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How to handle high-contrast scenes at exposure time?

Russ Arcuri , Oct 03, 2000; 12:09 a.m.

This is a problem situation I have found myself in more than a few times. There is some critical component of a scene that must be exposed correctly (in this case, the backlit clouds), but doing so will underexpose other parts of the scene (almost everything in the right, left, and bottom). Graduated ND filters can help when the dividing line between the disparate parts of the scene is fairly straight, but mother nature doesn't cooperate too often for some reason.

My question is: Does anyone have any advice/tips/techniques which might help render scenes like this better? The right/left/bottom parts don't have to be perfect -- recognizable would be nice, though. FWIW, the blob on the right is the same tree depicted in this shot. The clouds actually looked very much like they're depicted here, so any more exposure and they'd look wrong (I know, I have the bracketed shots to prove it.)

There's a bigger scan of the backlit clouds image here if it helps. Tech data: Fuji Sensia II slide film, Canonet QL-17 rangefinder camera. I don't remember the exposure data -- I metered off the clouds with a handheld meter and adjusted from there. Thanks in advance.

Backlit Clouds


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John D. , Oct 03, 2000; 01:27 a.m.

Every film has a given range of exposure values. If a scene exceeds this range, something will either be blown out or something underexposed. The only way to correct this in the field is with a graduated ND filter. As you say, mother nature does not always cooperate with you. There are filters with a ND "spot" in the center. This might help you for your picture, but you would have to weigh the burden of carrying this filter around with you for the 1% of shots that need it.

It looks to me like this picture is just underexposed. Shots with the sun in them always play havoc on light meters and in your case with the sun towards the center, it was probably worse. The way I solve this is to either meter off the clouds or water immediately surrounding the sun or to hold my thumb up and cover the sun. In general, if the sun is a little too bright, it will not be noticed as much as the rest of the photo being dark. Both of these methods allow for a more accurate averaging of the scene. Also, in these situations, I always bracket, sometimes two in either direction. Even though it wastes film, you end up with one keeper. To me, that is a fair trade.

Hope this helps, Jacob

Scott Eaton , Oct 03, 2000; 02:07 a.m.

Living in West Michigan I see my fair share of spectacular sunsets, and having worked in the photo biz I've had to process, print and scan the darn things from all types of film. Most users of horizontal ND grad filters don't realize how cheezy their images actually look, but to each their own. The center spot variety is often mandatory with slides, yet rarely used, even though it should be.

I say "darn", because it seems that sunsets are never exposed properly be it slide or print film from customers I've worked with in the past. Slide shooters tend to always over-expose sunsets while neg shooters under-expose them. This is just the opposite scenario you want when handling each type of film. The same physics dictate the phone ringing while you are in the bathtub, etc. Just one of those things I've never quite figured out.

I disagree with Jacob regarding Russ's exposure. Personally I think it's dead on judging by the fact the horizon near the sun is just starting to wash out while the detail Russ is going for seems to be hitting right about 18 percent. Half a stop more exposure and you'd get clear blob of film where the sun is just starting to peak through the clouds.

My rule with sunsets is to meter about 22 degress right or left of the setting sun with an averaging meter TTL. This tends to nail most of my exposures on slide and print film. With slides bracketing such extreme contrast ranges is almost a necessity while print films are of course more forgiving. Slides will tend to lose detail near the sun without a ND filter, yet retain subtle color detail like the transitions in the backlit areas on the clouds Russ is talking about. Neg films will handle the over dynamics of this type of scene better, but you'll tend to lose the contrast between subtle color areas.

The spot grad filter seems to me like a life saver under this kind of situation rather than try to fit 3 gallons of water in a one gallon of bucket.

Good choice of film to. Nice to see a composition emphasize some subtle aspects of nature and not get hysterical with Velvia.

Scan from 4x5 Reala print. Good dynamics, but colors lose some "zang".

Umit D , Oct 03, 2000; 02:24 a.m.

I guess this problem can be completely eliminated with digital cameras. Sensitivity of individual pixels can be adjusted to map contrast of the scene to a given contrast range during exposure. I don't know whether any digital camera does this, may be digital shooting guys can tell.

alfred matzer , Oct 03, 2000; 03:25 a.m.

One of my major complaints about the centre-biased meter inside my 35mm camera is that it does not really help me make intelligent decisions regarding what I am photographing, especially in cases like this (unless I am metering an evenly lit object of even tone that almost fills the frame). That's why I bought a handheld spot meter. <p>A year ago I flirted with the idea of replacing my manual focus and very primitive 35mm camera with something a little more high tech...I investigated most of them. I borrowed a low cost Minolta AF camera for a weekend and was impressed with it's suprisingly sophistigated metering options; it could switch to spot at the push of a button so you could take comparative readings (compare a bright cloud to a shadow). It also had a metring mode that measured points all over the picture and extracted an exposure from that. I was taking photographs in a situation similar to yours and noticed that the auto mode usually made what I thought were pretty good decisions. Even so, I didn't buy a new camera but that was due more to my own cheapness and lack of funds...<p> I think the best solution probably involves spot metering all over the place, comparing the readings and attempting to average an exposure from that (which is more or less what the Minolta does I guess). Grad filters could help I guess; too often, though, they seem to be the wrong shape unless you are shooting a scene with a straight horizon line so I haven't bothered with them. I would meter as above, bracket the shot and then try to dodge/burn appropriately. I've recently tried to digitally composite 3 shots into one(1 shot for the highlights, 1 shot for the shadows, one for everything inbetween) and it didn't really work that well (for one thing, objects seem to be rendered a slightly different size on film when you go from one f-stop to another).<p> Considered using a little fill flash? (a joke).

Michael Liczbanski , Oct 03, 2000; 09:00 a.m.

Since you cannot beat the laws of physics and chemistry as applied to photographic emulsions, you may want to reevaluate your framing (composition.) In most cases it means to crop much tighter, leaving all these underexposed “black” areas off your picture. Wide “expansive” framing is OK when the entire frame is interesting, but is seldom attractive for very late (or faint) sunsets, when only a small patch of the “expanse of sky” contains interesting shapes or colors. In practical terms it means using a longer lens.

Russ Arcuri , Oct 03, 2000; 09:48 a.m.

I appreciate the feedback thus far. A couple of points. Re: Exposure. The main thing I wanted to capture here was the low-lying, foreground clouds which were being lit from behind. The appearance and color was pretty surreal. In the original slide (and on my monitor) they are rendered exactly as I remember them. So the exposure was correct (for the goal I had in mind) but unfortunately this left everything else underexposed. Print film could have helped, obviously. But unfortunately I was working with what I had in the camera at the moment.

Re: bracketing -- I did. There were no keepers. The shots showing a bit of detail on the right, left, & bottom rendered the 'featured' clouds totally wrong. I picked this frame because those clouds were correct in it.

Re: framing (use a longer lens). I couldn't in this particular situation. I had a Canonet with a fixed 40mm lens with me. Besides, the foreground clouds fill most of the width of the frame; using a longer lens wouldn't have allowed me to capture them completely within the frame. I understand the point, though -- the wider the lens, the more likely it will be that an excessively wide contrast range will exist within the frame.

Re: spot grad filter. Worth trying, I guess. I could have placed the spot over the sun and let everything else fall where it may. I suspect the gradient would have fallen across the 'featured' clouds, but I'm not sure. And using a grad ND filter of any type with a rangefinder is an excersize in futility. That'll teach me to leave my SLR at home, I guess.

s b , Oct 03, 2000; 10:31 a.m.

Are you printing these or are they machine made prints? Perhaps a custom print (with appropriate dodging) could coax a little more detail from shadow areas --- I haven't done much color printing but consider myself a pretty good bw printer and I've had some luck printing high contrast light situations with a little dodging and burning. One of the problems with machine prints I have noted is that in a bracket of 3 frames of 1 stop each, all three may look very similar -- the machine usually seems to measure each frame and adjust exposure/color balance up/down to attain some preset standard. Look at your negs to determine if there is more detail in the shadow there worth going after.

s b , Oct 03, 2000; 10:35 a.m.

sorry - I just reread your original post and realized you were using slide film, not print film as I has assumed. Please disregard my answer (or, next time, bring two cameras, one with slide film and one with color neg film --- situations like this were mad for neg film!).

Evan Zamir , Oct 03, 2000; 11:03 a.m.

Aside from using graduated ND filters, there's not much you can do. That is why photographers go to such great lengths to find interesting graphic shapes in these types of shots, because if they are underexposed the only thing that remains is the design. I have included an example of a sunset shot taken in a downtown setting. I bracketed up a down at least two stops, and the shots where the buildings are exposed correctly have the sunset way overexposed, and it just isn't as interesting. Slide film only has a limited latitude range that you're working with. You can't have your cake and...

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