How to shoot backlight in film (+ digital)

More than anything, the perfect lighting scenario for a shoot makes all the difference in the world. Before a setting up locations I've always got my eye on the sun, thinking about where it rises and sets on island and planning out my shooting spots before the couple even gets there so that I can comfortably and easily guide them into the good light--that is soft, warm sources that are evenly dispersed--without missing a beat or interupting their experience. My favorite kind of light is luminous, vibrant lighting that streams through the trees and casts an angelic glow on everything it softly wraps around. The best time of day for this magic unicorn ambiance is about an hour before sunset and has been dubbed by photographers as 'the Golden Hour'. We're so clever, right? At this time is where you will find me oohing and ahhhing all over the place as I drive down Kamehameha highway hollering out my window "Look at that LIGHTTTTTTT!". So what? I get excited.

[Contax 645 + Fuji 400h, rated at 400]

Shooting in this type of scenario can be tricky, especially if shooting digitally as lenses with autofocus have the hardest dern time clicking into focus when flooded with large amounts of light. This is because lenses were not designed to take in a lot of light (especially if you are trying to get sun flare). Shooting into light is technically considered wrong by all those old fougies and photographer nerds. But we are arteeeests, so if that's being wrong, we don't wanna be right! Right? Right.

[Contax 645 + Fuji 400h]

If shooting in direct sunlight or just before the sun dips below the horizon, I typically backlight or sidelight my couples (having the sun to their backs or slight sides--like this tiki umbrella above). This prevents any squinting and shifts in color/odd shadows that direct sun light on them may produce. The color of their skin is always my utmost concern so when shooting digital I check my LCD back to make sure their skin tones look fab. When shooting film it's honestly a wee bit easier, as film tends to handle lots of light beautifully and looks best if overexposed. Since I am always aiming for true-to-life skin rendering, I 'meter for the shadows', holding my hand-held light meter parallel to the subject and in the most shadowed part of the frame (i.e. under their chin or between the two of them where there is the least amount of light). When shooting both digital and film I always aim to have filtered light enter my lens as opposed to direct light--keeping the subject's head, trees, or other objects slighting covering the light source softening it's harsh effects. This creates a beautiful enveloping of light and avoids full-on light direct light from completing entering or 'flooding' your lens, which can create some serious flare in digital or a grainy, hazy mess in film.

[Contax 645, Fuji 400h]

Back or side lighting takes some harshness out of the direct light but still allows lots of trickling magical bokeh to filter through. If the couple pictured above weren’t blocking the bright sun setting through the trees the abundance of golden light would have flooded my lens and not have been ideal. But instead it casts a beautiful warm glow, illuminating the two of them working well with the white sand acting as a natural reflector in front of them (bouncing brightness back up to their bodies). The image above was photographed in film. Notice the ability (referred to as latitude) the medium has to retain details in light without being too bright and "blown out". See the streams of sunlight dancing across the left of the image? Ahhhh. My fav. Thanks, Fuji 400h!


[Contax 645 + Portra 400]

Vanessa + Vincent eloped on a beach in Hawai'i in the middle of the afternoon. Typically, this lighting scenario would make any photographer go into full-on panic mode. However, by just turning a few degrees away from the sun, keeping it to our right side and slightly out of the frame, we were able to turn a bright hawaiian day into a dreamy afternoon. The image above was shot in film, which allowed the bright haze to cover the landscape while still retaining detail in the cliffs, woot woot!


[Canon 7D]

Shot digitally (and after Vanessa changed into this cute red number!), I needed to reposition myself so even less light was outside of the scene's frame. There is more haze and apparent grain along with a slightly cooler haze color shift in comparison to it's film counterpart, but keeping the sun to their side (and behind the rocks as much as I could) did the trick!