As with many photographers, I too enjoy post processing my photos to add my own artistic style. And to many people who follow my work, they quickly notice that I often like to add a dramatic lighting to my portraits, particularly for the little ones. Many people assume it's done in Photoshop and consequently ask me about how I do it. When I tell them that the effect can often be made without special post processing, they're shocked and then proceed to ask the follow-up question - "how can I do it?" It's pretty simply to do and the best part is, it doesn't require any fancy equipment. You just need to know a few basic concepts about how the camera exposes for the picture and how you can manipulate the camera to give you that beautiful dramatic light. When you get done reading this post, you'll have a few very easily implemented ideas to give you results like this:
First, let's talk about about a few of the things your camera does when you press that shutter button. Actually, I should probably discuss what exposure is in the first place. I'll keep the description simple and to the point: the exposure is your camera's attempt to evenly capture all the lights and darks of the scene you're photographing. There are three primary variables that change (often automatically) in your camera in order to allow for an evenly lit photograph. These variables are ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. I'm not going to take the time in this post to describe what these variables are and how these three variables relate to each other; for now you only need to know that when you push that shutter button on your camera, the internal computer of the camera is looking at the scene and determining what combination of those three mentioned variables need to be changed in order to produce an evenly lit image.
Now in the case of the dramatically back lit picture, we intentionally want the camera to allow just the right amount of light needed to allow detail in the the shadows/midtones in the image. I'm sure you've all seen images that people have taken where the sky (or some other bright light source in the image) is correctly exposed and not washed out, while the shadow areas (e.g. people skin, buildings, etc) are very dark with little detail. That's what we are trying to avoid here. And as I said before, knowing a little information about how the camera exposes can help us obtain that desired effect without much post processing. Without any delay, here's a couple of tried and true trips to get that dramatic back lit haze without much fuss.
TIP #1 - Block the bright light source with your finger.
Yes, we realize this sounds silly but think about it. Remember what we said earlier about your camera trying to optimize both the light and dark part of the scene? Without blocking the brightest part of the light, the camera is most certainly going to underexpose the shadows of the image. Next time, when you're framing the picture, simply use your hand to cover the light source, press your shutter half way (this usually locks the exposure), remove your hand and take the picture. What happens when you do this is simple: by blocking the bright light from the sensor, you're forcing the camera to expose for the shadows (likely the person) in the picture.
TIP #2 - Diffuse the Bright Light source with trees or other similar objects.
This is a little easier and less complicated than Tip #1 but in principle involves the same concept. In this circumstance, rather than using your hand, all you need to do is position the subject in between the camera and the light source. You do this in such a way that the light source is diffused through the branches, bushes, or is just blocked on the edge of a tree trunk. This will allow enough light to pass through on the image all while toning down the intensity and allowing the camera to correctly expose on your subjects.
TIP #3 - Allow your camera to do all the hard work.
Most any new cameras nowadays have a built in HDR function. Heck, I think even the iPhone or any reputable new phone has the capability built in. HDR stands for "high dynamic range" and basically takes the best parts of a brightly lit image and the best parts of the shadows and tries to make the best of both, rather than sacrificing one for the other. The picture below was taken with this setting turned on in my camera. I didn't block the light with my hand or diffused it with the trees, I shot this picture below directly into the sun with no special processing. It may not work as well as the previous examples but it does have merit.
As camera technology continues to change, I can only suspect that the the dynamic range capabilities will only get better. But until then, I hope the tips listed above provide some help. Of course, if you have any questions or would like a training session, please let us know.