Coping with Extreme Brightness (Without HDR) - Digital Photography School

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 ?

  • Chris

    I’m a fairly new photoshop user, so my question is…when combining 2 exposures to get 1 image, what blending mode do you suggest?

  • Zack

    combining multiple exposures into 1 image is exactly what HDR is…….so I’m not sure where the “without HDR” aspect of this post comes from?

  • Kathy

    Please remember that there are those of us who don’t have, or cannot afford photoshop. Give us options, too.

  • laurie66bay

    Yeah, my thought as well.

  • laurie66bay

    You can use the Adobe Creative Cloud and get Photoshop and lightroom for $9.99/month.

  • MRowlos

    you know nothing about photography if you think blending 2 exposures doesn’t “involve HDR techniques.” go back to school!

  • MRowlos

    also you’re condescending tone about HDR was also funny given you don’t have any clue about it

  • Focal Plane Images

    I think the idea of blending 2 exposures for the statue, window is absolutely terrible advice. Use flash, or some other light source to augment the scene. Expose for the window and balance the statue with some fill flash or a reflector.

  • Ritesh Kaushik

    same question by my side too. someone please answer, we know we have masters here.

  • http://www.lilleulven.com Lille Ulven

    You could use GIMP instead, Kathy. It is freeware and works well on Windows, Mac and Linux machines.

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    Exposure blending is not HDR (although I admit some people call it that). Exposure blending is taking two photos at different exposures and then using layers and masks in Photoshop to blend the correctly exposure portion of each. HDR involves taking three or more photos and merging them in tone mapping software to create a 32 bit image. Two completely different processes. Hope that clears it up.

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    Why is it terrible? What if you don’t have a flash? You also need an umbrella or softbox to get decent quality of light from the flash. Not equipment you are likely to have with you on a casual day out.

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    Thanks, see above answer for explanation of difference between HDR and exposure blending.

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    You don’t use a blending mode, you put one photo on a layer on top of the other and use masks to blend the correctly exposed part of each one. Or you can just delete the unwanted part of the top layer. This article goes into it in a little more detail:

    http://photography.tutsplus.com/tutorials/an-introduction-to-exposure-blending-with-raw–photo-1288

    This article explains another technique:

    http://christopherodonnellphotography.com/advanced-blending-refined-layer-masks/

  • Zack

    I can definitely see your argument, however HDR literally just stands for “High Dynamic Range”. It’s a tool to achieve a dynamic range not possible with one exposure. Exposure blending does create an HDR image, albeit one with the artist having more control over which areas of the image are affected . I know I’m splitting hairs here, but it does make your article seem a bit misleading. Not all HDR images are processed in Photomatix. In fact, some DSLR cameras now come with an auto HDR setting. I’m not arguing that you know what you’re talking about, but your article is a bit misleading and might be confusing to people that don’t understand.

  • Luke

    Oh yeah, because knowing the limitations of your gear and learning how to work around it is a “terrible” idea. *sigh* For places that don’t allow flash stands, soft boxes, or even flash photography for that matter, the article is solid advice. I’m not sure why so many people are dumping on this article. It’s solid advice. There’s more than one mean to an end.

  • Kenneth Sørensen

    I’m pretty sure Andrew is very aware of what HDR stands for. Exposure blending doesn’t create a HDR image, despite that even some articles in DPS claims so. A true HDR image is a 32 bit image, typically in *.hdr format, which you need a HDR viewer to see (and in this viewer you can adjust exposure to your liking). All the photos you see online that are called HDR are actually LDR images (only 8-bit format) produced from an HDR image.
    And just because cameras (even my phone has this option) comes with a HDR setting, they probably don’t produce true HDR images anyway (unless they at least produce 32 bit images, in that case there’s a chance it’s a true HDR). HDR has just unfortunately become a widely used term, and the industry has (wrongly) adapted it.
    If you want to know more about the theory behind true HDR I can recommend the HDRI Handbook by Christian Bloch.

  • Lana Gramlich

    Don’t you have ANYONE who talks about editing with GIMP? Still waiting for a single, helpful tidbit in that area.

  • Kathy

    Thank you for the suggestions. I’ll look into both of them!

  • Paul

    I think there may be another option that could work for some lower luminosity ranges – local exposure correction in post processing. (dodge and burn)
    Take your picture exposed to the middle of the range.
    Then later in Lightroom (or equivalent) select the areas under-exposed and increase exposure level and similarly select the areas over-exposed and decrease the exposure level. The result should be a balanced exposure level revealing some detail in the shadows.

  • Patch

    My personal favorite is Corel PaintShop Pro. I’ve found it every bit as powerful as Photoshop, (Which I’ve used extensively) with a double digit price point for the previous version. It won’t be compatible with PS actions and the such, but it has an impressive array of tools and available plugins for photographic work. For PS diehards it takes a little getting used to but i find it more user friendly than GIMP, and has all the same tools, layers, masking techniques, etc. I highly recommend it.

  • Focal Plane Images

    I admit my comment is a bit brash and I failed to fully articulate the reasoning. It is why I really do not like to comment much in our twitter driven culture of 140 characters or less. That said, I stand by my comment. I did not address the other instances presented by the author on the idea of blending exposures. I frequently do so myself. In addition the restriction of flash prohibited was not presented in the article. However, too often new photographers are encouraged to fix problems in post processing and not properly address them when possible in camera. I specifically picked out the one instance in the article where working out a dynamic range problem within the process of shooting a single image should always be considered first. A properly lit scene is not impossible to resolve prior to wildly pushing the shutter button. Blending has it’s own limitations. It often requires a tripod, stabilization or a bit more experience with a camera to capture two blend able frames. Whenever the situation presents itself to correct light and capture a single frame, that should be pursued first. That is why I stand by the idea that in an article clearly written for beginning photographers the shoot first and post process later resolution is terrible advice.

  • David Crane

    Andrew, I’ve always had it explained this way:
    What your describing is only one of many ways to achieve a higher than normal dynamic range (HDR). There are many ways to go about getting that effect, Exposure blending being one of them. Using tone mapping software is another. They are, however, two very similar ways to get to very similar results.
    So, yes, exposure blending is a form of HDR.

    And Kenneth, there is no ‘True’ HDR image. They are all different ways to go about getting higher *than normal* dynamic range. An image does not HAVE to be 32bit to contain a dynamic range above normal. ‘Normal’ is usually seen as 8 bits, or around 8 stops difference in light: what the typical camera sensor can perceive. If you can achieve even just 10 stops of light in a single image, you are, in fact, looking at an HDR image. It doesn’t matter how you got there.

    Using enlargers in a darkroom to blend two differently exposed images together, or just dodging and burning, is still seen as increasing the tonal range (now called dynamic range – same thing). Therefore, we were actually creating HDR images with film and enlargers. There is no Photomatix plugin for that.

    I’m not saying this isn’t great advice, but it does seem a bit misleading.

  • David Crane

    Definitely have to agree on this one. Sometimes you just can’t have all the equipment and any photographer worth a damn should know multiple ways to go about creating the image they’re looking for.

  • David Crane

    I’ve looked at GIMP once or twice and I believe at has all the tools necessary to blend two exposures. All you need to do is drop both images on top of one another and, essentially, delete the darker parts of the darkest image(s), and delete the brightest parts of the brighter image(s). You can achieve this with masking using pen tools, marquees and feathering, or even just erasing the unwanted bits. Sorry I don’t know how many of the tools have similar names in Gimp, or what they would be called.
    Hope that helps!

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    Thanks for your support Kenneth. Appreciated!

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    Most DPS writers use Photoshop or Lightroom. If no GIMP users have replied to your query, why not search for an answer yourself? This search brings up DPS articles related to GIMP:

    http://digital-photography-school.com/?s=GIMP

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    Hi David, thanks for the feedback and the helpful comments. I disagree with your definition of HDR, but I understand that some people use that definition.

    Exposure blending is more akin to the technique of using graduated neutral
    density filters with slide film to even out the brightness range.

    Regardless, the point of the article is still the same. You don’t have to take three or more bracketed exposures and use specialised software to blend them together to cope with a scene that has a high contrast range.

  • Kenneth Sørensen

    The use of ‘true’ was to differentiate between a 32-bit HDR format and the 8-bit tonemapped output, whereas the latter is no longer an HDR image (But an LDR).
    Tonemapping is creating a snapshot of the settings/adjustments of the HDR image. Once you have saved your image as an 8-bit jpeg you can no longer make adjustments to the exposure. That is only possible with the 32-bit HDR image.

    And no, you can’t store enough information in an 8-bit image to call it HDR. HDR works with floating point numbers, which allows you to work with an infinite amount of values. In an 8-bit image you have values ranging from 0-255 and there is no values between integers. You jump from 36 to 37 for instance. With floating point you can have a value of 36.3425 if you need.

    Here’s a quote from The HDRI Handbook:

    “We need no gamma because we can incrementally
    get finer levels whenever we need
    them. Our image data can stay in linear space,
    aligned to the light intensities of the real
    world. And most importantly, we get rid of
    the upper and lower boundaries. If we want
    to declare a pixel to be 10,000 luminous, we
    can. No pixel deserves to get thrown out of
    the value space. They may wander out of our
    histogram view, but they don’t die. We can
    bring them back at any time because the scale
    is open on both ends.”

    Have a look here for much much more information about HDR: http://www.hdrlabs.com/book/index.html

  • Zack

    But bracketing 2 shots and blending them together is different?

  • Zack

    Going in depth to explain the complexity of HDR does nothing to support your claim that exposure blending isn’t a means to achieving a “Higher Dynamic Range”. I think you’re confusing high dynamic range with a tone mapped image, believing the two to be synonymous.

    Yes, there is tremendously more information in a tone mapped image, but even it will be delivered in 8bit……so by your account, HDR only exists while it’s being processed.

    Truthfully I don’t disagree with you guys all too much…. But to claim that bracketing 2 exposures and blending isn’t HDR while bracketing 3 exposures and tone mapping them is, I just have to disagree.

  • Kenneth Sørensen

    I think you are missing my point here and I think it is you who is actually confused about the terms.
    Tone mapping is a process you apply to an HDR image where the end result (the image you export/save) is an LDR image in 8-bit. This image does not contain any more information than any other 8-bit image. All the information is kept in the 32-bit HDR image.

    Therefore exposure blending is not HDR and a tone mapped photo is not HDR either (but the tone mapped image is a result of and HDR process of an 32-bit image).

    I don’t understand why you think my explanation does nothing to support my claim, since I explained that an HDR image always is 32-bit and why. And by blending two exposures you never work with anything but 8-bit.

    Again I can only recommend to read about the theory behind HDR in order to understand the difference.

    Cheers.

  • Shilpi Srivastava

    What do you mean by expose for highlights? How do you do it?

  • Lana Gramlich

    Thank you.

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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