radial gradient from the orange to the yellow. Try to place it somewhere that makes sense. Usually I go with orange being where the sun would cut it and fading to yellow on the edges.
      2. Soft light blend mode. Mask out the model, then go back and add in 20% on the model. This helps blend it all in and not make the transition super obvious. Turn the opacity of this layer WAY down. I’m usually at <10%. It’ll depend on how strong you want it and how blown out the majority of the scene is. See the full edit in the before/after section, but the layers I use for this edit:

Experience and knowing your gear

You need to know your gear and its limitations. This can only be done by going out there and shooting the hell out of it. You need to go out there and figure out the limits of what your gear can do in the situations that you’ll be in and what your safe zone is. Specifically, if you’re going to be doing heavily backlit shots, you need to figure out how your camera + lens combo of choice handles flair. Some will  handle it a lot better than others and that will dictate how crazy you can get with the backlight.

There was one engagement shoot when I was first figuring out my style. I messed up so bad. I did not play it safe enough and ended up with way too many unusable shots that were just ruined by insane haze/flare. But! I learned from it and that hasn’t happened since. So next time you’re out there, nail your safe shots, then play around a little and see how your gear reacts.

Before and afters

Finally, here’s a few before and afters to give you an example of what I start with straight out of camera and what I end up with.

Note: that the straight out of camera pics are very washed out. At the very least you’ll want to pump contrast in post. You don’t have to go as crazy with the yellow/orange as I did, but eh that was the style I was into.

5D2 + 135L f/2 1/160 ISO 200

5D2 + 135L f/2.5 1/500 ISO 400

5D2 + 85mm f/2 1/100 ISO 320

5D2 + 50 f/2

5D2 + 85mm f/2 1/160 ISO 400

5D2 + 135L f/2 1/160 ISO 100

Olympus OMD E-M1 25mm f/1.8 1/160 ISO 100. This one is mainly here to show ya that I can do the same thing when I was using my Olympus setup

Random tips and things to watch out for

  • Some lenses are really not made for this. Generally the older/cheaper lenses do not have a great lens coating and will flare up like crazy. If you’re JJ Abrams you could use that stuff to your advantage, but if you’re not… get a current pro-level lens and it should be fine. That doesn’t mean spend an insane amount of money – the Canon 85mm 1.8 is like <$300 and works great. My favorite lens of all time for this is the Canon 135mm f/2L and that can be had for like $600 used if you look hard enough.
    • If that sounds like a lot of money, my advice is to spend less on the body and more on the lens.  Keep in mind the majority of what you guys probably remember as my style was shot on the 5D mkII. Which can be found for ~$700 or less now.
    • Any added glass like a uv filter could also make flare worse.
  • Green casts from grass. This could be an issue if you’re standing in grass and some strong sunlight is hitting the grass in front of your model. You’ll sometimes see a strong green cast reflect back up as like an underlight on your model. No bueno.
    • To avoid this you could either just move, or move somewhere where the green isn’t reflecting back. Think of it like a big green reflector on the ground.
  • If you’re using a DSLR, the sun will hurt your eyes. I 100% prefer EVFs/mirrorless for this because screens can only get so bright, vs an optical viewfinder will have the lens focus all the light from the sun into your eye
  • If you’re getting way too much flare but can’t figure any other way around it, you can use your hand to block the sun and shade your lens. As long as your hand is just in a corner surrounded by sky it’ll be easy to remove in photoshop