Cats in Windows, A lesson in back-lighting

Zeb with fill flash. Check out the great rim lighting on his fluffy tail!

Cats love windows. They can spend hours watching the world fly by or basking in the warm rays of the sun. They are so very cute and snugly and you just want to capture an image of them, but the lighting is against you. So what’s a photographer to do?

Back lighting is a tricky shooting situation, one you’ll often run into with many different subjects. The problem is that the light is behind the subject, not illuminating it, so the subject is in shadow. You would prefer light shining on your subject, but the silly cat wants to sit in the window! So we’ll look at several options you can try to capture your beautiful cat or any back lit subject.

Exposure Review

First let’s briefly review exposure. When you frame an image in the view finder, the camera averages all of the reflected or direct light in the frame. It then sets an aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get the exposure or end result. In the manual modes, you control one or all of these settings, but there are only certain combinations that will give the results you want.  If you’re a beginner, the camera will choose for you.

The exposure varies widely depending on how much of the subject you have in the frame vs how much brightly lit background you have included. The less of the bright background included, the better.

I recommend reviewing how to use exposure compensation in the owners manual if you are not savvy with your camera settings.

Now for those tips for dealing with back-lighting!

Fill Flash (Beginner & Advanced)

The simplest thing to do is pop up the flash, which gives you fill lighting. The flash lights up the shadow areas on the subject so they show up against the bright background. It’s magic! The camera automatically figures out how much light to fire from the flash, so this is a great starting point for the beginner. However, it does not allow you to control the background exposure which will vary widely from really blown out to slightly blown out depending on how bright it is.

Buggs with fill flash

If you want to control the background exposure, you need to know how to set exposure in the manual modes. Use the camera meter to set an exposure for the background and then pop up the flash. This gives you a properly exposed background and subject.

Background exposure set to +1 and fill flash

Expose for the Subject (Beginner & Advanced)

The most important part of any image is the subject. So if you have bad lighting, expose for the subject and let the background do whatever it’s going to do. There are two ways to do this, the precise method and the zen method. For precision, change the metering method to spot metering. Meter the subject and set the exposure using manual mode or exposure lock in aperture or shutter priority. This is for advanced camera users. If you’re a beginner use the zen method below.

The zen method involves bracketing several exposures with the default metering method, matrix/evaluative metering, unless you’ve changed it. Bracketing is a technique used to take multiple exposures of the same lighting situation to find the exposure you like. For instance you’ll set exposure compensation to take an image at 0, + 1 and +2, then compare them to find the one you like best.

Some cameras have a setting to do this automatically or you can manually change the exposure in the manual modes. If you’re a beginner, use your owners manual to figure out how to use exposure compensation, then the camera will automatically change settings for you.

The result is a properly exposed subject and blown out background. Try to eliminate as much background as possible and fill your frame with your subject. This decreases the amount of bright light in the frame and can help get a good exposure on your subject.

Spot metering on Oz set to +2/3, no flash. Note that background is completely washed out. Same location as image above.

Go with the silhouette! (Beginner & Advanced)

A silhouette is created when there is a lot of contrast between the subject and the background. You will underexpose, make very dark, the subject and have a properly exposed or overexposed background. Try exposing for the background and see what you get. The brighter the background the better the silhouette. The higher the contrast the better.

If you’re a beginner bracket the exposures until you get a good background exposure and a really dark almost black subject.

It’s important that the subject be recognizable if you use this technique, so profiles are best.

Oz back-lit by the setting sun

Use HDR (Advanced)

If you have a very still subject or still life, then HDR, High Dynamic Range, photography is an option. Find the exposure for the background and then find the exposure for the subject. Take both of those images and then take exposures at one stop intervals to fill in the gap between. Combine the images using an HDR program . This result usually gives you an obviously stylized HDR effect, but it’s an option and has some fun results. Check your camera to see if it has a built in  HDR feature such as Canon’s 5D Mark III.

HDR of Oz using Googles HDR Efex Pro 2

Practice each of the above methods and let me know what works best for you. You’re welcome to post some of your results on my Facebook page for comments and critique. Have fun and happy shooting!