Getting Better Contrast In Your Photography - Digital Photography School

Getting Better Contrast In Your Photography

glover_a&m_1.jpgA Guest post by SusanG from Camelot Photography Forum.

I often am asked “what is the best shutter speed/aperture for such and such”. I’ve even asked the question myself. But in a way, we’re jumping ahead of the gun when we ask that. Instead, if we ask ourselves “Do I need more light or less light” for this image to work, we will have found the answer ourselves based on the exact circumstance that requires the answer. Because once we’ve determined that answer, we know that by narrowing the aperture and/or increasing the shutter speed we can reduce the light entering the camera. And by opening the aperture or slowing the shutter speed, we can increase it. Understanding Exposure and Stops is a keystone concept that will only help your photography. Whether you shoot in Auto or Manual. The principle does not change!

So, what does all that have to do with capturing contrast in our photography? A lot! Because contrast is affected by how much light we allow in when exposing!

Contrast in photography is the difference between dark and light. But it doesn’t end there It also refers to contrasts created with colour, tones and texture. We “see” these only because of light.

If light is what makes colours visible: What makes colours saturate in-camera (increase in strength)? That would be the amount of light. Remember paint boxes in kindergarten? How did we get stronger, deeper tones? We added Black!


And that is exactly how we get contrast and rich colour in our photography. We add “dark”. But how do we do that?

glover_galataea_1.jpgOK. Enough with the Theory! On to the Practical.

Contrast: The difference between dark and light

High Contrast: An extreme difference between dark and light

Low Contrast: A gradual or lesser difference between dark and light

Colour Contrast: Tonal differences, as well as Saturation levels, of colours

High Key: Mostly light including whites

Low Key: Mostly darks including blacks

No Contrast: Is a Whiteout in the Antarctic and very dangerous. Best advice is return to Base Station.

First, determine the “correct” exposure. All cameras have a light meter built in. It’s that little bar graph on your screen that has -2 on the left side 0 in the middle and 2 on the right. The minus side represents under exposure, the plus represents over, and zero represents what your camera thinks is the correct exposure. Learn how to use it!

Once you’ve achieved the correct exposure, compensate your settings by 1/3 to one Full Stop under. Now you’re adding “dark”: The black in the paint box. If you’re shooting in auto or semi auto (shutter or aperture priority) you can set the compensation in the EV (Exposure Value) Compensation menu and the camera will automatically underexpose by the margin you set. If you’re shooting in Manual, use your aperture setting to make smaller adjustments (aperture settings in most cameras are in increments of 1/3 of a Full Stop) and shutter speeds to make dramatic adjustments (as shutter speed in most cameras are one full stop up or down). Keep an eye on that light meter reading when stopping down manually. You want the needle to nudge over to the left (the minus side) of Zero. Each hash mark being a 1/3 increment of a Full Stop.

glover_redumbrella_1.jpgThe basic guideline for getting the most contrast in a scene is:

Shoot with the narrowest aperture possible for light conditions

Shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible for light conditions

And if you’re already thinking of when the above does NOT apply, you’re further ahead on controlling and creating contrast then you thought ;)

SusanG is the Creator of Camelot Photography Forum, a MySpace™ Photography Site where anyone can find their new level.

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  • chuck

    So many words, so little ideas. Read Ken’s take on contrast vs dymamic range. For a change ;)

  • Dan

    I have to agree with Chuck on this one. Another missed opportunity to teach something meaningful.

  • http://capturedconcept.com/blog Ron Gibson

    I have to agree with Chuck and will probably write a post on my blog shortly regarding this as well.

    Readers should also note that contrast is not just exposure, or exposure compensation, but is also dependent on your lens and where your lens shoots ‘best’. Zoom lenses (except for the good ones) are ‘usually’ lower contrast than primes, and lenses lose contrast in their extremes. By this I mean with zooms- at either end of their focal range and also at either end of their aperture range. Each lens has a sweet spot which is the sharpest/most contrasty image that can be produced from that particular lens. Better lenses have a greater range for their sweet spot, and cheaper lenses have a lesser range.

    If you read Rockwell’s note on contrast above from Chuck, also look up the lenses you are using on his site (if you shoot Nikon) to find out where your lens works ‘best’. For example, the Nikon 50mm f1.4 works best at f8 while it shoots well between f4 and f11, outside of this you lose sharpness and contrast. If you were using a zoom lens it probably works best right in the center of it’s focal range and aperture. So if you have an 80-200 f5.6 zoom it is probably best in or around 140mm and f10. Moving away from what is ‘best’ will lower your sharpness and contrast.

    If you shoot your lenses wide open (for example an 85mm at f1.8) and you wonder why your images are soft all the time, this is why. It is a common concern for many users who buy a new DSLR and use their kit zoom lenses at their extremes and wide open- only to produce images that are soft and non-contrasty. If you are able to shoot with your lenses in their ‘best’ position you will produce a crisper image.

    After saying that, the only way you can shoot at your optimum lens position for the sharpest and most contrasty image is to use flash photography or have plenty of light in order to have the ability to set your lens to where you want it.

  • http://honiballphotoblog.com Chris

    Respectfully, I must disagree with this article. Contrast does not involve only the darks, but as the article itself alludes to, involves the difference between light and dark. While decreasing the exposure may give richer colors and boost the contrast somewhat, there are much better ways to increase contrast when digital photography is concerned. As long as you are shooting RAW (this article doesn’t mention file format, and most knowledgeable photographers shoot RAW) you should be exposing the file so that you get the most digital information in it, and then post processing it to obtain the desired contrast. See this article by David DuChemin for more information on exactly what this means – boiled down, it means that you should expose the photograph as far to the right as possible without blowing out the highlights. This type of exposure has the most digital information possible and will be the easiest to manipulate and bring out the contrast.

    What about the photographers shooting JPG? Again, this technique may produce richer colors with no processing, but again this is a change better made after the fact through post processing. By deliberately decreasing your exposure you’re discarding information that could be useful in the final picture.

    I don’t mean any offense to the author of this article – I just think this is poor information as far as digital photography is concerned. If anyone has another viewpoint please comment.

  • http://honiballphotoblog.com Chris

    Ron is also correct in noting that different lenses do have different contrast characteristics, and I have no problem with the advice of stopping down to gain contrast.

  • Walter

    RAW in and of itself is useless with out the knowledge gained from understanding contrast, and all the means it is achieved.

  • matty

    It was a useful article for me, i am a beginner and liked the reference to the in built light meter which i have so far not paid attention to. Thanks.

  • http://www.photofidelity.com Daniel Fealko

    An excellent article to read, besides David DuChemin’s, is A Possible Problem with Expose to the Right! It’s not just enough to “expose to the right,” as pointed out by this referenced link.

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    Wow! Thanks DPS for making this the first post of 2010. Not sure if I should be frightened or stay calm!

    Interesting responses. And some thoughtful ones too!

    @ Chris – “I have no problem with stopping down to gain contrast.” Cheers for that. I do appreciate the thought. Even though you fundamentally disagree with the advice to stop down to gain contrast and colour saturation and suggest the opposite. :)

    @Ron. Excellent points. Absolutely good advice when it comes to gaining clarity and sharpness in an image from point of capture with the kit in hand. But we have to start somewhere. And all photographs begin with exposure. But they do not end there,

  • http://honiballphotoblog.com Chris

    From the article – “Once you’ve achieved the correct exposure, compensate your settings by 1/3 to one Full Stop under. Now you’re adding “dark”

    That’s the part I’m disagreeing with. I have no problem with stopping down the aperture rather than shooting wide open, while retaining the same exposure value. Sorry for the slight ambiguity.

  • Peter

    If you overexpose you are in danger of losing detail in the light colours. If you under expose you lose detail in the dark colours and add noise. Either way you lose sharpness because of bleed. Expose for the mid tones and check the whites is the only way to expose for a photograph whether you are photographing in RAW JPG or any other format.
    The best ways to control contrast and/or saturation is either in post processing or better still with the quality of the light when taking the picture. (ie: Full summer sun/ single direct flash, for high contrast/ high saturation subjects. Overcast sky/ diffused flash for low contrast/ muted colour subjects. )
    Don’t mess with your exposures, you will only end up with a mess

  • Ultrasonic

    I’m disturbed by people posting ken rockwell links, that site itself is a joke; and so is the man that published the site. He couldn’t be more biased in his opinions and “offerings” of ideas. Avoid it at all costs……

  • http://harrisonlansing.com Harrison

    There’s a lot more to this, potentially, and I think giving people the basics before the creative is a better approach. If you’re assuming that people already understand the types of metering their cameras are capable of and can control that, and you assume they understand something of the zone system so that they know what will and won’t have detail and what will and won’t just turn into form and color then I think speaking of creative control to achieve results is completely appropriate.

    To the specifics here though…once I decide what objects are important to have detail and what I don’t mind losing…and I can drop zone 5 into the middle of that mix then sure, adjust exposure to get the things you want. I would prefer to expose on the money…but all that means is plotting the 4 stops or so I have to play with and shooting accordingly. Any tweaks from there I do post.

    Teach people correct exposure control, metering, and the zone system…and a lot of things take care of themselves.

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Peter –Exposing for middle tones is the better place to start from in most cases. And thank you for bringing that up. Yet creative exposure is part of what can define signature style. It may be a mess to start with. But sometimes that is a way to learn. A critical eye doesn’t mean never do that again. It means seeing how we can perfect something to where it will work.

    It isn’t as easy as it sounds but then neither is exposing for the middle grey. Yet I feel that when successfully implemented it increases colour saturation, and can add drama to an image’s context. Both sides of the equation, over and under.

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Harrison – I agree, which is why there is a link embedded to DPS’s own foundation beginning tutorial on exposure. But there is also a “sink or swim” aspect to this. Photographers just starting out, or even with a few years experience, do learn from Posts like this. Even if they only learn that there is a debate, and a hotly contested one- the knowledge that there is even a question is a start for one to begin developing personal answers. Eventually, there is a threshold where we have to learn about things like Adams’ Zone system and then develop personal approaches that encompass that for a different medium: digital. Else we run the risk of hitting an endless plateau in our capability and creativity.

  • Val Y.

    Horray to Susan for starting out the new year. Happy New Year!

    When shooting film, I usually shoot for the ‘best exposure’ for the subject or application. Said another way, I rely on my meter and shoot at zero.

    On the other hand, when shooting digital, which is about 95+% of what I shoot these days, I ‘usually’ shoot at -1/3 EV. I have found that this reduces the highlight blowouts while preserving the blacks. I do my best, (still not as well as I would like), to capture the image ‘in camera’ versus relying on ‘post processing’. My goal is to ‘finish’ an image in Capture NX2 so it is ready for print. When Capture NX2 does not work (which is not very often), then I save the Capture NX2 image as a TIFF, and jump to Photoshop CS4 for some ‘post processing’ manipulation.

    Lastly, I agree with most of the comments. Please keep in mind, Susan’s last point (comment) is important.
    Her suggestions are a starting point regardless of whether it is a catalyst for ‘comments’ or a place for photographers (especially newbies) to start.

    Thank you Susan for keeping a stiff upper lip. Well Done!

    .

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Val y – Cheers for that! Something to be said for British Stoic in lieu of Grace Under Fire ;) I wasn’t sure if anyone actually read that. There were valid points made, even in opposition. All in all, a “good thing”!

  • Luke

    I enjoyed this article, but please correct me if I am wrong as I may have this backward, but is not shutter speed adjusted in 1/3 stop increments, and lens aperture usually adjust in full stop increments? If so this article has it backward.

  • http://fmatiasphotography.blogspot.com Fernando

    The technique mentioned in the article may work “In Special Instances” but, Im sorry, but I am going to have to disagree with this article. All you have to do is look at any post processing technique on how to increase contrast. They are all the same. All you have to do in photoshop (or anything else for that matter) to increase contrast is two things:
    1- Make the darks darker
    AND
    2- Make the lights lighter
    Reducing your exposure by 1/3 to 1 stop will definately make your darks darker.. but you are also making your lights darker. Overall, all you are doing is underexposing your shot. This will not really change the contrast ratio, it will just make everything darker. Increasing your contrast ratio requires that your darks go darker, and lights get LIGHTER as well.
    Reducing by 1/3 to 1 stop reduces everything equaly….. not just the darks.

    IMO… IF the subject you are shooting currently lacks contrast in its natural lighting environment the only way to increase it is by adding external lighting (flashes, etc) at correct angles, or by changing it in Post Processing using Photoshop or any other program.

    btw…. Diffuse light will reduce your contrast… thats the whole point of diffusers for flashes… reduce harsh lighting!

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Luke – Glad you enjoyed the article and -I hope- all sides of the debate. Traditionally shutter speeds are one full stop and initially lenses were also one stop, and then as technology improved some started including increments of approx. 1/3. However that doesn’t apply across the board and serves as a rule of thumb as some higher end cameras and lenses incorporate even finer increments in both shutter and aperture.

    This article talks about Exposure Values at http://www.chem.helsinki.fi/~toomas/photo/ev.html There are loads of posts on E.V. tables. Google it to get a wider selection. So it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the light meter through the lens (TTL). Keeping in mind that they are not 100% accurate and other factors may make the read off in either direction: such as lenses or environment (like fog/snow/ and in that case try overexposure) And there are sound reasons for using a histogram if available and when in doubt.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/aidanmorgan/ John

    This article leaves me confused. The bottom line seems to be the following pair of rules:

    1. Shoot with the narrowest aperture possible for light conditions
    2. Shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible for light conditions

    But the rules are mutually inconsistent. Suppose that I’m shooting handlheld and can just hold the focus and get correct exposure at f16, 1/60 for the given scene. Now rule 1 says this will maximize contrast since I cannot stop down without slowing shutter speed and getting blurry images owing to camera shake. But rule 2 says that this is all wrong. For instance, if I stop up to f12, I can now get a correct exposure at 1/120 — a faster shutter speed and, by rule 2, better contrast.

    Indeed, why stop there. Rule 2 in fact implies that I should shoot wide open all the time since this will always maximize shutter speed. But that’s the exact opposite of rule 1–shooting all the way open is using the widest aperture possible for light conditions.

    Please explain.

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @ John – This goes back to the opening paragraph. Which I will say is incomplete. But that is a Blog all on its own: Exposure. When we consider our exposure settings it is more then just what light is available. It’s also defined by the subject or scene and whether we need to give priority to aperture (for example a desired Depth Of Field) or Shutter (for example a moving subject).

    Once we’ve determined which is the priority, then we can determine where to set the camera, and taking into consideration available light. When I say narrowest aperture, or fastest shutter speed I do not mean spin the dial to f.22 and shutter to 1/500. Not if it means you get a nice dark grey blob. Underexposing is not the same as underexposed. To use your example: handheld at f.22 at 1/60th has an Exposure Value. Read above to my reply to Luke about E.V. Tables – And I’m taking my own advice and checking the table which says that exposure setting (sans the ISO as that is also a feature of an exposure triangle) has an EV of 15. So does f/16 @ 1/125, so does f/5.6 @ 1/500. So, given that you left home without your tripod f/16 @ 1/125 is a more comfortable exposure for you to hold at. So the narrowest aperture, fastest shutter speed possible to accommodate what you posited would be better perhaps the f/16 @ 1/125.

    Exposure begins and ends with the photographer, their equipment at hand and the environment they are in. Which is why I recommended the fastest and narrowest possible rather then a specious “shoot everything at such and such and so and so”.

    Possible being the key word.

    Also read Ron’s comment above about lenses and contrast.

    I’m sure I’m leaving a lot out. But I hope that helped ;)

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    OOPS! John I “changed” your hypothetical exposure to f/22. But the principle is still the same :)

  • http://gallery.me.com/djbennett#100104 david

    an interesting debate and as usual one size never fits all … film, jpeg, RAW all have different constraints

    my 2p contribution is get a modern DSLR (or something like Canon EOS 300D off ebay) and SHOOT RAW!!!! 99% of the time it will get the exposure right, so that you can choose whatever contrast you want afterwards either with a quick tweak in something like iPhoto, a more sophisticated enhancement in Aperture or a complete re-working in Photoshop.

    The ability to edit all the key parameters after you’ve taken the shot makes lens choice and exposure fine tuning completely irrelevant

    see grand canyon pictures on website for example for transforming low contrast (RAW) image into high contrast image using photoshop (work in progress so not yet satisfied with final result)

    RAW is absolutely amazing and once you start using it and tweaking all your images you will want to go back and re-shoot all your best digital jpegs again

    the only reason I used to shoot jpeg was that I was too mean to buy enough memory – but with 32GB SD cards now available for about the price of 6 rolls of film in the old days that’s no longer an excuse

    ALSO … get a lens with image stabilisation .. I recently invested in a TAMRON 18 – 270 VC and it is sensational in poor light

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Don – Your example of the Grand Canyon is a good one. It’s been the downfall of many a photog – myself included! I was there over ten years ago and it was a last minute decision and I did not have the right kit or film. The haze is notorious for throwing every kind of rule out the window. Recently I suggested to another photographer who had the same issue, that he shoot in RAW, and recover in Post Pro! And try a circular polariser to reduce the glare from Canyon Smaze.

    I looked at your photo. Stunning view! Nicely composed and edited. Right down to the straightening of the horizon and very little out-of-gamut colour! Excellent work. The only thing that is almost impossible to recover is clipped highlights! Which may have been adjusted for by … underexposing in camera :)) Just a smidge to get the clouds and then recovering everything else in Post Pro. Have you tried using LAB to punch up the colours in Photoshop? The nice thing about LAB is you have more local control over tones and colour contrast then in RGB. Check out DPS’s http://digital-photography-school.com/turn-ho-hum-color-into-wow-with-photoshop

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    Oh dear … that should have been @David!

  • Booker

    @peter: Not at all.. exposing for the midtones is not always the way to go, especially with newer digital cameras and if you intend to do post processing. Believe me, I’m all about shooting to get the best image in camera as possible, but sometimes the dynamic range of an image just doesn’t allow it. Great example is the wedding dress.

    Generally, I shoot slightly to the right. It’s proven easier for me to recover detail from the shadows than from highlights (I prefer to dodge than burn). It adds less noise, retains proper color, and just seems like less work. Your mileage may vary, and I’m sure there’s a dozen counter examples in my own shooting where I contradict myself haha

  • Scott

    @Susan – I have no doubt that you are a great photographer. The images you have posted with this article are fantastic.

    But, I think you should clarify your suggestion to only those who shoot with the intent of producing their image “in-camera” without the help of post production.

    Your assertions about saturation and even deeper blacks are true, but digital sensors capture light on a scale that provides the largest tonal range at the right end of the histogram. By purposefully underexposing an image you are effectively limiting the total dynamic range of your image. If you are an “in-camera” shooter then you definitely should shoot the image with the exposure that is fitting with your vision.

    However, if someone is shooting in RAW with the intent of finalizing their vision through post production then they should expose the image in order to create the best digital negative. David duChemin’s article on this is a great read for those who shoot in RAW and use post processing.

    If you have your camera set to an RGB Histogram and expose to the right such that you do not clip any of the color channels, you will have the best digital negative possible. From there you can dial in your contrast, saturation, etc in post production.

    If a person underexposes as you suggest without thinking about how it affects their workflow they may not come out with the best image possible and if they need to push their exposure they will have unneeded noise.

  • Booker

    There’s another way to get great contrast… blast the subject with a truckload of light and stop down to f/18 or smaller. Instant contrast.

  • Klemen

    I’ve read all the coments quickly through and I think I didn’t miss (because it is not written) this problem:
    When you are in a dark room (for example: disco, bowling…) and you have very poor light conditions (mainly some red, blue etc. lights). And you shoot a couple of people with external flash (in my case a Metz), one of them having a white shirt. It makes white normal all the time, while making everything else (that is darker) almost black. Where lies the trick? Because till now I was unable to find it. And I really tried many settings so far. It is becoming very frustrating. :) (my equipment: Pentax K200D+ Pentax 18-55 1:3,5-5,6+ flash Metz 48 AF-1)

  • http://www.padp.com T Schulz

    I’ve been reading lately about HDR photography. Isn’t that taking at least 3 pictures of the same thing with varying levels of exposure and combining them to product a very high contrast image? This could be another method.

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Klemen – Flash photography is an art of its own. You may want to Google it and see what tips you can pick up. I hope some of the other photogs here with direct experience with using flash will come in and help you out with your question.

    Perhaps consider and research adding another lens if you’re going to be shooting in darkened conditions where Flash is not always an option. Look for the best 2.8 you can afford. Even a good used one from a reliable camera shop. And if you go for a Zoom rather then a Prime (fixed focal length) look for one that is rated 2.8 all the way through the focal range. Your lens narrows the maximum aperture to 5.6 as you increase the focal length. This decreases the amount of light coming in. Which is not a problem if you remember to adjust your shutter speed if you change your focal length at any time before taking the shot. Keep in mind that a lens with a maximum aperture of 2.8 (or wider) is going to cost more as is a zoom with a constant maximum aperture.

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Scott – In retrospect you may be right. Saying “What makes colours saturate in-camera” might have been better served by adding a more in depth explanation of issues like clipped highlights vs. loss of shadow detail, using histograms right through to Post Process Recovery and Enhancement. Sounds like a whole other Post or two ;)

  • Scott

    @Susan – Well, then you’re welcome for giving you the topics of your next few posts! :)

    Although, if you’re an “in-camera” photographer then by all means write your posts along that avenue. There are already plenty of articles about processing, RAW workflow, and exposing to the right. I do a lot of post processing but even so I’d be interested in better techniques for producing better in-camera images for the times that I don’t intend to do post processing.

  • margaretha

    Susan, I am an amateur photographer who just shoots because I love it, and I honestly think I can say (on behalf of others of my ilk) that we appreciate these little gems of information from yourself and all the other guest photographers/commentators out there. My Nikon D90 goes everywhere with me, and I shoot everything that I see, just for the sheer joy of it. So to all of you, keep writing… you keep us amateurs glued to our pc’s when we’re not out shooting. THANK YOU ALL.

  • Booker

    @luke: both shutter and aperture can typically be adjusted in either 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments, in most modern digital cameras. Some have the ability to adjust in 1/10 increments, similar to most mid to high end strobe heads.

    @klemen: you need to learn how to use custom white balance, for one. For two, you may need to drag the shutter or use second curtain sync. I’m not going to teach you either of those techniques, internet searches and reading your camera’s manual will explain all. If you’re in a really dark space, you’re going to need more than f/2.8. Investment in an f/1.4 prime is usually the way to go for very dark interiors. The Canon 50 1.4 is only $500, the 35 1.4 is about $1200. Either one will give you incredible low-light performance assuming your camera is decent at ISO800-1250. I wouldn’t go much higher than that unless you are using a very low noise body like the Canon 1D MkIII or IV, Nikon D3_whatever, etc. Use the flash to get saturation and contrast, but make sure the light is diffused not direct and harsh.

  • http://www.stevearnoldphoto.com Steve A

    hey there,

    I’ve read through your article a couple of times and i agree with what you are saying regarding the saturation, but I dont see how any of what you have written relates to contrast. none of the images you have posted as examples have high contrast either, so I wonder what message it is you are trying to pass on.

    the message I take from your post is that if you dial your exposure compensation down a couple of notches then you will get more saturated images.

    surely the actual contrast in an image depends on not only the amount of light in the scene but also where it falls and the difference between the highlights and the lowlights.

    i am always ready to learn, so i am more than happy to have it explained to me if my understanding is wrong :)

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Booker – You’re first response is a fave for including “there’s a dozen counter examples in my own shooting where I contradict myself”, Ditto. But I think you’re next one tops it as my next fave!. It’s exactly what Ken Rockwell says in his post on contrast. – Works when you’ve got it but for everything else … ;)

    And thank you for bringing up White Balance to Klemen! It should also be part of the checklist for any digital photography – whether Custom or not.

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @ Steve A – Excellent questions. Contrast is not only the level of disparity between black to white. Contrast is also a visual context. Additionally contrast is provided by texture and colour. If you research any of the different types of contrast mentioned in the article (and not in terms of photography only but the theory as well) you’ll see that contrast is not only an extreme. That just makes it High or Low. Colour Contrast is also subjective, because a good part of it is illusional.

    As to your question about the photography: Each is an example of different contrasts. The top one is the most deceptive in that it is a Low Key image underexposed to achieve scientific black. But there had to be sufficient shadow detail and highlights to prevent “black & grey blobbiness” in the image (ie: a total loss of contrast). The middle is an example of preserving extremes without complete loss of detail in the shadows or highlights and has a fuller range of contrast, light and texture. The bottom image is more about colour and textural contrasts provided by the scene, subject and unusual lighting circumstances.

    Contrast is in every image we take. What kind of contrast is a matter of degree.

  • Klemen

    Thanks to everyone for helping me. I will keep trying with different settings, but a prime or a better zoom lens will have to wait. I’m a student after all. :) (I will try an old prime from my dad (50mm f 1/2.8))

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @klemen – Times are tough for many of us! Your dad’s 50mm will help a lot. A Nifty Fifty is a great multi use lens. Especially for the kind of people photography you were describing. And definitely, if you’re using Flash try some creative approaches to diffusing the glare. Checkout DIY Photography ( http://www.diyphotography.net ) for some really neat tricks and tips, not just on flash but all kinds of lighting solutions!

  • http://www.myspace.com/camelotphotoforum SusanG

    @Klemen again – :) read the article in this link. It isn’t specific to your situation but it will help you understand a bit more about Flash and metering. Rather then just frustrating your self with trying different settings. Good luck. Hope it helps!

    http://www.sublime-light.com/index.php/2007/07/18/portrait-lighting-for-beginners-metering-for-flash/

  • Booker

    Yeah Klemen, and a lot of others posting, it sound like you’re better off reading about some basic photography technique and learning the basics of exposure before trying to get deep into optimizing contrast and saturation. I know it’s tempting to get carried away and learn everything you can, but you need to start slow just like with anything else. Hunting and pecking through menus and trying all the settings is good to explore and learn all the buttons but it won’t improve your photography.

  • Skip

    Hi, I’m nearly 62 and have been keenly interested in being the best photographer I can since age 10 or so. Through the years I have met many professional photographers, but one truly stands out for me. My long time professional (meaning he makes nearly all of his income from being a photographer) told me that if you truly want to be a great photographer you must spend your time behind the lens and not in the darkroom. Of course his comments were pre-digital, but do have considerable value today. For me I stopped using film a few years ago and have learned that digital is much like shooting slide or transparency. So if you want to spend all of your time in the dark room and not behind the lens all you have to do is get close with your exposure and correct everything in post. For me I like being a photographer and have earned a little income through the years with my camera. So I’m not a professional because all of my income doesn’t come from my camera. I see my job as a photographer to get the exposure spot on just like you must do when shooting slides (w/n 1/4 stop). Every camera is different and you must take thousands of photos to determine how your camera performs under different light conditions. For me I rarely shoot RAW reserving RAW for paid event photography and hopfully correct any error for a critical photo not correctly exposed. Therefore, for event photography I shoot RAW+JPEG. Most of the time my shots are spot on since I know my equipment. I can’t say that is the way things always were because there was a time when I didn’t understand exactly how my equipment operated. I generally slightly under expose contrast and sharpen in camera almost to the point of oversharpening as I find there is less work to be done in post. I have found that in order to have proper prints it is necessary to slightly over sharpen (but not very much) in camera as that is where the best job is done with my system (for me post sharpening isn’t as good as in camera). On a recent vacation I took 3,700 photos. I would still be in the darkroom “photoshop” if they were all shot RAW. To each his own. I thought the article was very good with basic information useful for many people. Nothing is perfect not even photos tweeked in post. For me comments like serious photographers only shoot RAW are just boneheaded.

  • booker

    skip, generally I agree with you. However, master Ansel would spend days and weeks in the darkroom making a single print. If you see some of his slides, compared to the print, the differences can be astounding.

    Fact is, you can’t always get the shot “in camera.” Sometimes you don’t want to. That said, you do want to get the very best take you can. You want to get the best image in camera, to facilitate your post processing workflow, to get the best final result you desire.

    So, if your post workflow includes nothing but resize and save for web/print, then yes, you’re absolutely correct., because you’re taking whatever you get “in the can” as your best possible output.

    Depending on what you shoot, a big problem that people often overlook is noise within saturated areas. Slightly older Canon cameras as especially susceptible to this (from my experience) where if you turn up in-camera sharpening and saturation, if you have bright red in a relatively neutral field, that red will be noisy and pixelated. But as you say, you have to know your equipment, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and that only comes from looking through the viewfinder and at the LCD.

  • Skip

    Hi Booker! I agree with you also in regard to Ansel Adams. However, I feel the way the article was written was geared toward the average user searching for answers and not geared toward anyone beyond that point. Using all available tools to create art is a love for any of us truly addicted to photography. I have found that most people wonder why their point and shoot camera often takes better photos than their brand new expensive SLR. I’m lucky that I grew up shooting transparencies only later to find out that film was so forgiving. Now there are multitudes of people suddenly going down the path of digital which is a far cry from negative print film. My transparency background has taught me to get it right the best you can with each and every shot leaving less to tweek if needed for a client or because of my desire for perfection or art. I constantly read where people (they may or may not be photographers) say they never shoot JPEG and only shoot RAW. Since I have two primary work jobs, plus photography I always ask myself where do these people find the time for all that Photoshop tweeking of every photo they take and why would they want to. My professional photographer friend told me the reason he made a decision not to be a darkroom technician (his words exactly) was because he really was a very good darkroom technician for other peoples work but not his. He said his business would be bankrupt because he would never be satisfied with any print of a photo he had taken. I wonder how many prints Ansel made before he either gave up or was actually satisfied. Art is very different from taking 2,000 to 4,000 photos on vacation and then having to use Photoshop or other post program to correct photos that could have been processed exceptionally well in camera the first time (if you know your equipment). Happy shooting!

  • http://digital-photography-school.com/forum/members/laurenbiz.html Lauren

    I usually up my contrast and tones in Photoshop with post-processing, so I was interested to read this article.

    At the end of the article, I’m disappointed.

    I did not find this helpful!

  • Rick Buch

    Thanks for the article. It solicited many usefull and informative responses. That is one reason I love DPS. Even if an article leaves a little or lot to be desired the responses often fill in the blanks.

  • ccting

    @SusanG,

    I totally agree with what you tell here. This technique is excellent to get it right in-camera without having to go for PP.

    Some experts suggest to use less contrast in-camera capture, but the effect may different when you increase contrast in PP.

    100% agree with SusanG, i have the same thought on how to use SS, aperture, (or even ISO) to increase contrast..

Some older comments

  • ccting

    June 14, 2012 10:04 am

    @SusanG,

    I totally agree with what you tell here. This technique is excellent to get it right in-camera without having to go for PP.

    Some experts suggest to use less contrast in-camera capture, but the effect may different when you increase contrast in PP.

    100% agree with SusanG, i have the same thought on how to use SS, aperture, (or even ISO) to increase contrast..

  • Rick Buch

    May 17, 2011 02:43 am

    Thanks for the article. It solicited many usefull and informative responses. That is one reason I love DPS. Even if an article leaves a little or lot to be desired the responses often fill in the blanks.

  • Lauren

    May 4, 2010 01:34 am

    I usually up my contrast and tones in Photoshop with post-processing, so I was interested to read this article.

    At the end of the article, I'm disappointed.

    I did not find this helpful!

  • Skip

    March 19, 2010 09:55 am

    Hi Booker! I agree with you also in regard to Ansel Adams. However, I feel the way the article was written was geared toward the average user searching for answers and not geared toward anyone beyond that point. Using all available tools to create art is a love for any of us truly addicted to photography. I have found that most people wonder why their point and shoot camera often takes better photos than their brand new expensive SLR. I'm lucky that I grew up shooting transparencies only later to find out that film was so forgiving. Now there are multitudes of people suddenly going down the path of digital which is a far cry from negative print film. My transparency background has taught me to get it right the best you can with each and every shot leaving less to tweek if needed for a client or because of my desire for perfection or art. I constantly read where people (they may or may not be photographers) say they never shoot JPEG and only shoot RAW. Since I have two primary work jobs, plus photography I always ask myself where do these people find the time for all that Photoshop tweeking of every photo they take and why would they want to. My professional photographer friend told me the reason he made a decision not to be a darkroom technician (his words exactly) was because he really was a very good darkroom technician for other peoples work but not his. He said his business would be bankrupt because he would never be satisfied with any print of a photo he had taken. I wonder how many prints Ansel made before he either gave up or was actually satisfied. Art is very different from taking 2,000 to 4,000 photos on vacation and then having to use Photoshop or other post program to correct photos that could have been processed exceptionally well in camera the first time (if you know your equipment). Happy shooting!

  • booker

    March 19, 2010 05:47 am

    skip, generally I agree with you. However, master Ansel would spend days and weeks in the darkroom making a single print. If you see some of his slides, compared to the print, the differences can be astounding.

    Fact is, you can't always get the shot "in camera." Sometimes you don't want to. That said, you do want to get the very best take you can. You want to get the best image in camera, to facilitate your post processing workflow, to get the best final result you desire.

    So, if your post workflow includes nothing but resize and save for web/print, then yes, you're absolutely correct., because you're taking whatever you get "in the can" as your best possible output.

    Depending on what you shoot, a big problem that people often overlook is noise within saturated areas. Slightly older Canon cameras as especially susceptible to this (from my experience) where if you turn up in-camera sharpening and saturation, if you have bright red in a relatively neutral field, that red will be noisy and pixelated. But as you say, you have to know your equipment, it's strengths and weaknesses, and that only comes from looking through the viewfinder and at the LCD.

  • Skip

    March 19, 2010 04:27 am

    Hi, I'm nearly 62 and have been keenly interested in being the best photographer I can since age 10 or so. Through the years I have met many professional photographers, but one truly stands out for me. My long time professional (meaning he makes nearly all of his income from being a photographer) told me that if you truly want to be a great photographer you must spend your time behind the lens and not in the darkroom. Of course his comments were pre-digital, but do have considerable value today. For me I stopped using film a few years ago and have learned that digital is much like shooting slide or transparency. So if you want to spend all of your time in the dark room and not behind the lens all you have to do is get close with your exposure and correct everything in post. For me I like being a photographer and have earned a little income through the years with my camera. So I'm not a professional because all of my income doesn't come from my camera. I see my job as a photographer to get the exposure spot on just like you must do when shooting slides (w/n 1/4 stop). Every camera is different and you must take thousands of photos to determine how your camera performs under different light conditions. For me I rarely shoot RAW reserving RAW for paid event photography and hopfully correct any error for a critical photo not correctly exposed. Therefore, for event photography I shoot RAW+JPEG. Most of the time my shots are spot on since I know my equipment. I can't say that is the way things always were because there was a time when I didn't understand exactly how my equipment operated. I generally slightly under expose contrast and sharpen in camera almost to the point of oversharpening as I find there is less work to be done in post. I have found that in order to have proper prints it is necessary to slightly over sharpen (but not very much) in camera as that is where the best job is done with my system (for me post sharpening isn't as good as in camera). On a recent vacation I took 3,700 photos. I would still be in the darkroom "photoshop" if they were all shot RAW. To each his own. I thought the article was very good with basic information useful for many people. Nothing is perfect not even photos tweeked in post. For me comments like serious photographers only shoot RAW are just boneheaded.

  • Booker

    January 12, 2010 12:41 am

    Yeah Klemen, and a lot of others posting, it sound like you're better off reading about some basic photography technique and learning the basics of exposure before trying to get deep into optimizing contrast and saturation. I know it's tempting to get carried away and learn everything you can, but you need to start slow just like with anything else. Hunting and pecking through menus and trying all the settings is good to explore and learn all the buttons but it won't improve your photography.

  • SusanG

    January 11, 2010 08:10 am

    @Klemen again - :) read the article in this link. It isn't specific to your situation but it will help you understand a bit more about Flash and metering. Rather then just frustrating your self with trying different settings. Good luck. Hope it helps!

    http://www.sublime-light.com/index.php/2007/07/18/portrait-lighting-for-beginners-metering-for-flash/

  • SusanG

    January 11, 2010 08:06 am

    @klemen - Times are tough for many of us! Your dad's 50mm will help a lot. A Nifty Fifty is a great multi use lens. Especially for the kind of people photography you were describing. And definitely, if you're using Flash try some creative approaches to diffusing the glare. Checkout DIY Photography ( www.diyphotography.net ) for some really neat tricks and tips, not just on flash but all kinds of lighting solutions!

  • Klemen

    January 11, 2010 02:32 am

    Thanks to everyone for helping me. I will keep trying with different settings, but a prime or a better zoom lens will have to wait. I'm a student after all. :) (I will try an old prime from my dad (50mm f 1/2.8))

  • SusanG

    January 10, 2010 10:51 am

    @ Steve A – Excellent questions. Contrast is not only the level of disparity between black to white. Contrast is also a visual context. Additionally contrast is provided by texture and colour. If you research any of the different types of contrast mentioned in the article (and not in terms of photography only but the theory as well) you'll see that contrast is not only an extreme. That just makes it High or Low. Colour Contrast is also subjective, because a good part of it is illusional.

    As to your question about the photography: Each is an example of different contrasts. The top one is the most deceptive in that it is a Low Key image underexposed to achieve scientific black. But there had to be sufficient shadow detail and highlights to prevent "black & grey blobbiness" in the image (ie: a total loss of contrast). The middle is an example of preserving extremes without complete loss of detail in the shadows or highlights and has a fuller range of contrast, light and texture. The bottom image is more about colour and textural contrasts provided by the scene, subject and unusual lighting circumstances.

    Contrast is in every image we take. What kind of contrast is a matter of degree.

  • SusanG

    January 10, 2010 10:48 am

    @Booker – You're first response is a fave for including "there’s a dozen counter examples in my own shooting where I contradict myself", Ditto. But I think you're next one tops it as my next fave!. It's exactly what Ken Rockwell says in his post on contrast. – Works when you've got it but for everything else ... ;)

    And thank you for bringing up White Balance to Klemen! It should also be part of the checklist for any digital photography - whether Custom or not.

  • Steve A

    January 9, 2010 08:22 pm

    hey there,

    I've read through your article a couple of times and i agree with what you are saying regarding the saturation, but I dont see how any of what you have written relates to contrast. none of the images you have posted as examples have high contrast either, so I wonder what message it is you are trying to pass on.

    the message I take from your post is that if you dial your exposure compensation down a couple of notches then you will get more saturated images.

    surely the actual contrast in an image depends on not only the amount of light in the scene but also where it falls and the difference between the highlights and the lowlights.

    i am always ready to learn, so i am more than happy to have it explained to me if my understanding is wrong :)

  • Booker

    January 8, 2010 11:04 pm

    @luke: both shutter and aperture can typically be adjusted in either 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments, in most modern digital cameras. Some have the ability to adjust in 1/10 increments, similar to most mid to high end strobe heads.

    @klemen: you need to learn how to use custom white balance, for one. For two, you may need to drag the shutter or use second curtain sync. I'm not going to teach you either of those techniques, internet searches and reading your camera's manual will explain all. If you're in a really dark space, you're going to need more than f/2.8. Investment in an f/1.4 prime is usually the way to go for very dark interiors. The Canon 50 1.4 is only $500, the 35 1.4 is about $1200. Either one will give you incredible low-light performance assuming your camera is decent at ISO800-1250. I wouldn't go much higher than that unless you are using a very low noise body like the Canon 1D MkIII or IV, Nikon D3_whatever, etc. Use the flash to get saturation and contrast, but make sure the light is diffused not direct and harsh.

  • margaretha

    January 8, 2010 05:59 pm

    Susan, I am an amateur photographer who just shoots because I love it, and I honestly think I can say (on behalf of others of my ilk) that we appreciate these little gems of information from yourself and all the other guest photographers/commentators out there. My Nikon D90 goes everywhere with me, and I shoot everything that I see, just for the sheer joy of it. So to all of you, keep writing... you keep us amateurs glued to our pc's when we're not out shooting. THANK YOU ALL.

  • Scott

    January 8, 2010 03:40 pm

    @Susan - Well, then you're welcome for giving you the topics of your next few posts! :)

    Although, if you're an "in-camera" photographer then by all means write your posts along that avenue. There are already plenty of articles about processing, RAW workflow, and exposing to the right. I do a lot of post processing but even so I'd be interested in better techniques for producing better in-camera images for the times that I don't intend to do post processing.

  • SusanG

    January 8, 2010 11:17 am

    @Scott – In retrospect you may be right. Saying "What makes colours saturate in-camera" might have been better served by adding a more in depth explanation of issues like clipped highlights vs. loss of shadow detail, using histograms right through to Post Process Recovery and Enhancement. Sounds like a whole other Post or two ;)

  • SusanG

    January 8, 2010 10:52 am

    @Klemen - Flash photography is an art of its own. You may want to Google it and see what tips you can pick up. I hope some of the other photogs here with direct experience with using flash will come in and help you out with your question.

    Perhaps consider and research adding another lens if you're going to be shooting in darkened conditions where Flash is not always an option. Look for the best 2.8 you can afford. Even a good used one from a reliable camera shop. And if you go for a Zoom rather then a Prime (fixed focal length) look for one that is rated 2.8 all the way through the focal range. Your lens narrows the maximum aperture to 5.6 as you increase the focal length. This decreases the amount of light coming in. Which is not a problem if you remember to adjust your shutter speed if you change your focal length at any time before taking the shot. Keep in mind that a lens with a maximum aperture of 2.8 (or wider) is going to cost more as is a zoom with a constant maximum aperture.

  • T Schulz

    January 8, 2010 09:38 am

    I've been reading lately about HDR photography. Isn't that taking at least 3 pictures of the same thing with varying levels of exposure and combining them to product a very high contrast image? This could be another method.

  • Klemen

    January 8, 2010 07:27 am

    I've read all the coments quickly through and I think I didn't miss (because it is not written) this problem:
    When you are in a dark room (for example: disco, bowling...) and you have very poor light conditions (mainly some red, blue etc. lights). And you shoot a couple of people with external flash (in my case a Metz), one of them having a white shirt. It makes white normal all the time, while making everything else (that is darker) almost black. Where lies the trick? Because till now I was unable to find it. And I really tried many settings so far. It is becoming very frustrating. :) (my equipment: Pentax K200D+ Pentax 18-55 1:3,5-5,6+ flash Metz 48 AF-1)

  • Booker

    January 8, 2010 06:43 am

    There's another way to get great contrast... blast the subject with a truckload of light and stop down to f/18 or smaller. Instant contrast.

  • Scott

    January 8, 2010 06:14 am

    @Susan - I have no doubt that you are a great photographer. The images you have posted with this article are fantastic.

    But, I think you should clarify your suggestion to only those who shoot with the intent of producing their image "in-camera" without the help of post production.

    Your assertions about saturation and even deeper blacks are true, but digital sensors capture light on a scale that provides the largest tonal range at the right end of the histogram. By purposefully underexposing an image you are effectively limiting the total dynamic range of your image. If you are an "in-camera" shooter then you definitely should shoot the image with the exposure that is fitting with your vision.

    However, if someone is shooting in RAW with the intent of finalizing their vision through post production then they should expose the image in order to create the best digital negative. David duChemin's article on this is a great read for those who shoot in RAW and use post processing.

    If you have your camera set to an RGB Histogram and expose to the right such that you do not clip any of the color channels, you will have the best digital negative possible. From there you can dial in your contrast, saturation, etc in post production.

    If a person underexposes as you suggest without thinking about how it affects their workflow they may not come out with the best image possible and if they need to push their exposure they will have unneeded noise.

  • Booker

    January 8, 2010 04:41 am

    @peter: Not at all.. exposing for the midtones is not always the way to go, especially with newer digital cameras and if you intend to do post processing. Believe me, I'm all about shooting to get the best image in camera as possible, but sometimes the dynamic range of an image just doesn't allow it. Great example is the wedding dress.

    Generally, I shoot slightly to the right. It's proven easier for me to recover detail from the shadows than from highlights (I prefer to dodge than burn). It adds less noise, retains proper color, and just seems like less work. Your mileage may vary, and I'm sure there's a dozen counter examples in my own shooting where I contradict myself haha

  • SusanG

    January 7, 2010 03:23 am

    Oh dear ... that should have been @David!

  • SusanG

    January 7, 2010 03:21 am

    @Don – Your example of the Grand Canyon is a good one. It's been the downfall of many a photog – myself included! I was there over ten years ago and it was a last minute decision and I did not have the right kit or film. The haze is notorious for throwing every kind of rule out the window. Recently I suggested to another photographer who had the same issue, that he shoot in RAW, and recover in Post Pro! And try a circular polariser to reduce the glare from Canyon Smaze.

    I looked at your photo. Stunning view! Nicely composed and edited. Right down to the straightening of the horizon and very little out-of-gamut colour! Excellent work. The only thing that is almost impossible to recover is clipped highlights! Which may have been adjusted for by ... underexposing in camera :)) Just a smidge to get the clouds and then recovering everything else in Post Pro. Have you tried using LAB to punch up the colours in Photoshop? The nice thing about LAB is you have more local control over tones and colour contrast then in RGB. Check out DPS's http://digital-photography-school.com/turn-ho-hum-color-into-wow-with-photoshop

  • david

    January 6, 2010 08:45 am

    an interesting debate and as usual one size never fits all ... film, jpeg, RAW all have different constraints

    my 2p contribution is get a modern DSLR (or something like Canon EOS 300D off ebay) and SHOOT RAW!!!! 99% of the time it will get the exposure right, so that you can choose whatever contrast you want afterwards either with a quick tweak in something like iPhoto, a more sophisticated enhancement in Aperture or a complete re-working in Photoshop.

    The ability to edit all the key parameters after you've taken the shot makes lens choice and exposure fine tuning completely irrelevant

    see grand canyon pictures on website for example for transforming low contrast (RAW) image into high contrast image using photoshop (work in progress so not yet satisfied with final result)

    RAW is absolutely amazing and once you start using it and tweaking all your images you will want to go back and re-shoot all your best digital jpegs again

    the only reason I used to shoot jpeg was that I was too mean to buy enough memory - but with 32GB SD cards now available for about the price of 6 rolls of film in the old days that's no longer an excuse

    ALSO ... get a lens with image stabilisation .. I recently invested in a TAMRON 18 - 270 VC and it is sensational in poor light

  • SusanG

    January 5, 2010 05:59 am

    OOPS! John I "changed" your hypothetical exposure to f/22. But the principle is still the same :)

  • SusanG

    January 5, 2010 05:55 am

    @ John – This goes back to the opening paragraph. Which I will say is incomplete. But that is a Blog all on its own: Exposure. When we consider our exposure settings it is more then just what light is available. It's also defined by the subject or scene and whether we need to give priority to aperture (for example a desired Depth Of Field) or Shutter (for example a moving subject).

    Once we've determined which is the priority, then we can determine where to set the camera, and taking into consideration available light. When I say narrowest aperture, or fastest shutter speed I do not mean spin the dial to f.22 and shutter to 1/500. Not if it means you get a nice dark grey blob. Underexposing is not the same as underexposed. To use your example: handheld at f.22 at 1/60th has an Exposure Value. Read above to my reply to Luke about E.V. Tables - And I'm taking my own advice and checking the table which says that exposure setting (sans the ISO as that is also a feature of an exposure triangle) has an EV of 15. So does f/16 @ 1/125, so does f/5.6 @ 1/500. So, given that you left home without your tripod f/16 @ 1/125 is a more comfortable exposure for you to hold at. So the narrowest aperture, fastest shutter speed possible to accommodate what you posited would be better perhaps the f/16 @ 1/125.

    Exposure begins and ends with the photographer, their equipment at hand and the environment they are in. Which is why I recommended the fastest and narrowest possible rather then a specious "shoot everything at such and such and so and so".

    Possible being the key word.

    Also read Ron's comment above about lenses and contrast.

    I'm sure I'm leaving a lot out. But I hope that helped ;)

  • John

    January 5, 2010 04:47 am

    This article leaves me confused. The bottom line seems to be the following pair of rules:

    1. Shoot with the narrowest aperture possible for light conditions
    2. Shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible for light conditions

    But the rules are mutually inconsistent. Suppose that I'm shooting handlheld and can just hold the focus and get correct exposure at f16, 1/60 for the given scene. Now rule 1 says this will maximize contrast since I cannot stop down without slowing shutter speed and getting blurry images owing to camera shake. But rule 2 says that this is all wrong. For instance, if I stop up to f12, I can now get a correct exposure at 1/120 -- a faster shutter speed and, by rule 2, better contrast.

    Indeed, why stop there. Rule 2 in fact implies that I should shoot wide open all the time since this will always maximize shutter speed. But that's the exact opposite of rule 1--shooting all the way open is using the widest aperture possible for light conditions.

    Please explain.

  • SusanG

    January 5, 2010 02:45 am

    @Luke - Glad you enjoyed the article and -I hope- all sides of the debate. Traditionally shutter speeds are one full stop and initially lenses were also one stop, and then as technology improved some started including increments of approx. 1/3. However that doesn't apply across the board and serves as a rule of thumb as some higher end cameras and lenses incorporate even finer increments in both shutter and aperture.

    This article talks about Exposure Values at http://www.chem.helsinki.fi/~toomas/photo/ev.html There are loads of posts on E.V. tables. Google it to get a wider selection. So it's a good idea to keep an eye on the light meter through the lens (TTL). Keeping in mind that they are not 100% accurate and other factors may make the read off in either direction: such as lenses or environment (like fog/snow/ and in that case try overexposure) And there are sound reasons for using a histogram if available and when in doubt.

  • Fernando

    January 5, 2010 01:57 am

    The technique mentioned in the article may work "In Special Instances" but, Im sorry, but I am going to have to disagree with this article. All you have to do is look at any post processing technique on how to increase contrast. They are all the same. All you have to do in photoshop (or anything else for that matter) to increase contrast is two things:
    1- Make the darks darker
    AND
    2- Make the lights lighter
    Reducing your exposure by 1/3 to 1 stop will definately make your darks darker.. but you are also making your lights darker. Overall, all you are doing is underexposing your shot. This will not really change the contrast ratio, it will just make everything darker. Increasing your contrast ratio requires that your darks go darker, and lights get LIGHTER as well.
    Reducing by 1/3 to 1 stop reduces everything equaly..... not just the darks.

    IMO... IF the subject you are shooting currently lacks contrast in its natural lighting environment the only way to increase it is by adding external lighting (flashes, etc) at correct angles, or by changing it in Post Processing using Photoshop or any other program.

    btw.... Diffuse light will reduce your contrast... thats the whole point of diffusers for flashes... reduce harsh lighting!

  • Luke

    January 5, 2010 01:46 am

    I enjoyed this article, but please correct me if I am wrong as I may have this backward, but is not shutter speed adjusted in 1/3 stop increments, and lens aperture usually adjust in full stop increments? If so this article has it backward.

  • SusanG

    January 4, 2010 03:18 am

    @Val y - Cheers for that! Something to be said for British Stoic in lieu of Grace Under Fire ;) I wasn't sure if anyone actually read that. There were valid points made, even in opposition. All in all, a "good thing"!

  • Val Y.

    January 3, 2010 10:07 am

    Horray to Susan for starting out the new year. Happy New Year!

    When shooting film, I usually shoot for the 'best exposure' for the subject or application. Said another way, I rely on my meter and shoot at zero.

    On the other hand, when shooting digital, which is about 95+% of what I shoot these days, I 'usually' shoot at -1/3 EV. I have found that this reduces the highlight blowouts while preserving the blacks. I do my best, (still not as well as I would like), to capture the image 'in camera' versus relying on 'post processing'. My goal is to 'finish' an image in Capture NX2 so it is ready for print. When Capture NX2 does not work (which is not very often), then I save the Capture NX2 image as a TIFF, and jump to Photoshop CS4 for some 'post processing' manipulation.

    Lastly, I agree with most of the comments. Please keep in mind, Susan's last point (comment) is important.
    Her suggestions are a starting point regardless of whether it is a catalyst for 'comments' or a place for photographers (especially newbies) to start.

    Thank you Susan for keeping a stiff upper lip. Well Done!

    .

  • SusanG

    January 3, 2010 06:38 am

    @Harrison – I agree, which is why there is a link embedded to DPS's own foundation beginning tutorial on exposure. But there is also a "sink or swim" aspect to this. Photographers just starting out, or even with a few years experience, do learn from Posts like this. Even if they only learn that there is a debate, and a hotly contested one- the knowledge that there is even a question is a start for one to begin developing personal answers. Eventually, there is a threshold where we have to learn about things like Adams' Zone system and then develop personal approaches that encompass that for a different medium: digital. Else we run the risk of hitting an endless plateau in our capability and creativity.

  • SusanG

    January 3, 2010 06:24 am

    @Peter –Exposing for middle tones is the better place to start from in most cases. And thank you for bringing that up. Yet creative exposure is part of what can define signature style. It may be a mess to start with. But sometimes that is a way to learn. A critical eye doesn't mean never do that again. It means seeing how we can perfect something to where it will work.

    It isn't as easy as it sounds but then neither is exposing for the middle grey. Yet I feel that when successfully implemented it increases colour saturation, and can add drama to an image's context. Both sides of the equation, over and under.

  • Harrison

    January 3, 2010 04:55 am

    There's a lot more to this, potentially, and I think giving people the basics before the creative is a better approach. If you're assuming that people already understand the types of metering their cameras are capable of and can control that, and you assume they understand something of the zone system so that they know what will and won't have detail and what will and won't just turn into form and color then I think speaking of creative control to achieve results is completely appropriate.

    To the specifics here though...once I decide what objects are important to have detail and what I don't mind losing...and I can drop zone 5 into the middle of that mix then sure, adjust exposure to get the things you want. I would prefer to expose on the money...but all that means is plotting the 4 stops or so I have to play with and shooting accordingly. Any tweaks from there I do post.

    Teach people correct exposure control, metering, and the zone system...and a lot of things take care of themselves.

  • Ultrasonic

    January 3, 2010 12:20 am

    I'm disturbed by people posting ken rockwell links, that site itself is a joke; and so is the man that published the site. He couldn't be more biased in his opinions and "offerings" of ideas. Avoid it at all costs......

  • Peter

    January 2, 2010 01:20 pm

    If you overexpose you are in danger of losing detail in the light colours. If you under expose you lose detail in the dark colours and add noise. Either way you lose sharpness because of bleed. Expose for the mid tones and check the whites is the only way to expose for a photograph whether you are photographing in RAW JPG or any other format.
    The best ways to control contrast and/or saturation is either in post processing or better still with the quality of the light when taking the picture. (ie: Full summer sun/ single direct flash, for high contrast/ high saturation subjects. Overcast sky/ diffused flash for low contrast/ muted colour subjects. )
    Don't mess with your exposures, you will only end up with a mess

  • Chris

    January 2, 2010 10:55 am

    From the article - "Once you’ve achieved the correct exposure, compensate your settings by 1/3 to one Full Stop under. Now you’re adding “dark”

    That's the part I'm disagreeing with. I have no problem with stopping down the aperture rather than shooting wide open, while retaining the same exposure value. Sorry for the slight ambiguity.

  • SusanG

    January 2, 2010 09:49 am

    Wow! Thanks DPS for making this the first post of 2010. Not sure if I should be frightened or stay calm!

    Interesting responses. And some thoughtful ones too!

    @ Chris – "I have no problem with stopping down to gain contrast." Cheers for that. I do appreciate the thought. Even though you fundamentally disagree with the advice to stop down to gain contrast and colour saturation and suggest the opposite. :)

    @Ron. Excellent points. Absolutely good advice when it comes to gaining clarity and sharpness in an image from point of capture with the kit in hand. But we have to start somewhere. And all photographs begin with exposure. But they do not end there,

  • Daniel Fealko

    January 2, 2010 05:16 am

    An excellent article to read, besides David DuChemin's, is A Possible Problem with Expose to the Right! It's not just enough to "expose to the right," as pointed out by this referenced link.

  • matty

    January 2, 2010 03:45 am

    It was a useful article for me, i am a beginner and liked the reference to the in built light meter which i have so far not paid attention to. Thanks.

  • Walter

    January 2, 2010 03:14 am

    RAW in and of itself is useless with out the knowledge gained from understanding contrast, and all the means it is achieved.

  • Chris

    January 2, 2010 02:13 am

    Ron is also correct in noting that different lenses do have different contrast characteristics, and I have no problem with the advice of stopping down to gain contrast.

  • Chris

    January 2, 2010 02:11 am

    Respectfully, I must disagree with this article. Contrast does not involve only the darks, but as the article itself alludes to, involves the difference between light and dark. While decreasing the exposure may give richer colors and boost the contrast somewhat, there are much better ways to increase contrast when digital photography is concerned. As long as you are shooting RAW (this article doesn't mention file format, and most knowledgeable photographers shoot RAW) you should be exposing the file so that you get the most digital information in it, and then post processing it to obtain the desired contrast. See this article by David DuChemin for more information on exactly what this means - boiled down, it means that you should expose the photograph as far to the right as possible without blowing out the highlights. This type of exposure has the most digital information possible and will be the easiest to manipulate and bring out the contrast.

    What about the photographers shooting JPG? Again, this technique may produce richer colors with no processing, but again this is a change better made after the fact through post processing. By deliberately decreasing your exposure you're discarding information that could be useful in the final picture.

    I don't mean any offense to the author of this article - I just think this is poor information as far as digital photography is concerned. If anyone has another viewpoint please comment.

  • Ron Gibson

    January 2, 2010 02:08 am

    I have to agree with Chuck and will probably write a post on my blog shortly regarding this as well.

    Readers should also note that contrast is not just exposure, or exposure compensation, but is also dependent on your lens and where your lens shoots 'best'. Zoom lenses (except for the good ones) are 'usually' lower contrast than primes, and lenses lose contrast in their extremes. By this I mean with zooms- at either end of their focal range and also at either end of their aperture range. Each lens has a sweet spot which is the sharpest/most contrasty image that can be produced from that particular lens. Better lenses have a greater range for their sweet spot, and cheaper lenses have a lesser range.

    If you read Rockwell's note on contrast above from Chuck, also look up the lenses you are using on his site (if you shoot Nikon) to find out where your lens works 'best'. For example, the Nikon 50mm f1.4 works best at f8 while it shoots well between f4 and f11, outside of this you lose sharpness and contrast. If you were using a zoom lens it probably works best right in the center of it's focal range and aperture. So if you have an 80-200 f5.6 zoom it is probably best in or around 140mm and f10. Moving away from what is 'best' will lower your sharpness and contrast.

    If you shoot your lenses wide open (for example an 85mm at f1.8) and you wonder why your images are soft all the time, this is why. It is a common concern for many users who buy a new DSLR and use their kit zoom lenses at their extremes and wide open- only to produce images that are soft and non-contrasty. If you are able to shoot with your lenses in their 'best' position you will produce a crisper image.

    After saying that, the only way you can shoot at your optimum lens position for the sharpest and most contrasty image is to use flash photography or have plenty of light in order to have the ability to set your lens to where you want it.

  • Dan

    January 2, 2010 01:35 am

    I have to agree with Chuck on this one. Another missed opportunity to teach something meaningful.

  • chuck

    January 2, 2010 01:12 am

    So many words, so little ideas. Read Ken's take on contrast vs dymamic range. For a change ;)

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