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Control Extreme Contrast

Cameras today do such a good job with exposure that we start expecting them to do great with every scene. But sooner or later, you’ll run into a scene that causes you and the camera problems. You don’t get an exposure that gives the results you need. That’s disappointing.


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.


HDR can help you retain details in the highlights and shadows. Here, three exposures—one exposed for shadow detail, one for midrange and one for highlight detail—are combined to create the final image.

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.

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