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Overexpose the background

That's right. Overexpose for a great picture


Overexpose the background for a great shot.
Overexpose the background for a great shot.

What kind of photography advisor tells you to purposefully overexpose an image? A wacky one maybe, but the advice isn't really wacky. It's the opposite; it just sounds like bad advice, but the results are impressive. This tip really works.

Some pictures are actually purposefully overexposed for the special effect needed, but in this case, we are telling you to overexpose only the background, not the entire image, to get a truly great picture. The pros have known about this trick for a long while, and they use it all the time for beautiful portraits.

Here are the three components you need:
(1) A subject in the shade, or backlit so that its shadow side is facing the camera;
(2) A brightly-lit background with plenty of color in it, like autumn leaves or a flower bed in full sunlight; and
(3) A portrait lens, preferably in the range of 80mm to 135mm, but even a 200mm or longer lens will do just fine.

We suggest an ISO setting of 100 to begin with. If you can't use a fast enough shutter speed (at least 1/80 sec for an 80mm lens), increase your digital ISO setting. You must use a shutter speed that allows you to hand-hold the camera without fear of camera shake blurring the image. You may need a tripod if the shade is rather dark for proper exposure of a hand-held picture.

Water drops from the spray of a garden hose are optically enlarged and brightened because they are over-exposed, but the subject is properly-exposed, making a dramatic picture.
Water drops from the spray of a garden hose are optically enlarged and brightened because they are over-exposed, but the subject is properly-exposed, making a dramatic picture.

The key to success for this tip is to take your exposure reading for the subject in the shade, using the fastest shutter speed possible so that your aperture will be wide open. You can move in close to your subject to take an exposure reading, then back up to your shooting position and use those aperture/shutter speed settings. Or, you can use your camera's spot meter, if it has one, from your shooting position to take an exposure reading only from your subject in the shade. That's it! Simple, isn't it?

In fact, it's something you might stumble upon yourself, since good photography requires you to take exposure readings from the light falling on your subject, not the background.

But "Why?" you ask. "If it's so simple, what's going on that makes this so effective?"

The dynamics are in the combination of the ingredients.

  • The background is over-exposed because it is brighter than the shaded area where your subject is, which is where you took your meter reading.
  • Because you are using a telephoto lens and your shutter speed is fast, your aperture will be open fairly wide, so the depth of field will be shallow. The region just in front of and barely behind your subject is all that is in focus.
  • This throws the overexposed background into a jumble of unfocused light and color that makes a bright backdrop for your picture.

The effect can be very attractive. You can use it over and over again to make great portraits. That ain't so wacky.

If your subject is partly in shade and partly in sunshine, you have to be careful not to overexpose the subject's sunlit portion while still over-exposing the bright background.
If your subject is partly in shade and partly in sunshine, you have to be careful not to overexpose the subject's sunlit portion while still over-exposing the bright background.

If the shady area where your subject is located is very dark or if you wish to obtain a closer balance between the bright background and your subject, you can use fill flash or reflect light onto your subject with the same technique, and achieve some equally great pictures. Just be sure your shutter speed is the fastest possible with flash, that your aperture is wide open and that the subject is in sharp focus.

It may sound ill-advised to look for a bright and colorful background so you can purposefully over-expose it, but it's good photography. Go for it! Give it a try a few times, and you'll have mastered a technique that you can use again and again for fine pictures.

Subject in shade; bright background full of color. These are the key ingredients for this creative tip.
Subject in shade; bright background full of color. These are the key ingredients for this creative tip.

 
Further information...
Slow shutter hand-holding
Depth of Field
Fill flash
Reflectors
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