I may be getting too technical about this but I just want to share to you, good folks, something that will make your photos more pleasing by reducing or totally avoiding that nasty “washouts” when you take a picture.
In photography and the way I define it, “washouts” is related to that annoying “bright” background (back lit) as if there’s a giant white curtain hanging behind your subject. This is often unavoidable specially when you’re having your photoshoots under a midday sun.
There are several techniques in avoiding washouts. One is the “flash fill” technique where you use a flash to lit your subject making it a part of the brightly lit background… The camera automatically adjust the exposure capturing the subject in ambient mode. But then there are times when you cannot use a flash since your subject is quite far from the most effective range of your flash.
The other technique is the use of Neutral Density filters (just click on the link to get more information about Neutral Density filters). Attach this filter on your lens and it will reduce the brightness of the background but your subject may appear darker. Aside from this potential “darkening” problem, the use of this filter may need you to set a longer shutter speed than normal which might blur your image if you have unsteady hands.
And lastly, a technique which I often use when taking a picture of distant subjects beyond “flash fill” range with a brightly lit background: spot metering (a light metering mode that focus on a small area) and exposure compensation.
All DSLRs have a light metering mode with “evaluative mode” in Canon cameras as the default setting. This setting meters the overall light of a scene to be photographed and accordingly adjusts the exposure to balance the highlights in the scene. This is useful and applicable most of the times but in cases that there are extreme difference between the lighting in the foreground from that of the background, spot metering works well combined with adjusting the exposure compensation to balance the light in the foreground with the light in the background.
In the picture below, I took an image of a tree that is about 2 storeys high with the sun brightly lit in the sky in “evaluative mode” (the default) with no exposure compensation. As you can see, the background was completely washed out.
Using the spot metering mode, I focused on the middle branch and adjusted accordingly the exposure compensation to -2 to lower down the brightness (there is no strict rule on how to adjust the exposure compensation, by the way). The camera adjusted the lighting exposure showing the crane in the background which was made invisible by the bright sky in the previous photo.
To sum it up, if you find your background becoming too bright making everything in it “invisible”, try to set the metering mode to “spot metering” and adjust the exposure compensation to a point that both foreground and background are properly exposed to your liking.