How To Edit A Backlight Scene With Hard Selection

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backlight scene palace theatre of arts san francisco

Backlight scene is when you take a photo with the light coming from the back of the subject. The subject can be anything from a model to a towering mountain out in the wild.

It’s also a common photography technique. You see it all the time, like in portraits!

In other genre of photography, such as nature, architecture, etc...backlight scene is a high dynamic range scene. There is just no way (not at present) you can get the background (the light source) and the foreground all in perfect exposure in a single image.

With portraits, you can use a flash to illuminate the subject while keeping the background correctly exposed. But with anything else, you simply can’t.

A solution to this is HDR photography where you take multiple images of the same scene and use each image to expose different parts of the scene. In post-processing, you combine these images together to create a single image with both foreground and background properly exposed.

But there’s a problem.

It’s easy to go overboard when processing HDR. In the case of backlight scene, it can be very tempting to make the foreground as bright as the background (the light source).

When that happens, you’re creating monstrosity…

Having said that, this can be easily prevented or fixed!

In this post, I’m going to show you how to edit a backlight scene to create a natural looking HDR image using hard selection.

The Subject

backlight scene straight out of camera

Straight out of camera

This was taken at the Palace of Fine Art Theatre in San Francisco in the evening. The sky was clear with streaks of cloud. When I got there, I worked out the sun would be setting behind the main building (the one with the dome) and setup my camera to shoot the building directly from the front.

Basically, it was backlight scene.

Apart from bracketing three exposures, I wanted to create a long exposure for the sky. To do that, I used the Lee Big Stopper, which is an ND10 filter.

Considering I was going to use the long exposure image for the sky, I wasn’t sure if it was necessary to bracket exposures. Anyway, I did it as a safety net in case the images didn’t turn out the way I wanted.

Exposure Blending In Photoshop

After uploading the images to my computer, I imported them into Lightroom for basic corrective adjustments. The two adjustments I always apply in every single image are lens profile correction and removal of chromatic aberration.

Looking through the bracketed exposures and the long exposure image, I realized I only needed two image for the job - the 0EV from the bracketed exposure and the long exposure image.

backlight scene 0ev


backlight scene long exposure

Long exposure

Once I highlighted both images, I opened them both as layers in Photoshop. You can also open them separately and drag one file into another but that would have taken an extra minute (probably).

Now, I wanted to blend the sky (long exposure) into the 0EV image. To do so, I stacked the long exposure as the top layer in the Layers panel. This forms my blending set.

You can learn more about blending set in my Exposure Blending resource page under Articles in the top menu.

Using a brights luminosity masks, I created a selection targeting just the sky and blended the sky from the top layer into the sky on the bottom layer. The result is a base image that can be worked on further in post-processing.

Darkening The Foreground With A Hard Selection

The blended image may look fine at first but you’ll soon notice the foreground is too bright considering this is a backlight scene.

backlight scene

Foreground is as bright as the background

How to fix it? Simply darken the foreground!

You could apply a Curves or Levels adjustment to darken the image and mask out the sky using a layer mask but the edges between the sky and the foreground wouldn’t be accurate (with lots of bleed over).

Luminosity mask may be an option but you’d have to customize a mask and that may take some time. It might even get too complicated.

The easiest way here is to create a hard selection to separate the foreground from the sky.

You might wonder what a hard selection is…

It’s simple. A hard selection is merely a selection where the edges are not feathered, which is why it’s called hard selection.

backlight scene hard selection

Hard selection of the foreground

To create a hard selection of the sky in this image, I used a Wand tool and clicked on the sky several times to get it all selected. Then, I inverted the selection so that the foreground becomes the selection instead of the sky.

From here it’s easy...

Apply a tonal adjustment to the foreground selection to darken the sky.

A Fine Touch To The Light

At this point, I remembered that the sun was setting behind the dome. When I looked closer, I could see the some light shining through the arches.

I thought it would make the image more interesting if I could accentuate the light to make it more obvious to notice.

This wasn’t difficult to create.

I saved the image so that it automatically gets reimported back in to Lightroom.

backlight scene light accentuation

Applying Radial filter to add brightness and color to the light source

Then, I used the Radial filter to drag a circle around the area that I assumed the sun is. I dragged the Exposure and Temperature up to increase the brightness of that area while adding some color of the sunlight to make the effect more realistic.

To create the glow effect, I used Dehaze. But instead of moving the slider to the right (dehazing), I moved it to the left to add haze. This creates a pleasant soft glow that mimics the Orton effect.

Over To You

Whenever you’re combining multiple exposures using HDR software or exposure blending to create an HDR image of a backlight scene, remember the foreground should always look darker than the light source.

Depending on the composition of the image, you might be able to create a hard selection easily or you can use other masking technique such as luminosity masks.

For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!

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