How to avoid a dim portrait against a bright background

Though it is a dark cloudy raining day, the background is brighter than the main subject. That subject being me standing on this covered balcony. When I first was learning photography I was told to keep the sun to my back. That is fine for snap shots but not for people pictures. Mostly because the bright sun gets in people's eyes and causes them to squint. It creates harsh shadows, and racoon eyes (around noon time when the sun is directly overhead).

Now as a professional photographer, I keep the light coming toward my camera (called back lighting). Don't try this at home though as modern cameras with auto everything will read the bright background and make the camera underexpose your subject (make it darker than it really is to the eye) as you see here.

 This same problem happens also when you are taking a picture of someone inside and there is a bright window behind them

This same problem happens also when you are taking a picture of someone inside and there is a bright window behind them

If I try and trick the camera, into adding more exposure, it will make the background too bright. Instead, I don't want to increase the exposure on the background. I like the background as it looks here. Very similar to what my eye saw that day. So what is the answer?

The answer is to add more light to the subject equal to the amount that is already on the background.

I chose to add flash. By adding light to the foreground subject I can match it to that of the background. Basically making myself the same exposure as that on the background.

 Adding a battery operated flash attached to a softbox allowed me to brighten my face but not effect the background light

Adding a battery operated flash attached to a softbox allowed me to brighten my face but not effect the background light

Initially I had some spill light falling on the back of my head from the open sky which did not look too flattering! So I added this black reflector to block that light. But the more I looked at my image I decided that there was just too much attention on my head in the picture. So I put my hat on. (I tell people I'm not loosing hair, rather I'm gaining face.) Ha! After that the reflector was not needed, but I left it in when taking this set-up picture.

 I added an off camera flash to brighten my subject (me) to the same amount of light that would match the background

I added an off camera flash to brighten my subject (me) to the same amount of light that would match the background

The flash exposure was set based on where the focusing point was. Basically that means it was set to automatically match the exposure on me (amount of light) to be equal to that which is showing on the background. Using face recognition the flash was able to adjust its exposure on my face correctly.

To get a good picture like this with your camera phone you may find that the flash is not powerful enough?

As typically the phone will read the background exposure and assume there is enough light in the scene and not turn on the flash. Even if you force the flash to fire most smartphones flash systems are not powerful enough to match the light to the background, even on a overcast rainy day like today where the outside light is very low.

Your best bet to get a good photo like the one above is to purchase a digital camera that has a powerful flash (get either built in or external flash) and a camera that you can also adjust the exposure, both manually and with exposure compensation buttons. See my article on Three Photography Tips for Better Group Pictures.

Happy 4th of July Tomorrow!

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Thanks,

Dave Likes