Archive for the ‘dynamic range’ Tag

Dynamic Range IV: Conclusions   11 comments

Central Oregon.  This type of scene requires a camera with good but not extreme dynamic range abilities.

Central Oregon. This type of scene requires a camera with good but not extreme dynamic range abilities.  Copyright MJF Images.  Please click on this image if you’re interested in it.

I know this hasn’t been the most straightforward of topics, but let’s try to end by putting dynamic range in proper context.  By the way, make sure to at least skim through Parts 1 – 3 first, then come back to this one. I started by pointing out the importance of dynamic range.  But then I proceeded to poke some holes in that idea.  To allay any confusion, let me tell you my current thinking on the subject:

      • Mostly it’s important to know the dynamic range capabilities of your camera.  Whether its dynamic range is high or more modest is not as important as knowing how much it has.  This will allow you to approach different lighting conditions with a good idea of whether you can successfully shoot in them.  And if so, whether you’ll need to employ graduated neutral density filters or other techniques.
      • Dynamic range is quickly becoming similar to megapixels.  That is, camera companies are exaggerating its importance in an effort to market newer models.  After all, their job is to make you upgrade your camera body before you really need to.
Sandy River, Oregon:  No great dynamic range required here!

Sandy River, Oregon: No great dynamic range required here!

Angkor Wat, Cambodia:  this is a high contrast thus tricky exposure, all about the details in the dark (not brightest) areas.  Copyright MJF Images.  Click on image if interested in it.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia: this is a high contrast thus tricky exposure, all about the details in the dark (not brightest) areas. Copyright MJF Images. Click on image if interested in it.

      • That said, the companies are really just responding to consumer demand.  The HDR trend that got going some years ago has had a real effect on how we capture and especially how we view images.  While (thankfully) the grungy, over-the-top HDR look has largely come and gone, a  push toward evening out tones is very widespread in nature photography today.
      • Combine the above point with our desire to photograph anything in any light and you have a recipe for the current trend toward cameras with ever-higher dynamic range.  I’m not sure this is all that healthy (see caveats below).
      • Now you tell me what you think about all this.  Do you like the HDRish imagery you see on the web?  Do you like some of it?  Do you think it’s overdone or natural?  Is the pendulum going to swing back or is this a trend destined to continue, driven by technological advances in sensor design and software capabilities?

 

The elephant tree of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.  Though it may not look like it, this is definitely a high dynamic range situation.  Copyright MJF Images.

The elephant tree of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Though it may not look like it, this is definitely a high dynamic range situation. Copyright MJF Images.

The Redwoods, California:  This is a fairly high dynamic range situation not because of the sun but because you need to retain detail in the bright spot in the ferns.  Copyright MJF Images.  Please click on image.

This redwood forest shot is a fairly high dynamic range situation not because of the sun but because you need to retain detail in deep shadows and in the bright ferns. Copyright MJF Images. Please click on image.

Caveats

There are many factors other than dynamic range that affect the ultimate range of brightness you can shoot in.  These combine with dynamic range to influence the variety of images you can capture.  If you know me at all, you know how important I think variety is in a portfolio.  But again, it’s not all about dynamic range:

      • The ability of post-processing software like Lightroom to compress or expand contrast just keeps getting better.  If you shoot in RAW (you are, aren’t you?) then you have much more control over dynamic range in post-processing than if you shoot in Jpeg.

As I explained in the 1st post in this series, your camera has a certain dynamic range capability.  If you avoid compressing that range (by turning the image into a Jpeg before it even leaves the camera) you then have some powerful software at your disposal, software that can go a long way toward bringing out shadow and highlight detail.

Navajo Arch, Utah:  I waited until the sunlight coming through the arch was filtered by clouds, so that the contrast wasn't too great.

Navajo Arch, Utah: I waited until the sunlight coming through the arch was filtered by clouds, so that the contrast wasn’t too great. Copyright MJF Images.

      • Tonal range is at least as important as dynamic range, maybe more so.  Tonal range is the number of different tones your camera uses to get through the dynamic range (which again is the total difference between brightest and darkest and still retaining some detail).

In other words, good tonal range makes for smooth transitions between dark and bright, while narrow tonal range can cause choppy, banded or otherwise unnatural looking transitions.  This is yet another criticism film shooters level at digital.

Lake Powell area, Arizona.  Copyright MJF Images.  Please click on image if interested.

Lake Powell area, Arizona. Copyright MJF Images. Please click on image if interested.

      • High dynamic range capabilities may make you a lazier photographer.  A narrower range can force you to adapt and limit yourself to shooting in suitable light.  Recall I’ve already pointed out that high dynamic range gives you more options during post-processing.  Sounds good right?  We want to be able to take pictures in all sorts of conditions and produce beautiful images.  That’s why camera makers are busy expanding dynamic range in their new models.

But is this a good thing?  Isn’t it better to learn how to look for better light, a better angle to avoid that over-bright spot, etc.  It’s like all learning in life.  Doesn’t it help to work around limitations, to meet and beat challenges?  It’s probably the better path toward becoming a good photographer, better than having everything under the sun available to you.  I’m not fully on board with this critique of high dynamic range (I like shooting in high contrast situations), but I can see the point.

This image on the Oklahoma prairie I captured with my point and shoot so there was no way to avoid letting the foreground go dark.

This image on the Oklahoma prairie I captured with my point and shoot so there was no way to avoid letting the foreground go dark.

      • The quality of light, like it does with most everything in photography, trumps dynamic range.  And good light tends to be soft, to have a narrow range (see above point).  The idea is that you don’t need very high dynamic range capability since good light tends to be low in contrast.

There are exceptions to this of course.  And it’s much more important in landscape than other types of photography.  But looked at in an admittedly skeptical way, high dynamic range just allows you to capture all of that ugly high-contrast light instead of just part of it.

Olympic Mountains Sunrise:  Anytime you're shooting into the sun (and aren't doing silhouettes) dynamic range is pretty important.  Copyright MJF Images.

Olympic Mountains Sunrise: Anytime you’re shooting into the sun (and aren’t doing silhouettes) dynamic range is pretty important. Copyright MJF Images.

      • Dynamic Range may not be as important for you as it is for other photographers.  As implied in the point above, the type of photography you’re doing and the the way your images will be displayed/used have a lot to do with how much dynamic range you need in a camera.

In fact, many pros want camera makers to make adjustable dynamic range a feature of new models.  You would adjust it like you do shutter speed, aperture and ISO.  And there are hints this is coming down the pike.  Sony’s new compact mirrorless camera, the A7s, supposedly has a sensor which adjusts its dynamic range depending on light conditions.  Not the same as user-controlled but going in that direction.

I hope you enjoyed this series.  Feel free to reblog, and make sure to comment below if you have anything to add, or even if you have questions.  I’m glad to respond to anything.  Click on one of the images to go to my main gallery page.  Contact me if you are interested in any of the images as a download or print.  Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

An image at Death Valley that will appear in a magazine soon!  Copyright MJF Images.

An image at Death Valley that will appear in a magazine soon! Copyright MJF Images.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Dynamic Range III – The Histogram   7 comments

Elowah Creek, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

Elowah Creek, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

This is the third of four parts on Dynamic Range.  Check out the first two parts.  Part I is an introductory look, including what dynamic range actually is.  Part II goes into how your eyes and your camera see things differently.  Today we’ll look at a key tool you should be using and how it help you both understand and control dynamic range.

Beacon Rock, Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.

Beacon Rock is a landmark on theWashington side of the Columbia River Gorge.

The Histogram & LiveView

With most any digital camera, when you capture an image the camera builds one or more histograms, which are attached to the image file.  Histograms are simply graphs with horizontal and vertical axes.  Most used (and useful) is the histogram that depicts tones (See Figure 1 below).  These show tone on the horizontal axis and the amount of pixels for that tone on the vertical axis.  On the far left is pure black (0, the black point); on the far right is pure white (255, the white point).

histogram_labeled

Fig. 1: Please click this image (which is not mine) to go to the source, a nice introductory blog post on histograms.

With most DSLRs, you can capture the image in LiveView.  In other words, you can use it like a camera phone, viewing the scene on the LCD instead of through the viewfinder.  This allows you to see a representation of what your final image will look like.  Unlike most camera phones, it also allows you to see a very accurate, live-action histogram of the scene before you.  This way you can see what the tonal distribution actually is before you fire the shutter.  For example a live histogram will show exactly how much of the scene is overexposed or underexposed (see Figure 2 below).  When I use LiveView I’m usually on a tripod.  I’ll frame up my composition by looking through the viewfinder.  Then I turn on LiveView to see how things look on the histogram.

Figure 2. The histogram on the left is of an image with a small area of underexposure.  The one on the right has a small area of overexposure.  Click on image to go to the source website.

Fig. 2. The histogram on the left is of an image with a small area of underexposure. The one on the right has a small area of overexposure. Click on image to go to the source website.

 

Dynamic Range & Your Histogram

When you capture an image with a lot of inherent contrast (a sun-dappled forest or the side of a sunlit barn with the door open), your histogram will show a curve that spans across the entire width of the graph.  And it will probably climb up the sides (see Figure 3 below).  For scenes with low overall contrast, the histogram of a properly exposed image will sit somewhere near the center of the graph with the curve dropping down to the bottom before it reaches the far left or right (see Figure 4).

 

Figure 2. The image would have a small amount of pure black (far left).  A little more of it is overexposed highlights (far right).  Click image to go to the source website for this.

Fig. 3. This high-contrast image would have a small amount of pure black (far left) plus an area of overexposed highlights (far right). Click image to go to the source website for this.

A casual shot in a city park at sunset.  This image has both clipped shadows and blown out highlights (the sun, which is okay!).  Thus its histogram is similar to Figure 3.

A casual shot in a city park at sunset. This image has both clipped shadows and blown out highlights (the sun, which is okay!). Thus its histogram is similar to Figure 3.

Figure 3. Three low-contrast histograms. Dark on left, bright on right.  Click image to go to the source website this.

Figure 4. Three low-contrast histograms. Dark on left, bright on right. Click image to go to the source website this.

This black and white image of a stormy Columbia River Gorge is mostly shadow and mid-tones, with modest contrast.

This black and white image of a stormy Columbia River Gorge is mostly shadow and mid-tones, with modest contrast.  Its histogram would be similar to the one on the left in Figure 4.

 

These two situations, low contrast and high contrast, are of course extremes in a continuum.  And one situation is no better than another.  But when faced with a scene that has a lot of overall contrast, a camera with good dynamic range will expose so that the histogram (again, of a properly exposed picture) comes close to but does not climb up either the left or right edges (see Figure 5 below).

Fig. 5. Histogram of a high-contrast scene.  Click image to go to the source website.

Fig. 5. Histogram of a high-contrast but properly exposed scene. Click image to go to the source website.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado.  This image has fairly high contrast, and so a histogram very similar to Figure 2.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado. This image has fairly high contrast, and so a histogram very similar to Figure 5.

When the curve of your histogram climbs up the edges, that means you are not properly exposing parts of the image.  You’re losing data and will wind up with either blocked (too dark) or blown-out (too bright) areas (see Figure 2 above).  The higher up the sides the histogram goes, the bigger are those areas, and the more likely they are to negatively impact the final image.  Of course if you want to do this then it’s probably fine.  And if something like the sun is overexposed, then it is more than fine, it’s natural.

A camera with good dynamic range helps with this problem of shadow or highlight clipping.  It allows you greater latitude to bring out details in very bright or very dark parts of your images.  It allows you to capture images with a great variety of overall contrast levels.

Pink bleeding hearts bloom in the forests of the Pacific Northwest during spring.

Pink bleeding hearts bloom in the forests of the Pacific Northwest during spring.

A Caveat

I would like to throw in a big caveat to this benefit.  Don’t think you always need to even out tones HDR-style.  How much brightening of shadows and darkening of highlights you do on the computer is, after all, up to you.  You can even go the opposite direction by letting things go to pure black.  Or you can purposefully allow bright areas to be blown out.

It’s probably best to not think so much about how much contrast you can squeeze from the scene without blowing out highlights or clipping shadows.  Instead, think about the mood of the scene, the emotions you wish to elicit, the story you want to tell.  Let that be your guide, not the ability of your camera to manipulate a wide range of tones.  It’s yet another case of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”.  Okay, end of rant, and end of post!  See you next Friday, when I’ll wrap up dynamic range.

This shot of Oregon's Mount Hood was framed so as to show some of the surrounding forest.

This shot of Oregon’s Mount Hood was framed so as to show some of the surrounding forest.

Dynamic Range II: The Eye vs. The Camera   13 comments

Abandoned oilfield in western Oklahoma now blooming with flowers and a magnet for birds and coyotes.

Abandoned oilfield in western Oklahoma now blooming with flowers and a magnet for birds and coyotes.

Last week I posted an introductory article on dynamic range.  I want to start diving down into the subject a little more this week, starting with the best visual capture device I know:  the human eye.  The images here are both from my point and shoot here on the plains where I’m working, and also some from the archive.

Dynamic range, though technically expressed as a ratio, is more simply expressed in terms of stops, as in stops of light.  If you hold shutter speed (and ISO) constant and open your aperture from f/11 to f/8 you have brightened the image by 1 stop.  You’ve allowed twice the amount of light to enter the camera and be detected by your sensor or film.  For every one stop you either double or halve the amount of light.

Small waterfall along Oregon's Sandy River.

Small waterfall along Oregon’s Sandy River.

Our Amazing Eyes

So let’s start with your eyes.  Although the internet has a wide variety of answers to the question, most agree your eyes have a dynamic range of about 20 stops from darkest to brightest.  That means you can detect at least some detail in the darkest and brightest parts of that enormous range at the same time.  We don’t usually need to deploy all this range at once of course.  Instead we shift and adapt (very quickly!), using different parts of our dynamic range under varying conditions.  If you allow for pupil dilation our range increases to 24 stops!

We do have our visual limitations.  Our eyes start to fail us in very bright or very dark lighting conditions.  We nevertheless can detect enough detail for recognition of threats when either looking into deep shadows at dusk or the rising sun at dawn.  Remember each stop of light is accompanied by a doubling or halving of the amount of light.  So despite the fact that some other animals put us to shame in other visual abilities, it’s quite the impressive dynamic range we’ve got.

Given the above, you probably are not surprised that cameras, even the best, cannot match the human eye’s abilities in the dynamic range department.  At least when it comes to “normal” daylight exposures.  At night you can leave the camera aperture open for extended periods and collect the scattered light photons that, while our eyes may detect them, simply don’t end up translating into good clear images in our brains.  Our cones (color receptors) are especially lazy at night.  It’s the reason we are so amazed when objects in the night sky are rendered in stupendous color.

So unless the future sees us evolve into nocturnal creatures, our eye-brain visual system will remain limited at night.  Of course our brains have used our hands to invent devices to extend our vision into the nighttime realm.  So enjoy those images of space you see, both the deep-sky telescope images and the star-scapes that have become such popular fare on the web.

Violent storms pass (that included funnel clouds) pass away from Oklahoma farmland.

Violent storms (that included funnel clouds) pass away from Oklahoma farmland at sunset.

Wahclella Falls, Columbia Gorge, Oregon.  This is a very low-contrast image requiring virtually no dynamic range.

Wahclella Falls, Columbia Gorge, Oregon. This is a very low-contrast image requiring virtually no dynamic range.

Dynamic Range of Cameras

So let’s get to the question that sparked my interest in this subject in the first place: what can cameras see, and does it matter?  If you look into this on the internet, you’ll come across all sorts of over-complicated camera test results, graphs and data until it’s coming out your ears!  It may come as a surprise that film (at least negative film) can generally capture more dynamic range than digital sensors can.  This is debated (of course) on the internet, but it’s pretty much true.

The reason I say “generally” and “pretty much” is that firstly, comparing film and digital in terms of dynamic range is a little like comparing apples and oranges.  Film handles tonal variation differently (see Caveats below), and is nonlinear.  Digital sensors are linear.  In fact, in this way film is closer in behavior to your eyes than digital sensors are.  Secondly, film is noticeably better at handling highlight dynamic range (bright end of the scale), whereas digital has advantages on the shadow (dark) side of things.  Your eyes can also see more detail in shadow than in highlights.  Digital cameras mimic your eyes in this way, but as any film enthusiast will tell you, they don’t do quite so well with highlights (they would describe it less kindly).

It is very hot where I am right now, so here's a shot of Oregon's Faery Falls in winter freeze.

It is very hot where I am right now, so here’s a shot of Oregon’s Faery Falls in winter freeze.

All that said, digital camera makers have been working hard on increasing dynamic range, while film is not receiving that much attention.  So you can expect all this to be a moot point in the near future.  Currently, the best digital cameras for dynamic range, the Nikon D800 and other high end DSLRs, and (especially) the new digital video cameras, can supposedly record dynamic ranges of up to 14 stops.

But that’s at low ISOs.  Think about those starscapes I mentioned above, those images of an improbably colorful and bright Milky Way you see soaring over everything from mountains to farm tractors to the Eiffel Tower!  That is not really a demonstration of the camera’s dynamic range but its low-light capabilities.  When the photographer cranks up the ISO to create those images, she is cranking down on the camera’s dynamic range.

That’s enough for now.  This little miniseries on Dynamic Range will continue next week.  Thanks for reading!

The Lower Columbia River flows peacefully seaward at dusk.  Oregon's Mount Hood in the distance.

The Lower Columbia River flows peacefully seaward at dusk. Oregon’s Mount Hood in the distance.

Weekly Foto Talk: Dynamic Range and Realistic Expectations   13 comments

Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

View from my campsite at Glacier Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

I’m a photographer who very much prefers a single capture.  I like to capture a single moment in time.  That’s becoming a somewhat old-fashioned attitude these days, as more and more people do several captures and then blend them into one image using either Photoshop or an HDR plugin.  The reason this technique has become so popular is the same reason that camera manufacturers have been making cameras with the ability to capture high dynamic range.

Images with high overall contrast, those that have perfectly black areas and/or some very bright areas, aren’t so “liked” on the internet as those that have less overall contrast.  It’s an effect of the HDR trend.  Over-the-top HDR images are not popular, but images with a more natural yet still strong HDR effect certainly are!

Shooting into the sun is probably not recommended with a limited camera, but I loved how the sun was hitting this tall grass at Garden of the Gods, Colorado.

Shooting into the sun is probably not recommended with a limited camera, but I’m a sucker for tall grass, especially with the sun hitting it: Garden of the Gods, Colorado.

There is a big distinction to be made between overall contrast and local contrast.  Overall image contrast, though you can certainly adjust it later on the computer, is largely dictated by the scene before you.  Local contrast can be too; it’s definitely affected by the quality of light for example.  But you can “amp-up” local contrast on the computer later, in order to help the image “pop”.  You do this by manipulating the tone curve, concentrating on medium tones.

While images with completely evened-out tones (low local contrast) are not very pleasing and thus unpopular, those with modest overall contrast but high local contrast are wildly popular.  This is especially true in the landscape/nature arena.

Garden of The Gods, Colorado.

Garden of The Gods, Colorado.

Close-up shots like this are a little easier to swing with the little point and shoot.

Close-up shots like this are a little easier to swing with the little point and shoot.

DYNAMIC RANGE

Dynamic range is a fancy-sounding term for a relatively simple concept.  Used originally for audio/hearing, it’s been used in photography since the beginning.  Like everything I write here I’ll try to simplify a topic that if you research it on the web will quickly seem way too complicated to bother with.  Dynamic range is basically the range that your imaging device can capture between the darkest and brightest tones in a scene.  Your eyes are an imaging device of course, and at least in dawn to dusk conditions (for which they evolved) are far superior to the imaging device that you use to share and express your vision of the world – your camera.

You’ve probably noticed this:  Your amazing eyes can detect, at the same time, detail in the darkest and brightest parts of a scene with a high brightness range.  One example is a forest on a sunny day; another is a sunlit barn with a door open to the dim interior.  Shoot a picture of that dappled sunlit forest or barn and you’ll notice your camera has a lot of trouble capturing detail in both the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.  Even the best DSLRs for dynamic range can only capture details in a relatively small portion of the brightness range that your eyes can.

I hiked through Garden of the Gods in Colorado for the first time since I was a kid.

I hiked through Garden of the Gods in Colorado for the first time since I was a kid.  14,114-foot Pikes Peak is in the background.

While you don’t necessarily want high dynamic range in every image you shoot of course, you definitely want to have the option open to you.  If your camera captures a limited dynamic range, it can easily blow out (overexpose with no detail) or block out (underexpose with no detail) parts of the image.  This means you can’t recover that detail; it just isn’t there in the image file.  And so you have the unsatisfactory choice of underexposing or overexposing your image, choosing to show detail in either the darker or brighter parts of the scene.  Or again, you can shoot several exposures with different settings to capture detail in both dark and bright parts of the scene, then merge the images into one on the computer.

Since I generally avoid blending multiple exposures, I’m at a frustrating point.  I am shooting with my little point and shoot camera right now, having lost my Canon 5D Mark III in the waterfall incident.  The little Canon S95 has a small sensor that, while it tries very hard to do the job (it shoots in RAW), cannot capture quite enough dynamic range.

A beautiful pale flower I don't know - like a white lupine - encountered in a meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A beautiful pale flower I don’t know – like a white lupine – encountered in a meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I have photographed with a full-frame DSLR for years now, so I’m used to a different level of expectation.  I’ve been playing on days off in the Colorado Rockies this past week.  And I’ve been shooting the same sorts of scenes and subjects that I was before with my DSLR.  But now I’m blowing out skies, underexposing, and generally messing up.  Worse, I can’t even use graduated neutral density filters to tame the dynamic range; the little lens is just too small.

Since I don’t feel that, with these images from the point and shoot, it’s worth the time spent hand-blending multiple exposures in Photoshop, I’ve been forced mostly to underexpose.  If I instead overexpose I have no way to recover detail in blown-out areas.  The little sensor also shows noise quite easily.  So when I brighten those dark areas later on the computer, I end up with noise, even though I’m shooting at very low ISO.

This has all led to some frustration.  I have been forced to adjust and simply avoid shooting scenes with high contrast.  And I love high-contrast images!  There are many other limitations (the way it handles color for example), but I’ll have to stop here, for fear you all will accuse me of whining.  I will go into more on dynamic range and how to handle it in succeeding posts.  Thanks for reading!

A low-contrast view of Pikes Peak, Colorado.  Add the fact I didn't need great depth of field here, and it's an image my point and shoot can handle.

Low contrast sunset view of Pikes Peak, Colorado. Add the fact I didn’t need great depth of field here, and it’s an image my point and shoot can handle.

 

 

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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