Friday Foto Talk: How to Handle Contrast the Natural Way   9 comments

Dead camel thorn trees trace a former watercourse in the Namib Desert near Sesriem.

Dead camel thorn trees trace a former watercourse in the Namib Desert near Sesriem.

Contrast is one of the main things photographers have to deal with.  Even in the studio a lot of work goes into handling contrast in the amount of light across your subject.  And in natural light there is only so much you can do to control contrast.  For the most part you just need to accept and deal with it.  In this post I’ll discuss ways to handle it without going too crazy with filters, multiple exposures and post-processing.

Before we get to tips, here are some things you should know:

      • Let’s be real.  Your eyes can pick up details in a much larger range of brightness than your camera can.  This is called “dynamic range”.  In fact, one of the biggest reasons to get a big fancy DSLR is to get a little closer to the dynamic range your eyes can see.  A point and shoot (which I’m using now) can only see a fraction of the range your eyes can see.

 

      • Contrast is relative.  So if you shoot dark scenes, your camera sees that as normal light and meters accordingly.  To the camera that not-too-bright sky is very bright in comparison with the mostly dark scene.  The same goes for mostly bright scenes, where dark things come out as silhouettes.
This interior courtyard in the ancient Khmer ruins of Ta Prohm, Cambodia was a contrast nightmare.

This interior courtyard in the ancient Khmer ruins of Ta Prohm, Cambodia was a contrast nightmare.

 

      • Clearly, contrast is a part of natural light, so you definitely want some.  When it gets bad you’ll know it by using your histogram (see below).  The trick is to pay close attention to your scene and try to reproduce the amount of contrast you have.  If there is plenty of black, that’s what you should have.  If some places are so bright you can’t see detail, that may be what you want (the sun for example).

 

      • You need to think about how you want to handle the contrast in your scenes.  Do you want to minimize it and go for an HDRish look, which has been very popular lately.  Or do you want to keep a fair amount of it in your finished image.  This decision will help to define your style.  Do you want to be popular or stay true to your vision?

 

High-contrast scenes like this one in Death Valley, California, can make for dramatic images.

High-contrast scenes like this one in Death Valley, California can make for dramatic images.

      •   Another decision you will make is where and what you shoot.  A big choice is in what direction relative to the sun (see below).  Will you shoot high-contrast scenes or will you deliberately avoid them?

 

      • The direction you shoot makes a huge difference.  If you shoot with the sun behind you (frontlight), you’ll have very little contrast.  If you shoot into the sun (backlight), you’ll have the maximum.  If you shoot at an angle to the light, the amount of contrast varies according to the scene and quality of light.

 

When you're shooting from within a cave like her in the desert of Mexico, you're guaranteed to have high contrast.

When you’re shooting from within a cave like her in the desert of Mexico, you’re guaranteed to have high contrast.

Ready to shoot?  Here are some tips:

      • First of all, you will do well to handle contrast from the beginning instead of just trying to reduce it later on computer.  That’s what this post is about, handling contrast on the front end.

 

      • Use your histogram.  Get set up and shoot, then look at your histogram.  Or, if your camera allows it, use LiveView and set your LCD screen to show your histogram in one corner.  Use the Evaluative or Matrix metering mode (and Exposure Simulation in LiveView).

 

      • If the histogram is stretched out across the width of the graph, you’ve got some serious contrast.  But it’s not necessarily bad until the histogram starts climbing up the sides.  The right side (representing over-bright areas of the scene) is much worse than the left side (over-dark areas).  You can recover more in the shadow areas than in the bright areas.  Though Lightroom has gotten very good at both, you still can’t recover highlights from completely blown-out areas.

 

Using reflective surfaces, like here in Botswana's Okavango Delta, can both even out contrast and double the great light.

Using reflective surfaces, like here in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, can both even out contrast and double the great light.

      • Don’t be afraid to shoot with high contrast.  This is what makes your images pop, after all.  You want to handle it not make it disappear – read on.

 

      • But try to minimize the amount of it in your scene.  You can make small movements with the camera, changing your composition slightly in order to exclude some or all of a relatively bright area.  For example, with a sky much brighter than a foreground, you can move the camera down to exclude most or all of it.  You can move your camera to exclude too much dark area as well.  But always remember you can successfully incorporate more dark than bright in your images.

 

This recent image, with my point and shoot, I probably would not have used a graduated ND filter with.  But the bright water was enough to create a lot of contrast.

This recent image, with my point and shoot, I probably would not have used a graduated ND filter with. But the bright water was enough to create a lot of contrast.  I also excluded the sky.

 

      • Some people make it a habit to shoot into the sun, especially with candid people shots.  Extremely bright areas near your subject can form a partial or complete silhouette.  It’s a popular look to have a fairly bright subject in partial silhouette, with the bright sunlight partly silhouetting and partly wrapping around your subject.  The precise composition makes or breaks these images.

 

      • Shoot away from the sun.  As long as the light is beautiful, shooting front-lit scenes is a fine way to avoid contrast.  But the light should be near direct from the sun when it’s fairly low.  That way you have some contrast, instead of ending up with flat light.  Shadows are great in this situation; they increase contrast and depth.

 

Normally the desert is a haven for high contrast, but low frontlight from the rising sun softens and evens out everything in this Death Valley image.

Normally the desert is a haven for high contrast, but low frontlight from the rising sun softens and evens out everything in this Death Valley image.

      • By shooting across the light, at more or less 90 degrees to the sun, the shadows will give you plenty of natural contrast.  If the sky is too bright you may need to use a graduated neutral density filter (see below).

 

      • If you are shooting toward a low sun (even if it’s behind clouds), your contrast will be high.  There are a couple ways to handle it.  One way is to choose scenes with reflective surfaces.  Water, snow, bright sidewalks or squares in a city, any reflective surface really, can dramatically reduce the amount of natural contrast in your scenes.  It’s part of the reason I tend to think of water when I’m choosing a place to shoot.

 

 

Sunset, Point Lobos, California coast.  Though I used a graduated ND filter here, the sky is still very bright.

Sunset, Point Lobos, California coast. Though I used a graduated ND filter here, the sky is still very bright.

      • If you decide to shoot at a place with darker surfaces and a relatively bright sky or water, you will likely have some trouble with your light meter.  If you point most of the frame at the dark foreground, for example, your camera may easily overexpose the sky.  If the frame covers a good chunk of the bright sky, your camera will underexpose the foreground.

 

      • This is when a graduated neutral density filter (or two) comes in handy.  These rectangular filters are especially useful when you are shooting into the setting or rising sun.  If you already know about these filters, great!  But if you don’t, next Friday’s post will cover the basics.

 

      • Try to limit your use of the grad. ND filter to when the histogram climbs up the sides of your histogram (particularly the right side).

 

      • Also be aware of how much you can easily recover from shadows and bright areas later on the computer without running into problems like halos on edges or other artifacts.  Knowing what you can and can’t do on the computer will help you to decide how much to minimize contrast when you’re shooting

 

      • Reflective foregrounds as mentioned above are probably the most natural way to minimize contrast.  But more than this, they allow you to shoot well-balanced compositions in very low light, when the color tones darken and become very rich.  With a dark foreground you are left with either avoiding that beautiful sky or shooting only the sky.
Low light and a reflective foreground equals the perfect amount of contrast for me: along the Willamette River near Portland.

Low light and a reflective foreground equals the perfect amount of contrast for me: along the Willamette River near Portland.

      • But if you’re committed to shooting a scene with high contrast and either have no graduated ND filters or they aren’t able to fully compensate, I recommend taking this approach for most scenes:

First, lower your ISO to the minimum your camera allows.  This will lengthen your shutter speed so hopefully you don’t have a moving subject that will look distracting if it’s blurred (water is an exception).  You will almost certainly need to be on a tripod with either a shutter-release or using shutter delay, plus mirror lockup.

Then shoot (and re-shoot) until you get the histogram as far to the right as possible without climbing up the right edge.  Of course this will yield a dark image, which you will later have to brighten and recover shadows from on the computer.  But the very low ISO will keep noise to a minimum.  You won’t totally avoid noise, since it always shows up when you brighten significantly on the computer.  The upside to this approach is that you can recover details and show that beautiful sky to its best advantage.

      • If you don’t have time for the tripod, and are grabbing a quick shot, you can often get away with allowing some things to go totally dark – a silhouette (see top image).  Then you don’t have to worry about ISO as much.  But you still need to make sure the histogram doesn’t climb up the right edge (too much).  All depends on the nature of the scene of course, and whether over-bright subjects look natural when they’re blown out.  The sun and moon are the best examples.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

The old point and shoot camera is at its limits in a recent shot of glacier lilies high above the Columbia River in Oregon.

The old point and shoot camera is at its limits in a recent shot of glacier lilies high above the Columbia River in Oregon.

Sunset over the Okavango, Botswana.  A hand-held shot from a boat, I had to go with faster shutter speed and underexpose in order to not blow out the sky.

Sunset over the Okavango, Botswana. A hand-held shot from a boat, I had to go with faster shutter speed and underexpose in order to not blow out the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: How to Handle Contrast the Natural Way

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  1. Staying popular or true to your vision is good to think about. Being set in my opinions makes that a lot easier. I think the desert shot was favourite of these beauties.

  2. Your images are a terrific match with your points. Thanks so much–enjoyed all of it.

  3. Fantastic tips again Michael, and illustrated fantastically with beautiful shots!

  4. At last – advice that is truly useful for me. All of the photos I take are framed with the camera and not cropped on the computer. I also capture the light as it was when I took the photo, again, I don’t adjust anything on the computer. However, I am still learning photography, and I don’t know a lot of the technical details yet. This made your post both extremely interesting and very useful. Thank you. Lisa

    • Thanks so much!! I want to stress that I do work later on the computer to manage contrast further, but if you don’t do things upfront, images often end up looking unnatural or have artifacts. I may do a post on the computer end, but my focus on this blog is on shooting. Thanks again!

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