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Coping with Extreme Brightness (Without HDR)

Extreme brightness

Good photographers learn to work within the limitations of their equipment and learn to cope with scenes where the brightness range is too great for the camera’s sensor to handle. Here are some ideas for you to explore – and none of them involve HDR techniques.

1. Look at the light

I suspect the reason that most photographers are attracted to HDR photography is because they like the look of the high contrast, super saturated images you often see created with this technique. It’s not really about capturing every detail of a high contrast subject.

Look at the light instead. If you are shooting a landscape or architectural study, and the brightness range of the scene is too much for your camera to handle, you are most likely shooting in the wrong light for the subject. Wait until the sun is lower in the sky and the light is softer. The quality of the light will be better, the brightness range will be less, and the photo will be better.

2. Let shadows go dark

Extreme brightness

You don’t have to see into the shadows. Let them go dark. If the brightness is too bright, expose for the highlights (i.e make sure the camera captures all highlight detail) and let the shadows go where they will. It won’t work all the time – sometimes you just need better light (see tip one). But exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows go dark is a good exercise in observation and creating images. Work with the light to create graphic images, not against it.

You can take this even further in post-processing. Photographers Eduardo Izquierdo and Tom Hoops both deliberately make dark backgrounds in their portraits darker or even black so that the viewer’s attention goes straight to the model, without distractions. Maybe it’s time for a low dynamic range setting on our cameras?

3. Exposure blending

Extreme brightness

Sometimes you will come across a scene like the one above where the brightness range is too much for your camera but the quality of the light is good. The issue here is the difference in brightness between the light coming through the window and the light illuminating the interior of the building. If you expose for the interior, the window will burn out. If you expose for the window, you won’t get much detail in the interior.

So what do you do if you want good detail in both? The answer is to take two separate exposures, as in the examples above, and blend them in Photoshop. Ideally the camera should be on a tripod so that the images match exactly, but I was able to do that with the above photos even though they were hand-held and slightly out of register:

Extreme brightness

4. Exposure blending in the landscape

Landscapes are another area where you may have good quality of light, but the brightness range is still too great for your camera. That’s because the sky is often much brighter than the landscape itself. You may also want to make the sky darker for dramatic effect (as well as to capture more detail).

One solution is to use a neutral density graduated filter; a square or rectangular filter that is clear at the bottom and dark at the top that clips into a holder screwed onto the front of your lens. You move it up or down so that the dark half blocks some of the light from the sky and effectively reduces the brightness range of the scene.

Grads are great, but they’re not perfect. They work well when the horizon is a straight line across the photo, but badly if it has an irregular shape. Good quality grads are expensive, and cheap ones may give your sky a magenta colour cast.

Exposure blending resolves those issues. Just like the previous example, you need to take two photos – one exposed for the sky, and the other for the landscape itself:

Extreme brightness

Then you can blend the two together in Photoshop. The idea is to create a blend that looks natural to the eye, so that means making sure the sky isn’t too dark, or that the landscape isn’t too light, otherwise it won’t look right. You end up with something like this:

Extreme brightness

The Photoshop techniques used for this can get quite involved. Christopher O’Donnell has written a good article about it here.

Mastering Photography

Extreme brightness

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks and he's giving two of them away. Sign up to his monthly newsletter to receive complementary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • http://www.cramerimaging.com Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    I recently shot a picture of an open book where I had to utilize the blending of images technique. The book had some glossy sheen to the pages which caused problems when I tried to expose for the whole scene. I ended up having to expose for different parts of the book so that the text was still legible and I merged the images so that the extreme highlights in the reflective surface of the page were brought down and the whole page could be read. It really does work. Gotta love layer masks and gradient tools in Photoshop.

  • someone

    I like tips 1 and 2, but got a bit confused with 3 and 4 regarding exposure blending. Isn’t exposure blending really just applying the very principle of HDR? For example, in-camera HDR solutions take multiple exposures so-many stops apart and blend them together to get better shadow and highlight detail – which sounds much like exposure-blending.

  • http://www.1107photography.wordpress.com Deb Scally

    Not to take anything away from the subject matter–all the techniques and points are relevant for dealing with an extreme light area–but my feeling about 3&4 is that Photoshop blending is a type of HDR technique. It’s combining images on either end of the range to extract the best exposures for each. The only distinction is that is does not use Photomatix or some other HDR-branded software. And that is FINE! There is nothing inherently bad about high-dynamic range, any more than there is something inherently bad about using Photoshop.

    Again, good points, and helpful technique examples in all of the above. Thanks for the article.

  • http://theartofphotography.tv Ted Forbes

    Good stuff. I really like the high contrast look over the HDR stuff. Not only more natural looking but what a great sense of drama.

  • Carsten Meyer

    There is another well working option. If you shoot in RAW-Mode you can overexposure the image to get details in the darker parts and the take back the exposure of the light areas to normal (possible in RAW-mode) in the post processing mode. Try it out, it works fine and you just need a single picture for thus technique.

  • http://www.MikeSavad.com mike savad

    you are aware that exposure blending is hdr right? it’s not an effect or a filter. so the choices are – wait until the light is good (if you can), let there be shadows or use hdr. which cancels out the title. and the landscape shot, the sky still looks a bit bright.

    —Mike Savad

  • Mikko

    Title: Coping with Extreme Brightness (Without HDR)

    Result: in the end you use HDR (3&4).

  • Mikko

    No need to shame or be arrogant, but you are still using HDR. Moderating comments away doesn’t change that fact. :)

  • Mario

    I easily get away with under/overexposed parts by duplicating the image with a layer and then using the Multiply or Screen mode along with the Opacity options. Easy and quick!

  • Edmund

    You are inpsiratioinal, Andrew. Get it right first time is the order of the day!

  • dan nourse

    I use blending of multiple exposures and HDR software, and i think its it great for getting the look you want, but try not to let having over and under exposure in your image fool you into thinking its always a bad thing. Have a good look at the three images of the window and the statue, Personally i find that the two original images had a lot more effect than the merged result. The overexposure of the window in the left image tends to push the eyes to the statue, and the reflection and detail of the correctly exposed window draws attention to it, and both of these two images show something you want to highlight in a scene, rather than just being a photo of a window, or a photo of a statue. In that regard, the third image (to me at least) really loses any punch, and is just a happy snap of a statue next to a window.

  • Amit

    How about shooting RAW within the dynamic range of your camera…..

  • Cesar

    isn’t exposure blending a HDR with two pictures? At least for my likes, the issue is not HDR, but the heavy hand when using it

  • http://www.shadowsgalore.com Puru

    This is a very useful tip. But do we need to be on a tripod everytime we do this ?

Some older comments

  • Puru

    September 21, 2013 07:44 pm

    This is a very useful tip. But do we need to be on a tripod everytime we do this ?

  • Cesar

    September 18, 2013 07:48 pm

    isn't exposure blending a HDR with two pictures? At least for my likes, the issue is not HDR, but the heavy hand when using it

  • Amit

    September 16, 2013 06:56 pm

    How about shooting RAW within the dynamic range of your camera.....

  • dan nourse

    September 13, 2013 01:53 pm

    I use blending of multiple exposures and HDR software, and i think its it great for getting the look you want, but try not to let having over and under exposure in your image fool you into thinking its always a bad thing. Have a good look at the three images of the window and the statue, Personally i find that the two original images had a lot more effect than the merged result. The overexposure of the window in the left image tends to push the eyes to the statue, and the reflection and detail of the correctly exposed window draws attention to it, and both of these two images show something you want to highlight in a scene, rather than just being a photo of a window, or a photo of a statue. In that regard, the third image (to me at least) really loses any punch, and is just a happy snap of a statue next to a window.

  • Edmund

    September 13, 2013 06:11 am

    You are inpsiratioinal, Andrew. Get it right first time is the order of the day!

  • Mario

    September 13, 2013 02:59 am

    I easily get away with under/overexposed parts by duplicating the image with a layer and then using the Multiply or Screen mode along with the Opacity options. Easy and quick!

  • Mikko

    September 13, 2013 02:41 am

    No need to shame or be arrogant, but you are still using HDR. Moderating comments away doesn't change that fact. :)

  • Mikko

    September 13, 2013 01:36 am

    Title: Coping with Extreme Brightness (Without HDR)

    Result: in the end you use HDR (3&4).

  • mike savad

    September 13, 2013 01:23 am

    you are aware that exposure blending is hdr right? it's not an effect or a filter. so the choices are - wait until the light is good (if you can), let there be shadows or use hdr. which cancels out the title. and the landscape shot, the sky still looks a bit bright.

    ---Mike Savad

  • Carsten Meyer

    September 11, 2013 02:18 pm

    There is another well working option. If you shoot in RAW-Mode you can overexposure the image to get details in the darker parts and the take back the exposure of the light areas to normal (possible in RAW-mode) in the post processing mode. Try it out, it works fine and you just need a single picture for thus technique.

  • Ted Forbes

    September 9, 2013 01:02 pm

    Good stuff. I really like the high contrast look over the HDR stuff. Not only more natural looking but what a great sense of drama.

  • Deb Scally

    September 8, 2013 11:17 pm

    Not to take anything away from the subject matter--all the techniques and points are relevant for dealing with an extreme light area--but my feeling about 3&4 is that Photoshop blending is a type of HDR technique. It's combining images on either end of the range to extract the best exposures for each. The only distinction is that is does not use Photomatix or some other HDR-branded software. And that is FINE! There is nothing inherently bad about high-dynamic range, any more than there is something inherently bad about using Photoshop.

    Again, good points, and helpful technique examples in all of the above. Thanks for the article.

  • someone

    September 8, 2013 08:22 pm

    I like tips 1 and 2, but got a bit confused with 3 and 4 regarding exposure blending. Isn't exposure blending really just applying the very principle of HDR? For example, in-camera HDR solutions take multiple exposures so-many stops apart and blend them together to get better shadow and highlight detail - which sounds much like exposure-blending.

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    September 8, 2013 05:07 am

    I recently shot a picture of an open book where I had to utilize the blending of images technique. The book had some glossy sheen to the pages which caused problems when I tried to expose for the whole scene. I ended up having to expose for different parts of the book so that the text was still legible and I merged the images so that the extreme highlights in the reflective surface of the page were brought down and the whole page could be read. It really does work. Gotta love layer masks and gradient tools in Photoshop.

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