One of the challenges we all face is that the camera sees the world differently than we do. We see a subject just fine, regardless of the conditions. The camera does not. The camera sees the light and shadow to such a degree that it will overemphasize it so that the subject can even disappear.
This is most common when dealing with a very contrasty scene, where the brightest parts of the scene are very bright and the shadows are conversely quite dark. Since our eyes are so adaptable, we see detail in the bright areas and in the dark shadows at the same time. There’s no camera that can match our capabilities. The camera is limited in its response to that scene, and only can deal with what its technology allows.
When you’re confronted with such a situation, it helps to recognize that the camera can’t expose that scene to match what you see with your eyes. You can see such problems when you look at the image played back on your LCD and it shows up with contrasty light rather than a nice-looking subject.
So, now that you recognize a problematic scene with bright areas and dark shadows, what do you do? What’s the correct exposure, and how do you arrive at that? There are four important working options, plus one idea that doesn’t work. First, the non-working of the five.
1. A compromise exposure doesn’t work.
I know that many photographers consider choosing some sort of exposure halfway between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene. That actually may have worked with negative film (especially black-and-white), but it doesn’t work for digital. What happens is that neither the bright areas nor the dark areas have good exposure. When bright areas are overexposed (as they would be in this scenario), they lose color and texture. When dark areas are underexposed (as they also would be), they lose color and texture, too, plus they will display more noise.
2. Expose for the highlights.
This technique was a staple for slide shooters in film days. Expose so that the brightest areas look their best, then forget the dark shadows. This requires that you look for interesting bright areas and that you can afford the loss of the detail in the dark areas. It can be a dramatic way of exposing for a scene, but you have to be sure the bright areas are on good parts of the subject.
3. Expose for the shadows.
Here, you work to get an exposure that makes the shadows or dark areas have good color and tone, even though the bright areas have no detail. You need to be sure the dark areas include important parts of your subject or scene, and that nothing critical is in the overexposed bright areas. Also, be careful of distracting bright areas. Anytime something bright shows up near a corner or edge of your composition, it will be a distraction. A viewer’s eye is always attracted to bright areas, and if such areas aren’t supporting the subject in some way (such as a background behind it) or are otherwise noncompetitive, your picture will be less clear and less effective.
4. Try HDR.
High-dynamic-range (HDR) photography allows you to go beyond the limitations of the camera to capture something closer to the reality that we see with our eyes. Many photographers have only seen the "creative" application of HDR, which isn’t realistic, but that’s just a small part of the possibilities of HDR. HDR allows you to take multiple photos of the same scene, changing exposures so the camera can capture a wider range of detail than a single exposure would allow. Then you put the images into a software program (I like using Nik Software HDR Efex Pro for this) that combines the images into a final shot that holds detail and color from shadow to highlight.
5. Just say no!
Sometimes, it simply isn’t possible to get a good photograph of a subject or a scene in a particular light. Anything you try will be frustrating. You have to get out of the mind-set that you "have to" take the picture and say no to a bad shot. This will help you to find a way to say yes to a different shot, whether that’s a different angle or a different subject altogether.