Imagecraft Bootcamp — Shooting From the Dark Side

Blue Angel monument -- Annapolis, Maryland (October 2015)Sony a6000 + Sony 10-18mm/4.0 ASPH

Hi, this is Mitch again.  No, you are not going to be become Sith warriors!  Sorry, but being a lifelong Star Wars fan, I had to say that (hah!).

No, this post is all about shooting from the dark side of a subject… the shadowed side… the side opposite from the light source… the side that we are specifically cautioned against shooting from by camera manuals (or at least we used to be).  This is also known as contre-jour and backlit photography.  Further examples can be seen here, but be aware that some may be NSFW.

Now why would I want to waste a perfectly good exposure on the lit side of a subject, and mess around instead with the side that’s all dark and has no detail?  Aha — that’s what we’re about to find out!

20-years ago I attended a presentation by an award-winning photojournalist, who wowed the crowd with his images, his vision, his experience, and his talent.  And the biggest “secret” that he shared with everyone as a takeaway from the event?  Exactly what I’m sharing with you here today — shooting from the dark side of the subject.

And — you know — as we listened to the guest speaker, we saw that he was right; many of his very best images were shot from the dark side… and those also tended to be the biggest award winners as well (hint, hint…).

Shooting from the dark side of the subject can be a real challenge from a metering aspect, especially if the light source is extremely bright — like a sunrise or sunset.  However, not all light sources are that bright, but the metering conundrum still stands.

Metering today — with digital cameras in particular — is much less of a problem than it is while shooting film, simply because you can instantly review your digital images on the spot, see how they look, then immediately make any corrections necessary and re-take the image.

Big hint:  With digital, always shoot to preserve the highlights.  I know this goes against much of the advice out there that says to shoot to the right (to make the data stack to the right of center in your histogram), but if the highlights are gone, then even the special tools out there for highlight recovery don’t do a very good job of getting them back.  So this is your new mantra — preserve the highlights, preserve the highlights.

These images that I’m sharing?  These are a mixture of film and digital; rangefinder (film), mirrorless (digital), point-and-shoot (both film and digital), and cell phone cameras (digital).  And they have all been shot in the past 10 months of this year, just so you know I’m not pulling them from my vast archives.

And the one thing these images all have in common?  Every one of them were shot from the dark side of the subject.  Think I’m joking?  Go look again, carefully.  All of them have the camera pointed toward the light source.  In fact — if you go through my website — you’ll find that many of my images have the camera lens pointed toward the light source.

I can hear your protests now — with much wailing, pulling of hair, and gnashing of teeth (and maybe even pitchforks and flaming torches):

  • But what about lens flare?
  • But what about the highlights getting blown?
  • But what about the shadows blocking up?
  • But what about the metering?
  • But… but… but…

That’s okay.  That’s what I’m here for — to guide you through the process of getting the most out of your images.

First up… I’ve been thinking about this post for a while and took some pix for it last week.  Here they are, just as they came out of the camera — looking utterly like typical tourist snapshots, complete with my shadow visible in one of them.

And which one did I like?  Well — obviously — the one that posed the biggest challenge (duh).

Not much to look at, is it?  Nothing to see, no details of interest, dull, and utterly boring — right?  A throwaway shot.  All of us have these, even the pros.  The difference for me?  Many of my shots look exactly like the one below — on purpose.


Only this image is not a throwaway!  This image actually has serious potential, if we know how to dig deep and bring out all that it has to offer.

First, we’ll open it up in Lightroom and do the standard Auto Tone correction.  This is also when I do a few other things — like lens corrections, basic sharpening (or not, depending on the image and my intended end result), color correction, etc.


The Auto Tone feature always, always — ALWAYS — blows the highlights by boosting the Exposure (look at what happened to the clouds), so I gamely reset it.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Below is the image with the Auto Tone settings in place, but with the boosted Exposure setting zeroed out.  The highlights (the clouds) are now back to what they should be (see all the nice details?).

What do you think?  Still blah?  Yep!  That’s what I think, too.  So now we begin to boost the shadow areas to show the level of detail that we want.

Please note: this is all done with just ONE image.  It is not three or more images as is typically the case with HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography.  The post-processing steps I’m showing you here are all traditional darkroom techniques that are applied via the digital process; nothing is added, and nothing is taken away.


How do we attack the dark areas?  First, by applying a Graduated Filter to the lower right area, like thus.


Whoa — that’s a huge improvement!  But what about the body of the aircraft?  There’s no WAY you can do that with a filter!


Heh, heh — that’s when you pull back the zoom factor and lay down a Radial Filter (see below).  To get the red highlight (to help you see what the filter is doing), just click the tiny box down near the bottom of the screen, which says “Show Selected Mask Overlay“.  I’ve done this enough now that I rarely use this feature, but I’ll still click that box on really tricky masking and filtering at times.

Oh, and the inside versus the outside masking?  That’s done with the tiny check box to the right that says “Invert Mask“.  I rarely use anything but the Invert Mask setting on my images.


Great Scott — look at all the detail that was hiding there in the shadows!


Now you can make some of the more wide-ranging adjustments; in this case we’ll hit it with the Tone Curve and Exposure first.


Then I’ll boost the Camera Calibration (Blue Primary) and nudge up the Clarity.


Quite an improvement, don’t you think?  Now, you can stop here — or push it further and see what more you can get out of the image.  I choose to continue pushing the image, so I now convert it into Black & White.


The conversion looks good, but now some of the elements have lost their emphasis — so I need to go back and adjust them.


First I’ll attack the problem via the Camera Calibration (Blue Primary) and (Red Primary).  Then adjust the Tone Curve again, as well as the Contrast and Exposure.  Then add a little Vignette.


That’s looking a lot better, but I want a bit more drama (especially in the shadows under the aircraft) and a touch of warmth.  So I’ll bring in some Graduated Filters from the sides, add my version of a cream-colored split-tone, then attack the shadow areas with a couple Radial Filters.


First the one above, then the one below.


And here are the Graduated Filters I mentioned — first the right side…


… Then the left side.


And — voilà! — you have the finished image below!


Here are the before and after images.

This one is a bit more effort, but nonetheless — here’s the challenge: find or create an image of your own (don’t “borrow” a photo from someone else off the Internet!), and go through the same step-by-step process I outlined here to produce your own dark side photograph.

Once you’ve finished, be sure to include “#photo101rehab”, “#photorehab”, and “#imagecraftbootcamp” with your normal tags — and if you wish to submit it to the Flickr group, you’ll need to join us there prior to doing so.

Good luck, and see you next Wednesday!

18 thoughts on “Imagecraft Bootcamp — Shooting From the Dark Side

  1. Mitch, I loved this post. Thank you. It is a perfectly crafted master class. I learned so much with your tutorial and photo! I was eager to try it before but illness kept me out of the blogosphere for a few days. Tonight I finally posted. I am not happy with the results so I will try again with another photo.


      1. Indeed, Mitch. And making mistakes is an excellent way to learn. I now shoot less photos than I used to do exactly because of what you said. The old mistakes are not repeated but there is still so much to learn.
        That’s why I love the Imagecraft Bootcamp; I’m learning new things every week. Thank you.


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