The Learning Photographer Series: High Dynamic Range

This is the first entry of what I hope will become a regular series that chronicle my learning curve in the incredible realm of digital photography. At this juncture I do not in any manner consider myself a master photographer; only a perpetually learning one. As that happens I feel compelled to pass on whatever I manage to glean from my own experience, and from what others have shown me.

For this first go around I thought I’d discuss a matter I often see in digital photography, including my own struggles with it…when one is attempting to shoot a photo in a high contrast situation, where the highlights are very bright and the shadows are deep. On another photography enthusiast forum I came across a photo shot by someone with a brand new D90. I know this camera is a fine body, one I would very much not mind owning someday. The poster was asking for constructive criticism regarding a shot he/she made with the Nikon. A response to one of the photos was rather terse:

“Third pic = uninteresting. Scene contrast is too high. Blown highlights, lost shadow detail”

And another poster said:

“3rd harsh hard light has blown out high lights should go back and shoot at a better time of day looks like you shoot when the sun was high
hope that helps”

Apparently those two comments must have rattled the original poster (OP) so much that he or she removed the photo, as it no longer appears in the thread. As a learning photographer, while the comments as quoted above were not inaccurate, and could have been phrased more constructively, what I can’t agree with is found in the second quote, re: “go back and shoot at a better time of day looks like you shoot when the sun was high”.

While I’ve always heard from anyone associated with photography that midday is the worst time of day to shoot, I can’t help but ask “what if that’s the only opportunity, EVER, to make this shot?” Am I just going to sulk off, camera dejectedly stuffed in its bag, because I’m too lame of a photographer to learn how to adapt my camera to better accept the high range of light I’m faced with?

While the following picture is not the most interesting in the world, nor was it the only opportunity I would ever have to make the shot, it represents my learning photographer attempts to deal with high contrast lighting situations. It is a shot of a deck and shed I added to my house over the past year. In my recent photography forays I’ve been faced with several instances where the only chance I had to make the shot was in high contrast light, such as in the photo below. My initial attempts were not satisfactory, with results very similar to the terse critiques above. This deck and shed shot was a learning attempt to change that:

It’s not a perfect shot, as the highlights on the wisteria leaves by the deck’s left edge are a bit hotter than I prefer, but it encouraged me to keep going. Here’s another shot showing the side of my house, which presented another high contrast situation:

In this shot, the highlights of the neighboring driveway, street, and sky could easily have been blown out. In both shots, a combination of a polarizing lens, UV filter, and exposure compensation helped the camera deal with the lighting. It caused me to make a mental note, or maxim: When the dynamic range is too high for the camera, adapt the camera to deal with the dynamic range."

Another shot, this time of a neighbor’s house, a 1960’s era ranch style basking in the searing Texas heat:

It would be so easy to completely blow the highlights in a shot like this. Or underexpose way too far and the shadows become nothing more than black blobs. In all three pictures shown, post processing mainly amounted to color, shadow, highlight, and bright/contrast adjustments. These were all shot in RAW, which in my opinion works better for me than shooting jpeg, as there’s more data to work with in post processing (I do convert each photo to jpegs after post processing is complete so they can be shared and/or printed). Slight negative exposure was used, which I adjusted by taking a shot, looking at the LED screen on the camera, noting any blinking highlights (this is a great feature to enable if your camera supports it), and adding more negative compensation, if needed.

EDIT TO ADD: One thing I noticed in the previous three shots is that all of them were shot facing north, away from the glare of our hot Texas summer sun. To show that shooting toward the sun can also be done without losing control of shadows and highlights, here’s another shot, this time from my childhood neighborhood:

I goofed a bit with this shot in that I forgot to reset the ISO in the camera back to 100 after doing some indoor no-flash photography (a journal entry for another day, perhaps). It was at 800, but I still got this one off without blowing highlights or creating shadows looking like ink blots. And it was shot facing almost due south, which in my neck of the world is where the harshest sunlight comes from, year round.

So, my answer to the poster on the other forum would be to not get discouraged; chin up, adapt the camera to the lighting, and keep shooting until you get those one or two shots that just hit you in the gut with “I got it!”

As a friend of mine likes to say, “You’re not finished learning until you’re dead.” I hope you’ve enjoyed this first installment of The Learning Photographer Series, in which I hope to contribute many more as I am able. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

- Art Cooler

Journal Comments

  • Terence Russell