Travel Photography: Tips and Tricks for High Contrast Scenes


Tips and tricks for high contrast scenes by Dietmar Temps

It’s summer, time for travelling and also peak season for nature and travel photography. Digital cameras are still getting better and better and easier to use. However, sometimes it is quite disappointing that a picture such as a historic city alley either is partly underexposed with huge dark shadow areas, or the roofs and the sky are extremely overexposed. Although it is possible to review the image immediately in the display on the camera, the problem can often only be addressed at home in the post-processing workflow, and then it might be too late to fix the image in order to get a beautiful photograph.

Experienced photographers can handle dynamic ranges of 10 to 11 EV

Many travel and landscape photography pictures have very high contrast. “Dynamic range” is the term for the range of light intensity from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights and it is measured in “exposure values” (EV), also commonly called “stops”. Our eyes are able to adapt to see high contrast scenes but the dynamic range of the sensor of a digital camera is limited. Unfortunately the dynamic range of monitors, photographic paper or print is even more limited. A dynamic range of an image of about 8 to 9 EV is usually no problem. Experienced photographers can handle dynamic ranges of 10 to 11 EV quite well with exact exposure settings and with the help of calibrated monitors. But what about high contrast scenes with a dynamic range of 14 EV and higher? In particular landscape photography offers a wide range of high contrast scenes: idyllic sunsets by the seaside, backlit photography or scenes in high mountain regions.

An important rule in photography is to avoid high contrast in the first place. Many professional landscape photographers shoot only early in the morning or between late afternoon and evening because the light is much softer. Long shadows can be avoided when the sun is at the back of the photographer. Foreground subjects in backlit photography should be placed in front of a dark background because the high contrast can only be recognized as a small light fringe around the foreground subject. Long shadows might be wonderful for creative photography, but the final picture should offer enough details in dark shadow areas as well. The dynamic range of a scene can be simply reviewed with the help of the brightness histogram on the rear screen of the camera or manually calculated with contrast measurement. If the dynamic range of a scene or subject exceeds 10 or 11 EV the photographer should probably try out one of the following approaches.

Travel Photography: Tips and Tricks for High Contrast Scenes
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